Sunday, July 22, 2007


Memory politics is sometimes reminiscent of Kremlinology. In the heyday of the Evil Empire, analysts scrutinized photographs of the leadership gathered atop Lenin's tomb to see who had moved closer and who farther away from the First Secretary. Speeches were scoured for every nuance and inflection.

French memorialists now face similarly minute attention on certain fixed dates. Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup (which actually began on July 16, 1942). So in advance of the event Sarkozy visited the Holocaust Memorial--"which I did not know." His words were carefully calibrated: "We cannot, we must not, forget," but he spoke as an individual, not in the name of the state of which he is chief. As for Chirac's decision to take the opposite tack, he said what had to be said, according to his successor: "There is nothing to take away," but, too, "there is nothing to add." Lest this reticence disturb anyone, Sarko had taken the precaution to visit the memorial in the company of Simone Veil, the unimpeachable witness. She had allowed some daylight to appear between her and the then candidate over the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, but now, on the eve of the great memorial event, she was back at his side. Who could dare to say the President had not said enough if the Survivor was at his side?

And now today François Fillon has spoken at a memorial service. The prime minister, not the president: memoryologists will take note of the nuance. They will also note his words: "Sixty-five years ago, officials of Vichy, functionaries, collaborators, incurred the indelible stain of an awful crime." Memoryologists will take note of the inflection: the crime was not that of "l'Etat français" but of culpable individuals, officials of Vichy, functionaries, collaborators. A distance is insinuated. "Sixty-five years," he went on, "time has passed, relegating the historically culpable to the obscurity of death, and with them the need to expiate." Hence "an obligation to protest, to practice the exercise of memory and vigilance." A little more distance is opened up between the here and now and the obscurity of death, from whose bourne no traveler returns, but only to introduce the ritual invocation of the duty to remember--nay, more than remember, to protest. But to protest what? The hijacking of the state by the other--those culpable officials, functionaries, collaborators who have nothing to do with us.

For some memoryologists, therefore, Sarkozy and Fillon will not have done enough. The defensive connotations of their language and gestures will be heard as the dominant note, linked to statements made in other contexts, and used to cast dark suspicions on their intentions. Chirac, by contrast, will have been exemplary in this one respect. It is easy to engage in this kind of analysis, as the foregoing close reading demonstrates. But does it really tell us anything about the bedrock principles, if any, to which the various memorializers are committed? I think not.

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