Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Uses of Ambiguity

The other day I cited one of my favorite maxims on politics: "To govern is to choose" (Pierre Mendès France). Sometimes, though, ambiguity, or the refusal to choose, is the safer course, as Cardinal de Retz knew: "One abandons ambiguity only at one's peril." See the previous post on Turkey for several contemporary examples of the Retzian dictum. On the whole I'd prefer to take PMF as my model statesman, but one of Retz's mots may have relevance to the plight of the Socialist Party today: "Distrust makes one a dupe more often than trust" (cf. Nietzsche's "Better to be deceived than distrustful"). Kouchner, Jouyet, and Hirsch may have been studying Retz.

As for Besson, I suspect he had darker motives for his decision to trust the enemy and betray his own. Retz had considered his case as well: "After ten days' reflection, I made up my mind deliberately to do wrong, which was surely the more criminal course before God but no doubt the wiser course in the eyes of the world."

Mild Turkey

During the campaign, the candidates seemed to differ on the question of EU membership for Turkey, but perhaps the difference was not as great as it appeared. Sarko said no on unimpeachable geographic if perhaps dubious political grounds: Turkey is in Asia Minor, he noted, not Europe. Ségo said that her position was clear: she would want whatever the French people turned out to want when the time came, but that time was not now. Since at the moment a substantial majority of the French do not want Turkey, Ségo evidently hoped that time would do its part to bring the French around to a position different from that of Sarko, whom she accused of "frightening" people with anti-Turkish talk. Muddying the waters further, she added that she thought it was a good time to "pause" EU enlargement. Clear? If not, read a Turkish take on the debate here.

Now that Sarkozy is in office, however, his resolute Roman no has given way to a more nuanced approach. It emerges (articles here and here) that Jean-David Levitte, former ambassador to the US and not notably Sarkozyste (he was a Giscard protégé), has been invited home from Washington to be a special representative on European matters, and his first mission was to the Turks, to reassure them that Sarko the Hungarian was not the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler. He wants to put EU negotiations on Turkey on hold for at least six months while he tries to persuade the Turks that a Mediterranean Union would be a better idea (and indeed it might--there are good reasons to be cautious about expanding an EU that is having a hard enough time managing itself as it is).

For this exercise in diplomatic subtlety Royal has vilified him: if France were the United States, we would no doubt be seeing television ads of Sarko on a windsurfer tacking left and right with a pair of flip-flops superimposed on the azure of the Mediterranean. Fortunately some decorum remains in the land of Racine, so she said merely that "he was forced to backtrack because the realities are there, and the previous president had made certain promises." A more indulgent observer might conclude that the choice of the artful Levitte as emissary signals Sarko's awareness that governing is a more delicate matter than campaigning.

The Legislative Campaign

sushi105 wrote (of Ségolène Royal's appearance on a news broadcast):

"shellshocked, indeed. did you see her on the news de la 2 being nailed by francoise laborde? yikes."
Yes, I did see her. What struck me was the odd disparity between her radiant, serene, refreshed appearance and the rather mechanical and hurried recitation of the series of bullet points she intended to get across to viewers come hell or high water in the scant few minutes allotted to her.

Among those bullet points was an attack on the deductible or co-pay that Sarkozy has promised to attach to reimbursements for medical care. Royal's general theme was that the government should get on with implementing its promises before the legislative elections, so that voters could see just how much they were going to be hurt. And her particular complaint against the co-pay was that it would deprive the least well-off of medical care.

Now, this response struck me as unfortunate in a number of ways. First, the least well-off are to be exempted from the co-pays, but the details have yet to be worked out, which is the reason for the implementation delay. Second, and more important, the candidate completely ignored the underlying issue, the social security deficit. She also avoided the debate about the purposes of the co-pay and the likelihood of realizing the intended goals: to reduce wasteful uses of the medical system by imposing a cost on patients and to reduce the deficit.

One can argue about these points, but Royal chose instead to claim the "monopoly of the heart." When Giscard famously attacked Mitterrand on this point ("vous n'avez pas le monopole du coeur, M. Mitterrand" was the winning zinger in a presidential debate), he won an election. The Socialists still haven't learned this lesson, even though their electorate--and more importantly, the swing electorate in the center--claims an even smaller proportion of "the least well off" than in the past. This is a losing strategy.

More Electoral Geography

IFOP has produced a most interesting analysis of the electoral geography of the presidential election. The main point is that, while Sarkozy picked up votes in areas where Le Pen had previously been strong, his gains were greater in some regions than others. In particular, Le Pen retained more votes in départements where his support had a strong working-class component, chiefly in the north and northeast. Sarkozy did better among former Le Pen voters along the Mediterranean and the Garonne, where Le Pen had attracted more professionals and merchants.

Et tu, Brute?

In Le Monde, Laurent Greilsamer notes that for the new president le tutoiement, the use of the informal second person pronoun tu, is ubiquitous, natural, almost irresistible. Before any other rupture is accomplished, this one seems complete. One cannot imagine de Gaulle saying to one of his ministers, "Tu as quelque chose à ajouter, Alain?" Or Giscard. Or Mitterrand (who sealed his victory over Chirac in a televised debate by responding "Vous avez parfaitement raison, Monsieur le Premier Ministre," after Chirac attempted to establish republican equality with the President of the Republic by suggesting that for the duration of the debate they refer to each other simply as Monsieur rather than Monsieur le Premier Ministre and Monsieur le Président).

One is reminded of Renoir's Rules of the Game, where the marquis de La Chesnaye says, "Je dis vous à mon père, je dis vous à ma mère."

This change is more than merely anecdotal. Like every aspect of Sarkozy's style, it seems at once wholly natural and cunningly calculated. "Culture is a second nature," said Pascal, and Sarkozy's culture, eschewing the ostentatiously literary, fits him like a glove, or perhaps one should say a Spandex cycling outfit. He has been explicit about his desire to bring the presidency down to earth. On the FR2 news last night he disparaged the notion that the president should be "out there floating somewhere above the problems of the government." His would be an involved presidency, he said, and he would be a president who "governs."

He didn't try to define what he meant by "govern" by setting it in opposition with another verb, but it's not hard to imagine which one he had in mind: "reign." And of course he meant to skewer Chirac's preternatural detachment from governing of the last few years. The Gaullist conception of the presidency, to which Mitterrand readily adapted himself, had much in common with kingship. The President, as the incarnation of the Republic, could to a degree isolate himself from the flaws of his government. A jogging President, on the other hand, sweats like an ordinary mortal, so he can address the individuals in the pack running behind him as tu. But he's got to keep running all the time or they may catch up with him. "Don't look back, Monsieur le Président, they may be gaining on you."

Greilsamer concludes his piece by noting that Xavier Darcos, the new education minister, has proposed (but not ordered) that respect for authority be restored in the classroom by requiring students and teachers to address one another as vous. A curious state of affairs: young people in France will vouvoyer their teachers but tutoyer their president and their deity.