I think that Cannes, the beach resort in the south of France, is the ideal locale for the G-20 economic summit.
Famous for its gorgeous coastline, luxurious restaurants and annual film festival, Cannes is the incongruously glamorous backdrop for a meeting designed to desperately find a solution to Europe’s greatest crisis in more than 70 years.
The reigning glitterati of European politics and finance will all be there underneath the blue French Riviera sky and tropical palms – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde, among many others.
As these luminaries make canned statements to the media, eat sumptuous meals, drink the finest wines and enjoy the heavenly ambience of the French Riviera, they are actually dealing with very serious and troubling issues. Namely, Greece is on the precipice of a financial catastrophe that threatens to not only throw millions of Greeks into poverty overnight, but also spread economic misery across the continent.
Europe is already struggling under the heavy shadows of high unemployment, social unrest, strikes, budget cuts, frozen pensions, wage reductions, homelessness, etc.
And that’s the dichotomy that I can’t ignore.
The lifestyles of these mandarins who are determining the future of tens of millions of people across Europe are vastly, radically (even tragically) different from the daily existence of their constituents.
People speak often of the growing “wealth gap” (in the U.S., the terms used are “1 percent” vs. “99 percent”)
Merkel reportedly earns about $300,000 annually (although her net worth is at least $10 million) -- many German workers make less than 5 euros ($6.90) an hour.
Cameron earns a relatively “modest” $215,000 – but his family is believed to be worth at least 30 million pounds ($48 million), though he has denied press reports attesting to his fortune.
Sarkozy reportedly rakes in at least $340,000 per year – and he, too, is a millionaire several times over.
But this aforementioned trio are “paupers” compared to Berlusconi, who is a billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in Italy.
I don’t begrudge the wealth and luxurious lifestyles of political leaders – obviously, they’re all smart, ambitious, driven people who deserve to be rewarded for their accomplishments.
But, I wonder, how can these heads-of-state possibly relate to or identify with the most vulnerable people in their countries -- the jobless teenager in Milan, the frightened pensioner in Athens, the harried single mother in the East End of London, the embittered immigrant in Paris?
To these statesmen (and stateswomen), the economic crisis in Europe is simply an array of abstract numbers – some very large numbers, indeed – that have no real meaning in the daily world of struggling, ordinary people. Debt-to-GDP, capital tier ratio, debt write-down, etc…. what do they all really mean? And who can possibly comprehend the hundreds of billions of euros of “bailout” money that the IMF and EU dangle in front of debt-ridden nations? That money certainly doesn’t find its way into peoples’ pockets anytime soon.
But there’s another subject at play here as well… that of statesmen as “celebrities.”
Like kings of yore, modern day presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, even finance ministers have become “celebrities” – mostly due to the fact that they enjoy massive, almost continuous exposure on television and internet.
And as celebrities (instead of real statesmen), they serve primarily as “figureheads” and “spokespersons” (albeit, highly compensated ones). They read statements written by their speechwriters, they are accompanied by a cadre of publicists, aides, security, and other hangers-on.
It is unclear to me what “work” they actually do.
I think an analogy could be made to corporations – many chief executives today are really nothing more than “spokespersons” for their companies – the “face” that is presented to the public.
Yes, most of them earned their high status with intelligence and hard work in their early years – but once one reaches such a high position, one completely cease to be a “functioning worker” anymore. Rather, they simply become a “name” or a “symbol” of the entity they represent.
As the head of Exxon-Mobil never personally drills for oil, the president of France does not actually sit down and pore over mountains of economic data in order to develop a lengthy and cogent policy statement (he has a team of assistants to handle such thankless drudgery),
For another thing, he really has no time to do such work.
Check out the itinerary of any top political leader, whether it’s Sarkozy or Cameron or U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. They are travelling (first-class, of course) almost constantly to all corners of the globe. Cameron, in particular, has a bewilderingly busy schedule – in South Africa one day, Belgium the next, Australia the next, back home to London the following day for a brief respite, before he logs even more air miles elsewhere.
It’s a wonder he hasn’t already gone insane.
Is all this flying around the globe really necessary? Does it actually translate into better lives, more jobs, and more food for their countrymen?
Or is it done for “show”?
That is, by “appearing to be busy,” a country’s leader is trying to sell the “brand” of his country (much like corporate CEOs make well-publicized appearances at their own industry summits and in mass media).
And how is this any different from more frivolous types of celebrity like film actors and rock stars?
The “statesmen-as-movie-star-celebrity” image struck me like a thunderbolt when I watched footage of high government officials making their grand entrances into the building that held the Brussels emergency summit last week. As Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron, Lagarde and numerous others strolled from their limousines, they were greeted by dozens of photographers snapping their photos and many more onlookers (dare I say “fans”?) watching from behind security blockades.
It was virtually identical to the walk taken by movie stars as they appear at the Oscar awards show or a new film premiere.
And now these “statesmen” are gathering in Cannes… how perfect.