I’ve spent a fair chunk of the morning immersed in the goings-on in Tunisia, where embattled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is rapidly losing his grip on power. What strikes me most about the protests is the fact that so much rage has been directed at Ben Ali’s wife, the former Leila Trabelsi, a onetime hairdresser who has leveraged her marriage to greatly benefit her family’s fortunes. Tunisia’s opposition has targeted her as a symbol of everything that has corroded their nation’s political culture: cronyism, nepotism, outright greed. While Hell might have no fury greater than a woman scorned, a frustrated public’s anger at a spendthrift quasi-dictator’s life surely comes in a close second.
The vilification of Ben Ali’s wife harkens back to a brief period in the mid-1980s when two of her predecessors helped cause their husband’s political demises. There was Imelda Marcos and her shoe collection, of course, but the character I find more fascinating is Michèle Duvalier. One of the most iconic photojournalism images of my youth was that of Mrs. Duvalier and her portly, slow-witted husband driving to the Port-au-Prince airport in a silver BMW, so they could flee the country just ahead of the mobs who would surely have caused them great harm. As in contemporary Tunisia, the public had had enough of the First Lady’s covetousness:
Michèle always loved money, but in the first two years of her marriage, she spent a good bit of it on the needy. Her Michèle B. Duvalier Foundation supported hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, and she made frequent inspections to ensure that they operated efficiently. But Michèle’s largesse soon took a bizarrely baroque turn. She would appear on TV dressed to the nines, handing envelopes of money to the indigent. And her attire bloomed garishly. “I remember her all in silver—and this for a 5 o’clock reception,” sniffs one stylish Haitian. Another comments, “She had too many things, and she thought she had to wear them all at once. It was a delirium she was in all the time.” The delirium got worse. “She would buy truckloads of dresses from Valentino. She had Boucheron, the Paris jeweler, fly to Haiti to sell jewels to her—not $200,000 worth but millions, millions,” says a Haitian socialite. Another friend tells of buying dozens of pairs of $500 Susan Bennis Warren Edwards shoes for Michèle during a shopping foray on Park Avenue. “She wore earrings that looked like lanterns,” says Suzanne Seitz, a Port-au-Prince hotel owner.
A country may grumble loudly at a dictator’s corruption and self-enrichment, but it simply won’t countenance having its nose rubbed in this sad fact by the wastrel who shares his bed. Since President Ben Ali didn’t understand that, perhaps he’ll soon be bound for the Tunis airport under cover darkness. Though I very much doubt he’ll be driving his own car, à la Baby Doc.
Update Annnnnddddd…he’s gone. Shouldn’t be long before his minions show up at various Swiss banks, with withdrawal slips in hand.