Alain Minc was born in Paris to Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, Joseph Minkowski, was a dentist and a member of the Communist Party. After completing his studies at the elite universities Sciences Po and the École Nationale d'Administration, Minc began a singular career as an intellectual, political adviser and businessman. Although he has no official role, he is part of a close group of advisers to Nicolas Sarkozy.
Minc has written more than two dozen books and sat on the board of various companies, and he plays a central role in elite Parisian circles. His consulting firm AM Conseil consists of a secretary, a chauffeur and Minc himself. In 2010, the firm has a turnover of over €7.8 million ($10.2 million). Several weeks ago, Minc became the head of the French highway operator SANEF.
For this interview, Minc received SPIEGEL in his grand offices on Avenue George V in Paris's 8th arrondissement. On the walls hang two large portraits of Samuel Beckett by the photographer Richard Avedon. In a corner stands a bust of Joseph Stalin, a gift from his friend, the billionaire François Pinault.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Minc, let's start with the important things. Does French President Nicolas Sarkozy really like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or does he just pretend to?
Minc: I think he has learned to like her. At the beginning, you couldn't have imagined two more disparate people. She comes from the north, while he comes from the south. She's a scientist, and he's a lawyer. She proceeds methodically, while he acts intuitively. She's a woman, and he's a man. She leads an impossible coalition, while he is the king of France.
SPIEGEL: She is very controlled, while he isn't.
Minc: He's learning to control himself. I think both of them have come a long way: from necessity to complicity, and from there to, as Nicolas Sarkozy tells me, real affection. You know, there are only three women in Sarkozy's life: Carla Bruni, his daughter and Angela Merkel.
SPIEGEL: Was there a moment when this change became noticeable?
Minc: Sarkozy's view of the chancellor changed the more he came to understand Germany. I could really sense this change. At the beginning he said: "She doesn't want to." Now he says: "She can't." That's an enormous difference. Most politicians who come to power in this monarchic French system don't understand the German system. Even when they have a close adviser like me, who tries to explain it to them, they don't know it's the most democratic country in Europe.
SPIEGEL: And now Sarkozy understands the Germans?
Minc: He is now an expert on the poll results for the (business-friendly) Free Democratic Party, on votes in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament), and on speculations about different possible German governing coalitions. Should he not be reelected, you could hire him for your Berlin bureau.
SPIEGEL: Were you the one who explained Germany to him?
Minc: Sarkozy's team has changed considerably. Unlike the early days, he is now surrounded by people who know Germany well. Take, for example, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Sarkozy's chief of staff, Xavier Musca. He has become a specialist.
SPIEGEL: So the key to a better relationship with Merkel was instruction in German civics?
Minc: The relationship improved to the extent that the crisis made it necessary, but it was also the result of an evolution on the part of Germany and the chancellor. The Germans have realized that they have the most to lose if the euro zone collapses, and so they have accepted the economic government that was a French concern. And France has accepted that it has to budget according to German criteria. That's the deal.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, they repeatedly disagree on many issues.
Minc: But the two have made it a formidable habit to commit themselves to come to an understanding. When they say, we will present joint proposals on the 29th of the month, it means they disagree on everything, but they are beginning a process that obligates them to agree in the end. And this works.
SPIEGEL: As of Friday, Jan. 13, when the Standard & Poor's rating agency deprived France of its AAA rating, the balance has shifted even more in the Germans' direction.
Minc: No, it's just that an imbalance is becoming visible that existed before. When Sarkozy discussed things with Merkel, he always knew that he is economically inferior to her, but also that he is politically stronger than she is, due to the French political system. I have a different problem with this decision, which I find perverse, not as much in relation to France as to Italy. These rating agencies behave like pyromaniac firemen: At precisely the moment when the Italian markets are normalizing and the Monti administration is doing remarkable work, they cut off his legs.
SPIEGEL: You yourself said some time ago that the AAA rating was a matter of national pride, and that it would decide Sarkozy's fate. The coveted rating is now gone. What about Sarkozy?
Minc: It was necessary to dramatize a little at the time to get two austerity plans approved. And yes, it is unpleasant, it's annoying and it's a difficult political situation. But we have to distinguish between the effects now and the impact on the elections in three months. Effective immediately, Sarkozy will present himself as the one who tells people what is needed to improve our competitiveness. His opponents will have to react to that. This puts them in a difficult position, especially the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.
SPIEGEL: You praise the harmony between Sarkozy and Merkel, but the impression remains that the two leaders cannot solve Europe's crisis.
Minc: Europe has made a great deal of progress in the last two years, but while doing a crabwalk, which is why it looks far from elegant. Nevertheless, the European system functions more effectively than Washington. The 27 member states approved the first aid package for Greece within a month.
SPIEGEL: But the major differences of opinion are the problem: France wants the European Central Bank to intervene more actively in the markets, something that the Germans oppose.
Minc: I think the two resolved this problem very intelligently, namely by agreeing that the ECB is independent. On the day it intervenes, the Germans can say: We don't like this, but they're independent. And the bank will intervene if it becomes necessary. Have you ever heard of an institution that destroys itself? The ECB will do everything possible to ensure that the euro survives and that it survives.
SPIEGEL: How difficult is it for France to accept that Germany has recently been setting the tone in Europe?
Minc: At the ECB, at least, neither the Germans nor the French are in charge. But there are two negotiating tables in Europe: The first one is for economic issues, while military, strategic and diplomatic questions are discussed at the second one. Germany is the senior partner at the first table, but it doesn't even want to be present at the second one, as (the case of) Libya has shown. I think that results in a balanced relationship.
'The Crisis Has Helped Sarkozy to Become Adult'
SPIEGEL: The French used to joke about the dull Germans. Now they are suddenly seen as an economic role model. Would you describe that as a small miracle?
Minc: It was Sarkozy who brought Germany into the discussion, as a model for change and reform and to push the French more towards austerity. You will see issues in his election campaign that are reminiscent of Hartz III and Hartz IV (ed's note: controversial reforms to Germany's labor market and social system pushed through by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as part of his "Agenda 2010" package). After the loss of the AAA rating, Sarkozy will unveil his own Agenda 2010 this month, and he will also implement reforms before the elections.
SPIEGEL: Is that why he invited Schröder to the Élysée Palace recently?
Minc: I was the one who brought Schröder to the Élysée. I thought it would be interesting to have Sarkozy listen to someone who carried out reforms right up until the last day of his term in office. That's what Schröder did. In the end, he almost won the election anyway. Schröder is proof positive that one can win elections as a reformer.
SPIEGEL: In other words, Schröder's Agenda 2010 is now serving Sarkozy as a blueprint?
Minc: In 1995, France had a 10 percent competitive advantage over Germany, which had been weakened by reunification. By 2007, France had lost 20 percent. Why? Because we made the double mistake of reducing the workweek to 35 hours and raising the minimum wage. At the same time, Germany was in the process of implementing Agenda 2010.
SPIEGEL: Unlike his role model Schröder, Sarkozy announced a "rupture" before his election, but he did not follow through with the promised reforms.
Minc: There was a major rupture after the 2007 election, and that was the crisis. With 2.5 percent growth, you are able to enact a different political program than in that sort of a situation. When the economy shrinks by 3 percent, you no longer worry about the 35-hour workweek, because you are nothing but a firefighter.
SPIEGEL: Sarkozy disappointed many French, because they felt that his behavior was not sufficiently presidential.
Minc: Sarkozy didn't consider that the French really elect a king. The French president's job is very complicated. He is simultaneously the queen of England and the prime minister. That's why France is so incomprehensible to Germans. Sarkozy behaved like the captain of a football team at first. Since then, he has played the role that the French expect of him. And he has learned that private matters must remain private. Just look how he handled the birth of his daughter.
SPIEGEL: You mean Sarkozy has become an adult while in office?
Minc: I would say that the crisis has definitely helped him to become adult.
SPIEGEL: How will this grown-up Sarkozy portray himself in the election campaign?
Minc: We will see a president who positions himself as a dedicated European. He will resemble Gerhard Schröder on domestic policy and Angela Merkel on European policy. Things will be turned around in these elections. Normally, the incumbent holds back while the challenger promises all sorts of things. It will be different this time.
SPIEGEL: Can Sarkozy win, given his poor poll numbers?
Minc: Maybe he can't win, but Hollande can lose. Two respectable individuals are running against each other. It will be a tight race.
SPIEGEL: How should we understand your role in the president's network?
Minc: I'm a friend. That's all.
SPIEGEL: A friend who is constantly on the phone with him, and who is known as the "evening visitor" in France?
Minc: I won't reveal, not even to you, how exactly I communicate with the president. I have the freedom of a friend who has known him for 25 years and tells him what he thinks. We have a very personal relationship. The problem in the French monarchy is that people at the Élysée don't dare to speak openly. The German chancellor spends the entire day listening to people who disagree with her. Sarkozy only hears the sentence, "Yes, Mr. President," all day long, just as (former Presidents) Jacques Chirac, Francois Mitterrand, Georges Pompidou and Charles de Gaulle did before him. That's why you need friends who have known you for a long time and can speak candidly.
SPIEGEL: You have many friends, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the scandal-plagued former head of the International Monetary Fund. Would it have been a different election campaign if he had been the Socialists' candidate?
Minc: I'm one of those people who have always felt that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could not become a candidate.
SPIEGEL: Because everyone in the small world of Paris knew everything long ago?
Minc: The details weren't known, but people knew about his fragility. A former adviser to Mitterrand once said: Dominique Strauss-Kahn will run in a primary, but he will not be a presidential candidate.
SPIEGEL: Have you discussed this with Nicolas Sarkozy?
Minc: Yes. Strauss-Kahn called me in 2007, because Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker had proposed him to head the IMF. I promised him I would call the president and get his opinion. Sarkozy thought it was a good idea, and I asked: "But wouldn't we be putting your competitor at the helm of the IMF?" Sarkozy replied: "You know perfectly well that Dominique cannot be a candidate." He was certain of that.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Minc, thank you for this interview.