There is even something creepily retro about this scandal, which feels as if it should have happened in the France of the 1930s, back when parliamentary democracy was weak, fascism was rising, the Soviet-backed Communist Party was popular, and government ministers were stealing money hand over fist. After all, Liliane's father, the founder of L'Oréal, had a fondness for fascist politics and supported the Vichy regime. Liliane's angry daughter, by contrast, is married to the grandson of a French rabbi who died in Auschwitz.
As for that budget minister whose wife had the misfortune to be hired by the Bettencourts, he is now the labor minister. As such, he is in charge of an extremely unpopular pension reform, due to be presented this week and bound to be opposed by trade unions, socialists, and even Communists—they still exist in France—of all kinds. In his election campaign, Sarkozy promised to "break with the ideas, the habits, and the behavior of the past"—and yet the past has come back to haunt him more than he could have imagined.