What France is Reading: Wine, Women, Dogs at the Elysee

French presidents prefer dogs to cats. The labradors of Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were called Baltique, Maskou and Clara, respectively.

That’s just one of the nuggets contained in “L’Elysee: Coulisses et Secrets d’un Palais” by Patrice Duhamel and Jacques Santamaria.

The two authors (one a prominent journalist, the other a filmmaker) avoid rehashing the history of the palace which since 1871 -- when the Communards burned down the Tuileries -- has served as the residence of the French head of state.

They’re more interested in whatever happened in the “coulisses,” or wings, away from the public eye. They present their discoveries in alphabetical order, not chronologically.

So if you want to know more about the palace’s origins, you have to look up the entry " Proprietaires et locataires” (Owners and Tenants). There, you learn that it was built by a certain Comte d’Evreux in 1720 who later sold it to Louis XV’s favorite mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

The name ’Elysee,’ derived from the nearby Champs-Elysees, was chosen by the eccentric Duchess Bathilde d’Orleans. She was an admirer of the miracle healer Franz Anton Mesmer, who “mesmerized” his fans in her salon.

One of the palace’s more dramatic historical moments happened on June 22, 1815, four days after the battle of Waterloo, in the Salon d’Argent: Napoleon abdicated for the second and final time.

Fatal Tryst

In the same room, President Felix Faure died of a heart attack on Feb. 16, 1899, during a tryst with his mistress Marguerite Steinheil.

Mitterrand preferred to see his lover and secret daughter Mazarine in the former stables of Napoleon III on Quai Branly across the Seine, the authors say.

Mitterrand’s second family was not his only secret. Just six months after election, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the official health bulletins, his increasingly waxen appearance was played down, as was Georges Pompidou’s leukemia and Chirac’s stroke in 2005.

Gourmets will savor the entries “Cave,” “Cuisine,” “Fromage” and “Menu”.

They’ll learn that the oldest bottle in the wine cellar is a premier cru de Sauternes, Chateau-Rieussec 1906; that, after the assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle at Petit-Clamart, in 1962, the famous Clamart peas, the first of the season, disappeared from the Elysee’s menu; and that cheese, banished by the weight watcher Sarkozy, has made a triumphant comeback under his successor Francois Hollande.

Nuclear Code

We’re also told that Mitterrand nearly lost the gold chain with the secret nuclear code. After a frantic search, it was found in the pocket of a suit he had given to the cleaners.

Foreign heads of state are usually put up at the Hotel de Marigny across the street. Muammar Qaddafi caused quite a stir when he refused to sleep there and brought along his own tent.

Another incident was diplomatically hushed up: After the 1980 visit of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, lamps, vases, ashtrays and even faucets went missing.

One entry is devoted to the presidential chauffeurs, often better informed about their boss’s whereabouts than the prime minister -- not to mention the president’s wife.

After the attempt on his life at Petit-Clamart, de Gaulle congratulated driver Francis Marroux, who had steered the Citroen out of danger, on his sangfroid. Inspecting the bullet holes in the car, the old soldier said: “These guys shoot like swine.”

He later spared the conspirators the death penalty, with the exception of their leader Jean Bastien-Thiry, who hadn’t fired a single shot: “He had others shoot at a car in which he knew there was a woman. C’est impardonnable.”

“L’Elysee: Coulisses et Secrets d’un Palais” is published by Plon (410 pages, 22.50 euros).

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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