Friday, July 27, 2007

Errors and Crimes

Years of living under Bush have accustomed Americans to what it is like to have a president who is impervious to criticism, who simply refuses to acknowledge it. Such an attitude is ultimately corrosive of democracy, because it denies the very existence of the minority; so long as the majority's supremacy holds, and even beyond, until the incumbent's tenure of office expires, opponents, deprived of the courtesy of a response or even the respect implicit in the effort to offer coherent logical justification for one's position in the face of conflict, must endure the imaginary universe created by the leader's denial of reality.

Sarkozy, whatever one might think of his policies, is a different kind of animal. He hears criticism and responds to it in a variety of ways. Sometimes the response is direct, forthright, even curt, as it was in Libya. When he was criticized for signing the nuclear deal so quickly after the release of the nurses, he was blunt: "Some came to Libya before they were released. Better to come after than before."

In Sénégal, by contrast, he delivered a prepared speech, an eloquent response to his critics that was not so much a rebuttal of their position--that he ought to apologize for the past wrongs of colonialism and slavery--as an elaboration of his. He showed that he recognized the enormity of past sins and the emotions that motivated the demands for apology. Indeed, he consigned the "errors and crimes" of the past to the Ninth Circle: these were "crimes against man," he said, "crimes against humanity." Repentance could go no farther than this, except that he continued to refuse to apply the label repentance to his unmistakably expiatory language. He then turned, "with respect" as he was careful to note, to the other side of the ledger, to the responsibility that erstwhile victims bore in his view for their present situation, which he indicated was a problem for "us" as well as "them." And he proposed a cooperative search for a way out of the predicament.

It was a well-crafted speech, but of course he had said in Algeria two weeks earlier precisely what he thought of well-crafted speeches: "I indicated to Pres. Bouteflika that friendship ... thrives on projects and action more than on treaties, speeches, or words." So we will wait to see what projects and actions he proposes for Africa. In Libya, a proper concern for justice and a bold personal engagement in diplomatic brinksmanship earned admiration, while the projects and action that immediately followed gave pause. In Senegal the rhetoric perfectly reflected the image Sarkozy wants to give of himself and his presidency, firm and uncompromising yet neither unfeeling nor unresponsive. May his actions follow.

Brickbats already have, but that goes with the territory.

P.S. The image, in case you're wondering, is of Talleyrand. The relevance? Talleyrand conjoined the same words as Sarko, crime and faute, in the famous phrase, "Pire qu'un crime, c'est une faute" (Worse than a crime, it's a blunder), the quintessential expression of political cynicism. Of Talleyrand Napoléon reportedly said, "De la merde en bas de soie" (shit in silk stockings). Did Guaino have these precedents in mind when he wrote Sarkozy's speech? The coupling of the two words makes the association almost inevitable--something a speechwriter as skilled as Guaino might have hoped to avoid.


gregory brown said...

Speaking of crimes, Villepin was just mis en examen and ordered not to communicate with Jacques Chirac. I am stunned; I had presumed Sarkozy would use the Interior ministry to keep Villepin in line and taunt him a bit, not send him to jail.

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