Saturday, May 26, 2007

"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.

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