Going Native

Consul General David Martinon rebounds in L.A. after a fall from grace in France

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Los Angeles magazine, March 2010

The French are notorious for a lame sense of humor, and David Martinon, their consul general in Los Angeles, isn’t helping. “We feel so sorry for you,” he says into a microphone in his Beverly Hills backyard. “We imagine how much you suffered in Bora Bora.” Polite chuckles ripple from his guests, eight screenwriters just back from a junket to Tahiti, sponsored in part by the French government. “You went feeding real sharks,” he says, referring to one of their excursions. He smiles. “It’s not a big change for you.” The writers of Hitch, Gran Torino, and Shakespeare in Love take turns saying thanks, then line up for a buffet lunch. Martinon sits among them at a poolside table on the lawn of the Residence of France, a cream-colored house that is understated compared to its McMansion neighbors in the flats. He is 38, and his wavy brown hair is going gray. In sunglasses and a dark suit, he looks like a young Bobby Kennedy cast in Men in Black. He apologizes for the shades, adding that he has spent a sleepless weekend on the phone with government ministers in Paris discussing Roman Polanski’s fight against extradition to the United States. When Polanski was arrested, Martinon says, the filmmaker’s lawyer called right away. “I knew before everyone.” He solicits opinions on the scandal from others at the table but doesn’t divulge his own. As a representative of France, he isn’t supposed to have any. Instead he is obliged to repeat the stance of his government, which supported Polanski at the time but now says he is “neither above nor below the law.”

Should Polanski be returned to this city, he will be Martinon’s responsibility. Polanski was born in Paris and is a French citizen. It is the duty of the Los Angeles consul general to look after the French when they are in the Southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and the southern halves of California and Nevada. Martinon, appointed to the post in 2008, has a staff of 30. In addition to issuing passports and visas and facilitating exchange programs, the consulate fields unusual requests. The mother of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui wanted help contacting her son at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where he is serving a life sentence. (So far Moussaoui, who is a French citizen, hasn’t responded to Martinon’s entreaty.) The part of his job that Martinon warms to the most, however, is what he was doing at the sunny luncheon: schmoozing people in the entertainment industry. Film studios have money to spend on productions in France, so chatting them up is important. But Martinon may have something else in mind: his own employment prospects when his term is up next year. He came to California after a meteoric political career in France was derailed. His assignment is a big step down, but Hollywood might offer more promise for the future. He’s young and smart—and, coincidentally, his wife worked in television before the move. “He’s the kind of guy who can do almost anything,” says Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures. Medavoy is one of several Industry executives to whom Martinon has awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the French government’s highest decoration. Other recipients include Directors Guild executive Jay Roth, AFI Conservatory executive vice dean Joe Petricca, and NBC Universal creative director Eric Jany. Martinon’s generosity with medals for movie people isn’t the only evidence of his crush on Hollywood. “In the months I have been here,” he says, “I’ve experienced how very interesting life could be. I could consider staying here.”

David Martinon arrives at the French consulate on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. on weekdays in a chauffeur-driven car. Seated behind his desk in his fourth-floor office, he is backlit by sunshine streaming through a wide window. His hair, combed back, exposes a widow’s peak. He is lean, five feet nine, and wears his usual dark suit. The French media often called him a dandy, but silver cuff links and a purple tie are the only hints today that they were right. Projects on his to-do list include getting to know Antonio Villaraigosa and campaigning for the French movie Un Prophète, an Academy Awards contender. For many Frenchmen, living such a life would be a dream. For Martinon, it is an escape from a nightmare.

Even as a teenager he knew exactly where he wanted to be, and it was 5,661 miles from here—in Paris, the center of French power. He has long been obsessed with politics. “It’s the domain where you use the most facets of your personality,” he says. “It’s where the richest adventures lie.” His father, an aerospace engineer, worked in the Netherlands for the first seven years of Martinon’s life. After the family moved back to Paris, Martinon attended Sciences Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, exclusive schools that have turned out high-ranking French politicians. At 18, he joined the right-leaning Federation of Students and volunteered to stuff envelopes for Nicolas Sarkozy, who was mayor of Neuilly, a town of 61,000 west of Paris.

Neuilly is the wealthiest enclave in France and the seat of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), a center-right party. But Sarkozy was the son of a Hungarian. He was part Jewish. He had not attended the top schools, and he had a quick temper. Martinon believed that French voters would see beyond all that. “He was a very good speaker,” Martinon says. “He was clever, and he had appetite.” Over the next decade Martinon held various government posts. In 2000, Sarkozy was still mayor of Neuilly and a controversial leader on the right. “He was really marginalized,” Martinon says. “Everyone thought Sarkozy was dead. I was sure he was not.” While he was deputy spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Martinon offered to brief Sarkozy on international issues. He spent evenings and weekends writing notes. When Sarkozy became minister of the interior, he hired Martinon, who was 30 at the time, as his diplomatic counselor. “For years,” Martinon says, “I was the one in charge of keeping tight relations with the Americans.”

When Sarkozy ran for president in 2007, Martinon cribbed American campaign tactics for his boss: Internet fund-raising, repeatedly reminding Sarkozy partisans to vote, lacing Sarkozy’s speeches with stateside expressions. “One shouldn’t hesitate to say things that appear simple but, when you aren’t used to hearing them, can be very powerful,” Martinon says. He was mocked by the media as Sarkozy’s “beloved son,” but his faithfulness paid off when Sarkozy won the presidency and appointed Martinon as his spokesman. Martinon brought a bit of American show business to the halls of French power. He held weekly press conferences at l’Elysée, the presidential palace. It was novel. “There was a sense of staging the presidency,” a reporter who attended remembers. “They even did the place up in blue like on The West Wing.”

Sarkozy, too, is a fan of the United States. A French journalist called him “Sarko the American,” intending it as an insult, but Martinon turned it into Sarkozy’s calling card. “What it described in him was that he sticks to his words,” Martinon says. “He did what he said, and he said what he did. Can-do politician.” Not long after he won the presidency, Sarkozy, in what seemed to be a gesture of gratitude, tried passing the baton. He backed Martinon to become mayor of Neuilly. Sarkozy’s then-wife, Cecilia, who held significant sway over her husband and had become Martinon’s close friend, “opened her address book” for the young candidate, according to the newspaper Le Monde. There was a problem, though. Martinon had grown up on the Right Bank and was living on the Left Bank—both a short subway ride from Neuilly, but to the voters of that exclusive suburb, he may as well have come from Timbuktu. At the same time, Sarkozy’s relationship with his wife was crumbling. When a correspondent arrived at l’Elysée in 2007 for a 60 Minutes interview that Martinon had arranged, the French president insulted his spokesman on camera. “What an imbecile,” Sarkozy said, adding that he was too busy for the taping. A question about the French first lady angered Sarkozy enough to end the interview by walking out. L’Elysée announced two weeks later that the Sarkozys were divorcing.An insult from his boss on a TV show viewed by millions was the least of Martinon’s woes. Polls indicated he wouldn’t win the Neuilly election. Meanwhile the power void left by Cecilia was filled by others in Sarkozy’s circle who were not keen on his spokesman. Then came the coup de grâce. The president, fearing his former fiefdom would fall to the political left, said nothing when Jean Sarkozy, his 21-year-old son, led the UMP in dumping Martinon for another candidate. Martinon swore he would not pull out of the race. “I will not lower my head,” he said. On the eve of the election, however, he did just that. Defeated, he also submitted his resignation as the president’s spokesman, which was rejected. But soon after he was offered two consular posts, one in Europe and the other in Los Angeles. There was no hesitation about which he would accept.

*****

As demotions go, there are worse things than being sent to throw parties in a glamour capital. France has ten consuls general in the United States. The job is sometimes characterized as a working vacation. Top-level diplomatic relations are handled by the French ambassador in Washington, D.C. “I have a private life for the first time,” Martinon says. “It’s not bad, you know.” On his nightstand you’ll find James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. “David’s got an American personality,” says Louis Stern, a Los Angeles gallery owner who’s active in the Franco-American community. “He’s not guarded, he’s not judgmental, and he doesn’t put on airs.” Martinon, the youngest French consul general in U.S. history, has applied his knack for energizing institutions to the one he heads now. It’s wrong, he says, that the French consider their L.A. consulate an ugly stepsister of the one in San Francisco. Los Angeles has about the same number of French residents—second only to New York—but French dignitaries think San Francisco is a better place to visit. “Which is stupid,” Martinon says. “It is difficult to get ministers here. I managed to have the minister of immigration here and the minister of overseas territory, who was on his way to French Guiana.” That’s two more than his predecessor was able to lure. “There is still a problem of image with the city of L.A.” Too often, sunny Southern California telegraphs “boondoggle” to French taxpayers keeping tabs on their government officials.

Martinon has turned an annual Bastille Day reception for VIPs into a bash for the public and has helped start a new Franco-American chamber of commerce. Yet it’s not all champagne and foie gras. Early last year a 40-year-old French jockey suffered a heart attack at a Las Vegas hotel. As part of his duties, Martinon scrambled to arrange medical care. The jockey needed a heart transplant and the money to pay for it. “We lost time,” Martinon says. “There is no program of heart transplant in Nevada, so we had to take him to Tucson or L.A. Tucson was too far, so we managed to take him here.” No heart became available in time. “There was no chance of him surviving,” Martinon says. “I had to hold his hand when he was disconnected.” Martinon had never before watched someone die. Since then he has had other sobering experiences. “It’s hard,” he says, “to find something intelligent to say to a mother whose daughter just committed suicide.”

Martinon, who had worked almost every weekend at Sarkozy’s side for eight years, married his fiancée, Karen Delaporte, last year in Beverly Hills. She is now pregnant. On weekends they spend time in Santa Monica and Malibu. They are becoming Angelenos, but aspects of their personalities remain resolutely French. Delaporte, for instance, a former television anchor now employed in the marketing department of the fashion label Guess, feels no obligation to cleave to her husband’s politics; she is not a member of the UMP. “I adhere more to the ideas on the left,” she says.

Martinon won’t discuss the mayoral election in Neuilly that crippled his political career. Last September, when Sarkozy spoke alongside Barack Obama at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Martinon was attending a concert in Hollywood by French pop bands. It was difficult not to wonder what was going through his mind as he watched the show. Though he often talks about staying here, Martinon also hints that his political career in France is not over. He likens his L.A. job to a bike race. “Sometimes you have to be a leader. Sometimes you have to be hidden in the pack. It’s very strategic,” he says. “I can’t say I have a whole comprehensive strategy. But what I am saying is that you don’t always rush. Sometimes you have to rest and try something else.”

In Paris Martinon wore poet-length locks. Here he cuts his hair shorter. He is slower to use the informal “tu” to address journalists. He’s the boss of his office, no longer the man whose primary job, as he puts it, “was to say no to the media.” Says Martinon, “I sense that I’ve changed.” Less stress and the unavoidable pleasures of Los Angeles have reawakened passions unrelated to politics. “I am a child of rock and roll culture,” he declared last fall at another party in his backyard. The event kicked off Ooh la L.A!, a three-night festival of French music. Milling about were French businessmen; the owner of the Lycée Français, one of L.A.’s French-language schools; and the sort of young women in beat-up flat shoes you see in Godard films. “A rumor in the 1960s cast a shadow on French music for a long time—created by the English,” Martinon told the crowd. A staccato speaker, he read, as usual, from notes that betrayed his painful sense of humor. “We could cook, we could write, and we could make complicated but good movies. But we just didn’t know how to rock.” Whereupon, to prove the Brits wrong, Sylvain Taillet, a music executive from France, ran through the lineup for Ooh la L.A! “When I was young,” Martinon said afterward, “I played electric guitar. I was not a great musician. But I knew about every album coming out.”

Martinon’s sponsorship of the arts has eased his entrée into the entertainment industry. Studio heads have been happy to meet with him to discuss his news of a 20 percent rebate on money spent on film productions in France. This, too, shows how Martinon has changed. “You can’t approach them if you are too formal or too conventional, too solemn,” he says during a break at the 2009 Governors’ Global Climate Summit at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. “They would be bored. I am not so much like that.” Martinon walks toward a couch outside the auditorium where Arnold Schwarzenegger has just spoken. He hesitates, then suggests going upstairs, where there is natural light. He makes a beeline for the terrace. “Let’s go out in the sun,” he says. “We’re in L.A.”

His term as consul general is up in August 2011, and he may extend it for an additional year. “I have many ideas,” he says. “No decision.” The man who was once considered a possible successor to Sarkozy as president of France may yet reenter politics back home. “He has the charisma,” says Louis Stern, the gallery owner. “I’d vote for him.”

Martinon, though, would face the political stigma of his loss if he returned to France. In Hollywood he starts fresh. Los Angeles loves exiled Europeans, and we are impressed by Continental erudition. Moreover, the rejection Martinon experienced at the hands of his president and his party equips him well for the trapdoor terrain of the movie business. As his skin reddens in the terrace sun, the climate conference wraps for the day. The French consul is overdue to call his driver to take him to a meeting. “I’ve considered,” he says, “writing a script.”      

Photograph by Gregg Segal

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