Perhaps never more so than when he offended the spouses of Saint Laurent clients by soliciting funds from them for the reelection of President Mitterrand in 1988. The Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac, denounced Berge as the "foremost representative of the caviar Left." And Jacques Calvet, the head of Peugeot, publicly urged a boycott of Saint Laurent products. The call went unheeded by society wives, however, who seemed to know better than Calvet where to draw the line between politics and basic necessities.
No doubt Berge impressed Mitterrand with his campaign contributions. But by all accounts, the two men have grown quite close for reasons less crass than money. Their strong friendship began in 1986, when the president was in Strasbourg at a campaign dinner attended by Berge. Mitterrand, in a buoyant mood, recited a few verses by Rene-Guy Cadou, a minor French poet unknown to the other politicians at the meal. As the president sat down, Berge rose from the other end of the table to finish the poem. A cultural bonding had just taken place. Soon after, Berge became a regular companion to Mitterrand on the president's famous walks in the woods near his country home.
When Mitterrand first assumed the presidency in 1981, he seemed to embody the left-wing ideal of the \o7 intellectuel engage--\f7 the intellectual willing to battle for political beliefs. Artists were expected to demonstrate and sign petitions. There was a link, it was asserted, between the creative mind and political commitment.
But even with one of their own in power, French intellectuals and artists were having a tough time staying \o7 engage\f7 . Marxism became a spent force, leaving them without a moral compass. And a newer generation of gurus was spreading the heretical notion that artistic creativity had nothing to do with political commitment. "Quite the contrary," asserts Bernard-Henri Levy, a philosopher-novelist-playwright, a current cultural superstar and a good friend of Berge. "Generally speaking, the periods of greatest political commitment for a writer or artist or intellectual are their periods of least creative output. Because, quite simply, causes take up time."
In the late 1970s, Levy was one of a group of young philosophers, known as "Les Nouveaux Philosophes," who briefly captured the cultural center stage by declaring Marxism a barbaric ideology. Like an oldtime \o7 intellectuel engage\f7 , he has championed the downtrodden in Africa, the Middle East and, most recently, Bosnia.
But Levy grates on other intellectuals because of his flagrant displays of vanity and affluence. The same week he was interviewed on ethnocide in Bosnia, he appeared with his wife in the pages of Paris Match in their splendid Left Bank apartment. For several years, Levy has sat on the board of directors of the Yves Saint Laurent Groupe. And while his presence hasn't necessarily raised the cultural level of board meetings, it has improved the quality of his wardrobe.
"I find all that so shocking," says Yvonne Baby, the former culture editor of Le Monde. "In earlier times, there was not such a huge gap between the way an intellectual lived and the causes he espoused."
Levy appears for a recent interview at a Left Bank cafe with a two-day Hollywood stubble and an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. "The '80s until now represent the end of the mania for the new," he says. "That's why in culture these are the Yves Saint Laurent years. Because Saint Laurent is someone who doesn't believe that every year should bring something new. So he escapes neo-mania and becomes a classic."
Thanks to Berge and Saint Laurent, he adds, fashion has finally become accepted as art. "The couture of Saint Laurent--and I've published an essay on this very subject--occupies the same space as Proust and Matisse," says this worldly philosopher.
Berge, who knows the business somewhat better than Levy, doesn't place it on such an exalted plane. "Yes, I've defended fashion as art," says the entrepreneur. "I did so because so many people dismissed couture as just pieces of cloth. But you can't compare a dress to a painting by Picasso or Goya." And while it's true, he adds, that great couturiers like Saint Laurent have drawn upon art, "fashion has only brought negative things to art. Too much of art is a la mode nowadays. It's accepted too quickly, and that's a quality inherited from the world of fashion."
Artists, or anyone deemed creative, have become more fashionable than ever. And the government has midwived this trend by showering enormous amounts of money and official recognition on the arts. Mitterrand often invites writers and other intellectuals to meals at the presidential palace. Culture Minister Jack Lang organizes extravagant music, dance and theater festivals.