Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Period of Adjustment

One finds in the French press an emerging line of criticism of Sarkozy's presidency. This Libé article is a good example. "Has anyone told Nicolas Sarkozy that he's been elected President of the Republic?" is Alice Géraud's lead. It seems that Ms. Géraud is disconcerted by the Sarkozyan style, which she finds too informal, relaxed, accessible, and therefore "unpresidential." The President continues to behave as though he were on the campaign trail, she writes, "seeking to persuade each of his interlocutors that his projects are well thought out and making a great show of a relaxed and deliberately seductive style."

Of course it was a commonplace in presidencies past to remark on the ease with which republican equality could be buried beneath the trappings of regalian splendor. Leading historians such as Jacques Revel in Lieux de mémoire and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in Saint-Simon et la cour de Louis XIV riffed on the all-too-evident parallels. It was even said that the French preferred the exaltation of monarchy and the grand style to the pettiness of political parties and the drabness of la vie quotidienne. De Gaulle's "je me suis toujours fait une certaine idée de la France" was thought to be a modern echo of Louis XIV's apocryphal "l'Etat, c'est moi." So it is not surprising to find Géraud commenting on the plainness of the décor at the construction site where Sarkozy spoke yesterday. The plainness is real, she implies, but the choice is contrived to reinforce the presidential desire to make himself out a man of the people. "I speak simply," Sarkozy says, but reportorial irony turns the simplicity into an artifice.

Similarly, countless articles have arraigned Sarko for his omnipresence. This, too, is said to be unpresidential. The President, the critics imply, is supposed to be like the Jansenists' Dieu caché, hidden so as to absolve himself of responsibility for this world and its inevitable sordid taint. "Where is Fillon?" one paper asked the other day. "Is there anything left for him to do?" Higher education minister Valérie Pécresse was asked if she didn't feel diminished by Sarkozy's intervention in her negotiations with university presidents and student union leaders. Shouldn't such matters be left to mortals while the President communes on Olympus?

It's a pity that these journalists appear not to be readers of Proust. If they were, they would know that the royal hauteur that they have come to take as the mark of presidential authenticity was a late development, a quite inauthentic ruse of the Sun King in his post-Fronde humbling of the aristocracy. Proust's Baron de Charlus, that relic of the old aristocracy, was always at his most natural with "his" peasants (not to mention his chauffeurs, but that's another story). Charlus reserved his hauteur for those he imagined might have the impudence to address him as citoyen.

The critique of Sarkozy's stage-managed simplicity and camera-hogging ubiquity misses the point. He isn't humbling the presidency or exposing it to blame for failure; he's rather positioning himself as the people's mediator, the indispensable intercessor. And this is the position in which monarchy always succeeds best. When it transforms itself into autocracy, failure looms. As the tertium quid, it frees itself to maneuver. Mitterrand was a sham monarch, almost a figure of comic opera; Sarkozy, lacking Mitterrand's historical cultivation, nevertheless has the true monarchical instinct. He knows how to make himself indispensable, not by humbling all around him but by raising them up, if only for the moment in which they feel his invigorating touch, the touch of le roi thaumaturge (if you don't know the reference, see under Marc Bloch).


Anonymous said...

Art --

I agree fully with your perception of some positive elements in Sarkozy's modus operandi, not to say Sarkozy's personality and--dare one add--character. Another example of what's on his mind is his little book on religion and the republic, which I found both sensible and sensitive although many dismissed it.
I agree also with your discussion of Libe's shortcomings, and, by implication, of a lot of what's said on the left. A true generational change is necessary in the Socialist party even though the top leaders are relatively young.

My personal investment in discussing Francois Mitterrand is well known (his faults as well as his better qualities). Thus it may be of some significance that I agree also with your judgment about the difference between Mitterrand's monarchical tendencies and Sarkozy's--"not by humbling all around him but by raising them up."
(Mitterrand was fascinating but ultimately insufferable on a personal level. He was also a winner.)

But Mitterrand, a complex character, did raise up a lot of people as well. The problem is that political power needs to be taken not inherited, legitimacy forged, not sentimentalized. Jospin wanted basically to inherit and was satisfied with the goal of being a well-loved loser. (He wanted to repeat this time around.) Fabius-DSK didn't, and don't, have what it takes--whether fire in the belly or political virtu. Segolene seemed for awhile to be different: so many people wanted to get behind her. But, not to put too fine a point on it, she turned out to be much of a great bluff even if she used some of Mitterrand's tricks.

In any case, Libe-style disdain for Sarkozy will only delay what needs to happen on the left. The Socialists need a Gorbachev.

Anonymous said...

I neglected to sign my name to the previous comment --

Ron Tiersky