Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quelle coïncidence!

According to CEVIPOF's barometer of French opinion, in February 2007, 53 percent of the French were in agreement with the statement "There are too many immigrants in France." 47 percent were in disagreement.

The score in the second round of the presidential election was 53.06-46.94 in favor of Sarkozy.

See CEVIPOF report, "Baromètre Politique Français (2006-2007) CEVIPOF-Ministère de
l'Intérieur
," p. 47 (p. 51 of pdf).

A Challenge for the Kouchner-Sarko Duo

Ali Larijani, Iran's national security chief, has a suave way with flattery: "France under the new president Nicolas Sarkozy could play the role of an 'honest broker' [in the nuclear impasse], because France enjoys a very good image in Iran." Sarkozy earlier this week called for tightened sanctions if Iran did not comply with western demands, but there has to be a temptation to take up the challenge and play the beau rôle in breaking the impasse. Might Kouchner or Sarkozy be tempted? Will they see eye to eye? And what attitude will Washington take? The chess game may get interesting in the next few days.

Experts and Pols

The previous post, about Claude Allègre's comments on the failure of the PS to make use of the experts in its ranks, raises the question of the relation between expertise and politics. Ségolène Royal's leading rival for the presidential nomination was probably Dominique Strauss-Kahn. DSK, who would have been my choice if I'd had a vote, is no doubt more of an expert on economic matters than SR, but he isn't half the politician she is. Is there an art of politics, a specific form of expertise that might be termed political? Plato thought so, and so, in a different way, did Tocqueville, who was characteristically ambivalent about its uses.

If Allègre and DSK qualify as experts, then one might take their impetuous and embittered comments in the wake of the Socialist defeat as typical of the impolitic temperament of expertise. Experts expect deference to their expertise, and when they don't get it, they're rather too likely to péter les plombs*, as they say in French.

One might also say that the Socialists' turn to SR rather than DSK reflected the instinctive sense of the rank-and-file that no current was going to pass between the economic expert and the public at large. France abounds with expert experts, but political experts are a rarer breed. In that respect, ordinary party militants may have a clearer sense of what they face in Sarkozy than Allègre has. Allègre thinks an end to "frontal opposition" between the parties is in order, because the right is not without reasonable ideas. It's becoming of a scientist to acknowledge truth where he finds it, but an expert in the art of politics would probably urge a more subtle execution of the tactical retreat.

* blow a fuse

With Friends Like This ...

Claude Allègre, in an interview with Libération, describes François Hollande as a former friend but says that he's "really angry with him." So it seems. His chief complaint is that under Hollande's leadership the PS failed to tap the experts in its ranks. Mitterrand and Jospin knew how to make use of experts, he says, but Hollande preferred to surround himself with "incompetent schemers." He alleges that Hollande intended Royal to be a stalking horse for his own candidacy. "She lacked the necessary talent but was unbelievably pugnacious." Under Hollande, the party "made incompetence the proof of democracy." Nevertheless, he hopes the Socialists will not come to grief in the legislatives, because "Sarkozy needs a genuine opposition" in order to avoid "problems with extremists in his majority." As if that were not enough, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Hollande's closest friend, has gone over to Sarkozy (he is secretary of state for European affairs)--"symbolic," says Allègre.

A pretty picture of France from a former Socialist minister of education--who was, it must be said, always something of a bull in a china shop.

"An Example Not of the Past but for the Future"

In a long, thoughtful e-mail, reader Roland Hsu of Stanford invites me to reflect on President Sarkozy's "mode of analysis and understanding of the republic and society." In particular he draws attention to the way in which two previous presidents, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, sought to define themselves in relation to the French past by way of symbolic gestures early in their presidencies. Mitterrand went to the Pantheon to lay roses on the tombs of Victor Schoelcher (an abolitionist), Jean Jaurès (a martyred socialist), and Jean Moulin (a martyred hero of the Resistance). Chirac, in a speech delivered on July 16, 1995, acknowledged the complicity of the French police in the arrest of Jews 53 years earlier, on July 16, 1942 (the date of the notorious "Vel' d'Hiv' roundup").

By contrast, Roland notes, Sarkozy made "one small gesture" to national memory by visiting, shortly after his inauguration, a monument to Resistance martyrs and ordering that a letter written on the eve of his death by Communist Resistance hero Guy Môquet be read annually to lycéens.

Now, I agree with Roland that when a president takes pains to orchestrate a moment of commemoration, we learn something about his "mode of analysis and understanding of the republic and society," but I differ on one point of appreciation: the magnitude of Sarkozy's gesture. I do not think it was "small." It was certainly prepared with every bit as much care as Mitterrand's minutely mediatized visit to the Pantheon or Chirac's public repudiation of the founding myth of his own political family, that of "la France résistante."

Look a little more closely at Sarkozy's gesture and I think you see a "strategy of memory" quite as calculated as his predecessors'. What he said at the Grande Cascade of the Bois de Boulogne was that "a young man of 17 who gives his life for France is an example not of the past but for the future. For me, this reading [of Môquet's letter] is a great symbol." A great deal of mythopoeic work is accomplished here. To begin with, Sarkozy is reinstating what Henry Rousso has called the "resistantialist myth." What actually happened in the past, history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, does not interest him. What does interest him is mining the past for examples "for the future." Atonement, though it pleases historians who know the past to be an alloy of noble and base metals, is divisive; the resistantialist myth, like the Republic, is what divides the French least, and in that respect Sarkozy finds it eminently useful, as Gaullists (but not only Gaullists) always have.

Furthermore, the particular exemplum in this case is well chosen to illustrate Sarkozyan values. First, "action": "The time for colloquia is over," he said in describing his approach to environmental policy. "It is time to act." Second, "energy," here associated with "youthfulness." Sarkozy is 52, but iconically he would like to identify himself, if not quite with a Resistance hero of 17, then at least with John F. Kennedy, who was 43 at the time of his inauguration. Instead of touch football, the media serve up images of jogging, bicycling, and blue jeans. Fillon describes huissiers at the Elysée disconcerted to find the president and prime minister in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers. In the French pronunciation of la vigueur one can almost hear the broad Bostonian pronunciation of vigor. And vigor has been the most conspicuous trait of the Sarkozyan presidency thus far, especially in contrast with the senescent torpor of the waning years of Chirac, whom Jospin famously described in 2002 as usé, worn out. Third, "openness": in choosing a Communist martyr, in choosing to say that what counts as exemplary is not the past, with its partisan allegiances, but "the future," defined by a common project in which, so it is suggested, past ideological commitments can be overlooked, Sarkozy signaled that he expects to be judged not by the ideology he espouses but by the results he achieves.

But from all of this how much can one deduce about what Roland would like more insight into: the working of the presidential mind, the nature of Sarkozy's understanding of France and its dilemmas, the thinking that will shape his vigorous action? I think not much. These presidential stagings of made-for-TV lieux de mémoire partake of the society of the spectacle, the gimcrackery of up-to-the-minute image engineering. Which was the more essential part of the furniture of Mitterrand's mind: the rose bestowed by Mitterrand on Jean Moulin or the francisque bestowed by Pétain on Mitterrand? The former was displayed, the latter concealed, yet Mitterrand made no secret of his admiration for writers Jacques Chardonne and Ernst Jünger, whose wartime attitudes were hardly those of Jean Moulin. Chirac pleased historians by laying the resistantialist myth to rest for a time, but in another phase of his presidency he took to quoting Friedrich Hayek, who was himself no slouch at historical mythmaking.

Historians are a little like psychoanalysts in their belief that the truth about the past can set us free. I'm not so sure. The political uses of the past are always instrumental, and fibbing about history isn't necessarily the greatest of political sins. I'm not unhappy to know that lycéens will learn about Communist Resistance martyrs, and if harm is done by propagating the myth of a universally resisting France, perhaps good is done by reviving the image of a young man who dedicated himself to the fight not because he was a dupe of the Comintern or a commissar of the Gulag in the making but because he was young and vigorous and eager to transcend the limitations of the self.