PARIS I am sitting across from Arnaud Montebourg, a free-market villain and romantic hero, the pol selected by Frenchwomen in a new French Elle magazine poll as a top candidate for having "a vacation love affair." The tall, elegant Montebourg, dressed in a black suit and black tie and flanked by black leather couches and two BlackBerrys, sits in a chic office above the Seine, charged with the quixotic task of reviving French industry.
He famously sent sales of Breton sailor tops surging when he posed in one to promote his "Made in France" campaign. The 50-year-old bachelor's love life has been avidly chronicled, including the night he and his former girlfriend, the attractive black TV journalist Audrey Pulvar, were attacked by racist thugs.
Montebourg became the Socialist kingmaker after a surprisingly strong result in the 2011 presidential primary on an anti-globalization platform against Ségolène Royal, a former boss, and her former partner, Francois Hollande.
"I failed the first time, but it doesn't mean I'll fail the second," he said about the presidency, speaking in a mix of French and British-accented English.
The Economist called him "the Enfant Terrible" for fencing with foreign capitalists with such ferocity that he almost got sacked. His apache dances with moguls are at odds with the government's "Say Oui to France" campaign designed to lure foreign investment and stop France from dissolving into Greece.
Montebourg's defenders say he represents the French tradition of dirigisme, wanting a king, desiring direction from the top, even though the government now, as part of the European Union, has fewer tools. His matador boldness, contrasted with Hollande's blandness, plus his anti-corruption crusades and suspicion of the market economy he even suggested temporary nationalization have made him a champion to those who want a Charles de Gaulle de gauche.
Some of his irritated colleagues at the Finance Ministry at Bercy refer to the minister for industrial renewal as "the madman on the third floor." It's hard to fathom how he can be for deglobalization and foreign investment at the same time. But as he looks for unrealistic solutions to problems that may be insoluble, many "Les Misérables" here admire him for keeping his dukes up, which keeps their hopes up. A bit of an outsider himself he did not get into the top political school, his grandfather was a wealthy Algerian and he calls the Algerian war and colonization unresolved he relishes sticking it to the bourgeoisie.
As a young lawyer, he helped defend Christian Didier, the killer of René Bousquet, the Vichy chief of police who went above and beyond Nazi instructions to send Jews, including thousands of children, to death camps. In 1995, he nearly forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé out of office over the legality of his apartment. In 2001, he petitioned to impeach President Jacques Chirac, under investigation for financial malfeasance. In 2011, he demanded that the louche Dominique Strauss-Kahn apologize to Socialists.
He got into a sizzling row with the American tire titan Morry "The Grizz" Taylor after Taylor said he would not rescue a French factory because French workers are "lazy, overpaid and talk too much." Montebourg dismisses that as "nonsense," and told me that "in Germany, one works less than in France, this needs to be known," providing booklets to back it up. But, given conflicting French statistics, he may be living up to the sobriquet he awards himself: "professor of optimism."
The French have to learn that if employers can't fire someone for not working, they'll never hire anyone. It's hard to believe that the country that gave us a musical based on Victor Hugo's revolutionaries really needs the government to guard against the latest Disney remake of a bikini beach movie. But Montebourg defends the French threat to blow up the European-U.S. economic talks because they want to keep barriers to U.S. movies and television. Then he concludes, charmingly, "We love American movies."
I ask him about another contentious move: blocking Yahoo's Marissa Mayer from buying a controlling stake in DailyMotion, the French version of YouTube, which was denounced in a Times editorial as protectionism "grounded in meaningless nationalism."
"I didn't say no to Yahoo," he insists. "I said let's make it 50/50. Let's go together and not let the big eat the small." He told Yahoo it was not in such great shape and had "made several companies disappear."
And to think Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, asked businessmen how the government could help. "Laissez-nous faire," one replied, giving birth to the term.
"I agree with Romain Gary, who said that nationalism is to hate others, patriotism is to be proud of ourselves," Montebourg says. Asked about the French malaise, he says: "The problem comes from us. We doubt ourselves too much."
He says he trusts President Barack Obama to "clean up the mess" on NSA snooping. "I blame Facebook, Google and all the Internet giants who agreed to spy on us," he said, "so Europe is going to be tougher on these companies."
French business leaders are howling about Hollande's wishy-washy economic policies. And Nicolas Sarkozy, once excoriated by Montebourg as "a spoiled brat who uses France as a toy that does not belong to him," is dropping a handkerchief.
Can Sarko make a comeback? "Maybe," Montebourg replies roguishly. "Maybe in handcuffs."