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After the power trip

May 18, 2012

MANY wonder if there is life after death. Surely a more pertinent question is if there is life after power?

The change of regime in France has got me wondering about what happens to the men and women who through fair means or foul are ousted from power and after years (or sometimes only months) of running the show, being the centre of attention, suddenly find themselves becoming part of the audience. Simple non-entities rather than movers and shakers.

How do they adjust to becoming passive bystanders instead of dynamic actors, to life in the slow lane, instead of the fast track?

For many, giving up power can be a traumatic experience. Having lost the big office, they bully their wives or husbands and children, hanker for the lackeys that once surrounded them and bore friends and foes by reminiscing about the golden past.

These days, however, the truth is not always that grim. In our inter-connected, information-starved world, out-of-job presidents, prime ministers and business leaders can continue to strut their stuff — albeit with a tad less aplomb.Take Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president who faces the tough task of adjusting to a life more ordinary.

Papers across Europe are full of the contrasting lifestyles and habits of the new French leader François Hollande and Mr Sarkozy. Mr Hollande, the new man in the Élysée, is ‘Mr Normal’, serious, affable and determined to take France and Europe on a new economic trajectory of growth instead of austerity.

Mr Sarkozy was ‘President Bling Bling’, with a penchant for expensive watches, costly holidays and beautiful women, including his third wife Carla Bruni, a model-actress-singer who brought glamour and pizazz to the Élysée. Mr Hollande apparently gave his predecessor a terse send-off earlier this week, omitting to wave Sarkozy off from the steps of the Élysée Palace and giving him only a cursory mention in his inaugural speech.

As one newspaper underlined, Hollande went out of his way to make a distinction between Sarkozy’s pushy and hyperactive style by stressing that he would run a “dignified” and “sober” presidency. Mr Hollande has warned the country not to expect glitz and glamour. “I will set the priorities but I will not decide for everyone, on everything and everywhere,” the new president said.

We know that Mr Hollande will be in the news for the coming years but what is Mr Sarkozy going to do?

It’s not too clear but shortly after leaving the Élysée, the former French president went jogging in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne park near the chic neighbourhood where he now lives. Apparently, the one-time showman par excellence now wants to retire from frontline politics and take up his job as a lawyer at the Paris firm he still partly owns. The problem is that the outgoing president could soon be called for questioning — either as a witness or potentially as a suspect — in several corruption cases.

Interestingly, Mr Sarkozy is not leaving office empty handed. Like all former French presidents, he is entitled to a 6,000 euros-a-month ‘pension’, plus if he decides to sit on the constitutional council, again his right as a former president, he gets another 11,500 euros a month. This is paid whether he decides to return to work as a lawyer or not.

He also has the right to a ‘fully furnished and equipped’ apartment paid for by the state, two police officers to ensure his security, a state car with two chauffeurs, seven office staff and free business-class travel on Air France and SNCF, the national train company. And if he does fly abroad, Sarkozy has the right to stay in the local ambassador or consul’s residence.

According to reports, Mr Sarkozy has already chosen himself a new ‘ex-president’s office’, a 323-square-metre, 11-room apartment in the chic eighth arrondissement of Paris. The former president has taken over the entire first floor of the building and the 15,000 euros-a-month rent will be paid for out of public coffers. The office is just 200 metres from the law chambers where he has suggested he will practise.

The cost to the state of the benefits for each former president has been estimated at about 1.5 million euros a year. If he decides to enter public life, Mr Sarkozy has several options. He could, like Gordon Brown, Shaukat Aziz and others, become part of the lucrative lecture circuit and get paid thousands of euros for pontificating on a range of serious and not-so-serious issues.

Or he could follow in the footsteps of Tony Blair and become part of another lucrative network of ex-premiers entrusted with the task of bringing peace to the world — in Blair’s case to the Middle East. Like Kofi Annan, he could try and end the conflict in Syria — although even the former United Nations secretary general is finding it very difficult to do so.

There’s also Bill Clinton with his philanthropic outreach which has arguably made him even more influential — and capable of doing global good — than during his time at the White House. Not recommended is the Pervez Musharraf option of snapping from the sidelines in the hopeless quest to regain power or at least make life as difficult as possible for his successors.

Come to think of it, life after power isn’t that bad. Especially if you follow the path of a man like former Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda who is now widely acknowledged as the ‘wise man of Asia’, providing advice not only to the leaders of Myanmar but also to Egyptians as they struggle to find the path towards sustainanble democracy. Yes it can be difficult to abandon power and influence. But if you’re flexible, intelligent and willing to compromise, life after power can be full of unexpected rewards.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.