Sunday, December 23, 2007

Politics as a Vocation

On Rue89 today, Philippe Corcuff analyzes the "erotics" of Sarkozyan power, borrowing most of his tropes from Emmanuel Levinas's analysis of the caress. It's a good piece, which contains the following interesting observation about the way in which Sarko the seducer likes to confirm his power by displaying what he has possessed:

On the one hand, he seeks to discomfit the official left (by borrowing some of its vocabulary, references, and people), while on the other he does not hesitate to appeal demagogically to the extreme right with subliminal xenophobia.


Corcuff's observations are clever, and they are typical of a spate of recent second-order high-brow decipherings of what any number of commentators have begun to refer to as the "TV serial presidency," in which Sarko renews his image week after week with yet another coup, adventure, or escapade. For instance, Le Monde yesterday featured an interview with a semiotician reflecting on Sarkozy's manipulation of signs and symbols. Yet I can't help feeling that all this cleverness--the latest round of which has clearly been inspired by the outing with Carla Bruni, about which everyone wants to find a way to talk while pretending to be above talking about such things--is somehow wide of the mark.

For me, the most significant touch that Sarko attempted to add to his image in the past week was not the Disneyland adventure but the quasi-ordination at Saint John Lateran. Although many in France have commented on the affront to laïcité, few have mentioned Sarko's attempt to sacralize the presidential function. Becoming president, he said, is like "entering religion," that is, taking holy orders. It is a calling for which one prepares oneself with all of one's life. This conceit of course recalls the unkept promise to retreat to a monastery in the days after the election to prepare himself, in a marathon of askesis, for the function he was about to assume. In the event, to be sure, he chose to prepare himself aboard a yacht rather than in a cloister. Yet the conviction that he was called to the office he now occupies, that it was his destiny to bear this burden (as he frequently calls it), is I think closer to his conception of himself than the child-at-Christmas delight with which he revels in his glittery array of expensive toys, airplanes, homes, yachts, friends, and other regalia of office. His deepest conviction is that he has the right fiber for the job. This fiber is compounded in his mind of audacity and will. It compensates in his own estimation for his admitted deficiencies ("Je ne suis pas un intellectuel, M. Poivre d'Arvor, mais ..."). It justifies his defiance of precedent and convention. It authorizes his more impudent moves (the congratulatory call to Putin, the invitation to Qaddafi). And of course it continues in the finest Gaullist tradition ("je me suis toujours fait une certaine idée de la France").

Ségolène Royal has been mocked for seeming to compare herself to Jeanne d'Arc, but the real Joan of Arc in contemporary French politics is Nicolas Sarkozy. Still, I recommend that he read Max Weber's Politik als Beruf.