Sunday, May 4, 2008

Banalization

Julien Dray, who has taken his distance from Ségolène Royal and is struggling to emerge from the pack of younger Socialist heirs apparent, sees a "banalization" of Sarkozy over the past few months, as the president, attempting to recover from the collapse of the "formidable illusion" he had created around himself during the campaign, slips into the role of "a banal president of the Republic." Dray confesses retrospectively to having been "impressed" by both the campaign waged by Sarkozy and "the beginnings of his presidency," when "a formidable voluntarist mechanism was put in place."

It's an interesting diagnosis, and one which to a certain extent I share. But Dray doesn't take it to the next step, which would be to ask why the promise of transformation in the early days had the capacity to impress observers who didn't share, at least not entirely, either Sarkozy's analysis of France's situation or his policy goals. The answer, I submit, is that it is only in retrospect that one can describe the presidency of the Fifth Republic as banal. It was not always so; it became so, in a process initiated by Giscard, who tried to transform a potent symbolic instrument into an extension of the technocracy. This "banalization" was interrupted for a time by Mitterrand, whose historic antagonism to de Gaulle and symbolic position as the first president of l'alternance, to say nothing of his gifts as a political artist, temporarily reinvigorated the office. But Mitterrand's energy slowly waned, and the first cohabitation further sapped the presidential function. Chirac then sabotaged himself, and the presidency never recovered.

So the "banalization of the president" that Dray sees can be taken in two senses. The overt meaning, the one intended by Dray, is that Sarkozy is falling back into line and becoming a president like the others: aloof, hiding behind his prime minister, intervening rarely, recognizing that change cannot be led but can only be accompanied, because "formidable voluntarism" inevitably runs up against les fameuses pesanteurs sociales. But the latent sense is that Sarkozy is becoming a banal president because the presidency itself has been banalized: it has become easy to imagine the post filled not by historical demigods but by politicians of no doubt rare but still conventional and familiar gifts. Perhaps this is why Sarkozy's personal story is taken--quite wrongly, I think--as the key factor in the transformation. His divorce and remarriage, the episode at the agricultural fair, the bling-bling and accumulated faux pas, merely confirmed his all too human stature, but it was the realization that he would not after all be able to reinflate the presidency that has made him a president not like the others--or at any rate not like de Gaulle and Mitterrand--and therefore banal like most other politicians in not extraordinary times, a mere decision-maker rather than an oracle.