Friday, August 24, 2007

Images d'Épinal

A president is, among other things, a teacher, and among his subjects of predilection is civic morality. One can't fault Nicolas Sarkozy for attempting to inculcate the lesson that racist speech is not to be tolerated in the Republic. In case you haven't been following the story, here it is in a nutshell. Dominique Berger, a teacher of mathematics in a lycée in Épinal, referred in class to one of his students, Chouaib Lusikama, of Angolan descent, as bamboula. Now, bamboula is the French equivalent of "Sambo," and Lusikama's classmates took it as a racist slur and filed a complaint, in which other alleged racist remarks of Berger's were also cited. Berger, described by his attorney as a "gruff" man, denied the other remarks but admitted to bamboula, although he claims that he used the word not with racist intent but in allusion to his student's happy-go-lucky personality (faire la bamboula means "to live it up," "have a wild time"). The teacher was tried and convicted of racist speech and sentenced to six months in jail (suspended). Lusikama and his father were invited to the Elysée to hear the president say that racist language was "unacceptable" in a republic of laws. The father said he was "honored" by the invitation; the son declined to speak to journalists.

Now, it's no doubt a good thing that the nation receive a lesson in the evils of racist speech from the president. Of course if the president had been a teacher of mathematics in an Épinal lycée and had made the remarks about slaughtering sheep in bathtubs that he made when he was an elbow-throwing politician and not "the president of all the French," he might have given offense to the students and found himself hauled up on charges of his own. Still, atonement is to be encouraged, and the ascent to the presidency seems to have enlarged the president's views. One might still be troubled by the criminal penalty meted out to the teacher when administrative sanction would have sufficed, but we know that the French, and more generally Europeans, take a more aggressive view of certain speech acts than do Americans.

One might also be troubled by the fact that this exercise of the presidential bully pulpit culminated a series of lessons predicated on the headlines of the moment: the condemnation of pedophiles in connection with the case of le petit Énis, the presidential mourning of the drowned sailors in the Sokélique affair, etc. Sarkozy as teacher of the nation seems convinced that the best classroom method is to seize the teachable moment. Throughout his career he has made effective use of the media by hitching his star to the headlines. As president, however, he makes his own headlines, and the practice that served him so well in the past may well become wearisome if he continues to make daily use of it. He needs to pace himself, decide which lessons really need to be taught, and aim for depth rather than breadth. But it remains to be seen what depths he has within him. Does the educator himself need educating, and, if so, who will do it?


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

everyone can make mistakes, it's all implemented in human nature.
The good thing is that we're supposed to learn from it.
Apparently Sarkozy learnt tolerance and applies it like a fascist, but on the other hand at least he learnt something whereas Bush junior didn't learn anything from his father's mistakes.

politically yours (anytime)

anonymous froggy

Anonymous said...

Oh yes and I almost forgot : you guys re-elected him for a second mandate.
Now who forgot to learn his/her lesson ? frenchies or USA ?

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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