Monday, September 24, 2007

Migraine?

The New York Times today published an interview with Sarkozy, in which he seems to have failed to impress his interviewers as the maître du verbe so much in evidence in the French media last week. He was "brusque," the two journalists write, and greeted them with "unadorned hellos." His "jaw muscles twitched. His gait was awkward. He cut his interviewers off in midsentence." They wondered if he might have been suffering from a migraine but were assured by the staff that he was not.

These debilities are put down in the end to "tension" the president may have been feeling about broaching the delicate matter of war with Iran. One wonders, however, if the problem may not have been more linguistic than strategic. We are not told how the interview was conducted. In French, in English and French with interpretation, in French punctuated by English (those "unadorned hellos"?), or what have you? (CORRECTION: it was conducted in French and translated by the Times. I still suspect that Sarkozy attempted pleasantries in English and that awkwardness and discomfort were the result.) Jean-David Levitte was present--as an advisor or a high-level interpreter? I raise these questions because so much of Sarkozy's power seems to me linguistic. His mixture of plain-speaking, mastery of details, logical concision, and subtle insinuations of superiority recall Bill Clinton. Sciolino and Smale describe a speaker who is tight rather than fluent, awkward (stumbling over the pronunciation of "multilateralism") rather than assured, and almost daunted by the challenge of presenting himself to the representatives of American opinion, as if the hyperprésident feared only one thing, the hyperpuissance. Did they invent this president, or did Sarkozy follow the performance lapses of his ministers (rigueur, faillite, guerre)?

As for Iran, the least that can be said is that Sarkozy has muddied the waters still further. Having said that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable, he now says that he doesn't "use the word war." He thus rebukes Kouchner for this threat, having already rebuked him for his trip to Baghdad and his pledge to go to Teheran. Kouchner has not been a quick study as foreign minister. He continues to behave as though his choice of words were weightless, despite the gravity of his position, and it is only the fact that the rest of the world ignores him, on the assumption that Sarko is really his own foreign minister, that makes his on-the-job learning seem tolerable. One wonders nevertheless how long Sarkozy will put up with such ineptitude. Perhaps that is why he was feeling so tense.

One astonishing passage from the interview:

It has been more than 20 years, 21 years maybe, since the United States Secretary of State has not been an American, or rather, has been an American from outside: Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi [Condoleezza] Rice — a great example to follow. There are other things that I like less, but I feel very close to the values that are conveyed.


Americans of color are from "outside" or "not American"? Does this tell us something about how Sarkozy views French issus de l'immigration? And why does he leave out Zbig and Henry K--far more "from outside" than "Condi," to whom he refers so familiarly?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is a stretch, but I've been wondering whether Sarkozy might just not care about Kouchner's learning curve on this particular issue; it could be useful if Iran (or Russia or China) isn't really sure how far France is willing to go. Which isn't to suggest that Kouchner's comments are part of a Grand Plan -- I think they're gaffes, but I'm wondering if they're. well, not inconvenient gaffes.

Unknown said...

Anonymous,
I think it's quite true that France wants Iran--and other European countries--to be uncertain about how far the US will go, and perhaps in order to do that it's also necessary to create ambiguity about how far France is willing to follow. But such strategies have a way of tripping themselves up. Uncertainty forces other places to insure themselves against possibilities they might otherwise regard as extremely unlikely. This has been true since Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, and it's no less true today.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with anonymous on this one - Sarkozy wants to create uncertainty, but not about how far the U.S. will go (he doesn't know). He wants to create uncertainty about how far France itself will go in renewing with the U.S. One commentator said that Sarko's is now Bush's new Blair. That hardly can be right. Sarkozy wouldn't fall into that marais.

As for Kouchner: it's being said that Sarkozy has already planned a ministerial shake-up for January and in the interview last week with Chabot/Poivre he as much as said it was true, only that leaks like this are bad team playing...

Anonymous said...

i hope you agree with me that the NYT traduc of the interview is remarkably clunky, visiblement they did not ask us to do it.

i agree wholeheartedly (!) w/ your assessment of what really went down since we know sarko really does speak clearly, quickly and consistently, wrongheaded or not.

Unknown said...

Times translations often strike me as clunky. They have a preference of literalism, as though afraid to betray the speaker whose words they render, but in so doing they sometimes veer from misdemeanor to high treason.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm being naive here (it wouldn't be the first time), but I think Sarko's point is fairly clear: these Americans are perceived to stand outside the WASP community just as Fadela Amara, Rashida Dati, and indeed Sarko himself are perceived by some French as not being "really French." And, of course, Sarko's saying that it's good to appoint such people, if only as a counterweight to the old establishment. Hence I have a hard time seeing this as suggesting a negative attitude toward the French "issus de l'immigration." --As for the omission of Zbig and Henry K., couldn't it be simply that they have been off center stage for a longer time?

Unknown said...

Steve,
Yes, of course, you could be right, and I'm loath to push the psychoanalysis of public figures on the basis of casual remarks in interviews too far. Nevertheless, if Sarko were an American politician and made such a remark, you can be sure that it would cause an outcry. At the very least it does indicate a certain lack of awareness of American sensibilities, which is hardly limited to Sarkozy. I wouldn't make more of my comment, though, than of Sarko's remark. Both were offhand observations.

Unknown said...

I believe Mssr. Levitte is now holding a position referred to in the article as 'national security advisor.' I'm curious to know if he is still serving as the Ambassador to US as well...what a curious and yet all too logical choice for the NSA posittion giving Sarkozy's cherished 'anglophilia' (or maybe americophilia would be more apt)

Unknown said...

Amit,
As far as I know, no replacement for Levitte as US ambassador has yet been named, but I may have missed it. I think Levitte is an excellent choice for the job: he's smart and capable and discreet. In any case, I think the description of Sarkozy as "americanophile" tells us very little about his approach to foreign policy.

Unknown said...

Mr. Goldhammer,

I will defer to your judgment with respect to M. Levitte's qualifications for the post. The breadth of my contact with M. Levitte is limited to him having presided over the issuance of my student visa, albeit in an extremely attenuated way.
I don't profess to view Sarko's foreign policy approach through the spectre of an avowed 'americophilia'...Clearly, Sarkozy has already stated his intolerance for certain proclivities in American foreign policy, notably their complete abdication of any role in a globally coordinated response to climate change...But I can't help but think that Sarko himself factors the American perspective and potential response heavily into any consideration of a possible French foreign policy initiative (hence the essential nature of M. Levitte occupying that post?)...I have returned to your excellent blog several times over the past week searching for some kind of confirmation that Sarko's very timely prodding of Iran was grounded in a cynical ploy to endear himself to his American counterparts . The American foreign policy perspective, especially with respect to the Middle East, occupies a provocative place in the French political spectrum...its self-evident (to Sarko anyway) merits can't be the only reason Sarko is so attracted to it, can it?

Unknown said...

Amit,
I'm afraid I'm not yet capable of deciphering Sarkozy's true ultimate intentions with respect to Middle East policy. There are too many blanks, and I hesitate to fill them in by assuming that he intends to "align" himself with American policy, to use the word currently in vogue. I will wait and see--waiting anxiously, because I am very concerned that he may be licensing American recklessness with respect to Iran. But I honestly don't know where he's headed.

As for Levitte, I'm sorry about your visa problems. I've heard him on several occasions offer sharp and perceptive criticisms of US policy in a number of places around the world, including the Middle East. Of course he's only an advisor, not "the decider."

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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