by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

The last weeks have taught the world more than it ever wanted to know about the expensive clothing tastes of the French political class. Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon blew up a scandal, not because he wore custom suits from Arnys, a defunct French designer now owned by Berluti, but because since 2012, those very expensive suits had been paid for by someone else…who turned out to be a fixer on behalf of various African leaders with the French political elite. Some of those leaders themselves are very well dressed by the remaining luminaries of French bespoke, but it’s difficult to imagine they wished to share the wealth, the incomparable luxury of beautifully finished items personally for the wearer, without strings attached.

To counterattack, members of Fillon’s party pointed out that a number of the opposition Socialist Party were and are wearers of the same class of elite French bespoke: Pierre Moscovici, European Commissioner for Economic Affairs, also received the gift of Arnys bespoke from a friend like Fillon’s, although Moscovici claims his friend was a “real” friend and not an influence peddler. The late François Mitterrand, Socialist president who in his red cashmere scarf became a legitimate style icon in his own right, turns out to have had his dozens of Cifonelli suits paid for by friends too, including André Rousselet of the G7 car service. Mitterrand’s media-friendly former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, whose Thierry Mugler jacket drew howls in the 1980s for its resemblance to a Mao jacket, wears Francesco Smalto, And, rather surprisingly, Mitterrand’s first Justice Minister, Robert Badinter, supposedly wears Lanvin bespoke.

Badinter has been a personal hero of mine for years, even before I happened on the picture of him in his alleged Lanvin best, looking elegant and distinguished even pushing 90. His books L’Execution and L’Abolition recount his struggle against the death penalty in France. Until Badinter, as Justice Minister in Mitterrand’s first term, steered through its repeal in the National Assembly, France still carried it out by guillotine. A Texas millionaire offered the country a large sum for the last guillotine used in an execution, but the government declined. I believe it’s in a museum somewhere. 

Badinter is of the same generation as Mitterrand, a generation immeasurably shaped by World War II, and in France by the effects of occupation, collaboration and deportation on its own soil. National self-searching after liberation led to changed attitudes, at least among an educated elite, towards the death penalty and its parallels to other forms of state-sanctioned murder.  Badinter, whose own father died in a concentration camp, crusaded against it as a defense attorney before his nomination. After seeing it unfairly imposed on one client, he prevailed in another client’s appeal by arguing against the death penalty as a concept. Any why not? It is, I’ve bitterly joked, one of the few places where conservatives favor preferences for special preferences: the poor, the unlikeable, the easily demonized, an irrevocable step that can only serve as a deterrent if imposed with vicious, bloodthirsty and despotic frequency.

Since abolition, Badinter has served in the French Senate, as well as as an advocate across the world for social protection and against the death penalty.  I thus do not begrudge him his bespoke, if indeed that is what he is wearing.  Unlike Mitterrand (who famously never remembered his wallet at a dinner or owned a credit card), he likely could afford them for himself. His wife is the daughter of the founder of the marketing conglomerate Publicis. Then, researching this piece, I found that Badinter was wearing the same outfit in almost all of his recent photographs.  Blowing it up, his blue hairline stripe shirt’s collar is badly worn around the neck. His deeply colored, delicately woven silk tie has loose threads sticking out of it. Perhaps they’re old favorites, or perhaps he only owns a few articles of business clothing anymore. I remembered, and you should to, that it doesn’t matter who in particular is dressing an icon. If it did, the clothes would be wearing him, rather than vice versa.  Instead, I give him props for looking elegant well into his 80s, in clothes as tireless and hard-wearing as his own convictions.