Saturday, October 20, 2007

Môquet Replaces Mandel

On Monday, the letter that Guy Môquet addressed to his family shortly before he was executed by the Germans is supposed to be read in all French schools. A lively polemic has erupted, with historians on one side denouncing the manipulation of history by the government for propagandistic purposes and Sarkozy's amanuensis Henri Guaino on the other side expressing astonishment at such niggardliness of patriotic emotion. A woman who as a young Communist militant was imprisoned with Môquet reminisces about their mutual coup de foudre in prison: at 17, she says, a young woman's eye seeks out the good-looking guys, even in prison--a clue, no doubt, to the state of mind in which the purported lesson in patriotism will be received by its intended audience. To the retort that the officially mandated reading of the letter might serve as a useful occasion to teach a new generation of students about the facts of the Occupation and Resistance, the historians reply that the order of ceremonies stipulated in the ministerial directive doesn't make room for critical examination, but this response seems to give teachers little credit for resourcefulness. The concern with manipulation is comprehensible but perhaps exaggerated. As the testimony of Môquet's comrade reminds us, young minds, preoccupied with concerns of their own, are harder to manipulate than old heads imagine. (Incidentally, the word "comrade" was changed to "companion" in a reference to Môquet in the official directive; Guaino says that someone might have thought that "comrade" sounded too "square" [ringard)] and that the emendation was as stupid as the retouching of old films to remove cigarettes from the mouths of the characters.)

As for the memory of the Resistance, it's interesting to note that this has long figured in Sarkozy's discourse, though the adoption of Môquet and the Communist side of the Resistance seems to be a late addition to his repertoire and very likely a contribution of Guaino, who also brought references to Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum into Sarkozy's speeches. Many years ago, Sarkozy wrote a book about another martyr of the Resistance: Georges Mandel, le moine de la République. Mandel, an Alsatian Jew, was a close collaborator of Georges Clemenceau and played an important role in Clemenceau's repression of trade union militancy. In the 30s he became interior minister, a post in which he preceded Sarkozy, and developed a reputation as a tough conservative, a nationalist, and a premature anti-fascist. De Gaulle acknowledged Mandel's influence on his thinking. He was one of the deputies who fled France on the Massilia and was subsequently arrested and deported to Buchenwald. In 1944 he was shot in the forest of Fontainebleau.

Mandel was thus once Sarkozy's privileged Resistance reference, but he was more convenient as a reference for a law-and-order minister of the interior than for a president of the Republic. Mandel was a partisan, a politician, a patron of les flics. Môquet, though the child of a Communist deputy and a member of the party's militant youth wing, can nevertheless be remembered as an innocent who dreamed on the eve of his death of roller-skating with his girl and who wrote a touching letter to his family that raises no inconvenient issues of prior political responsibility. The Sarkozy who devoted a book to Mandel might not have been elected president, as he likes to say, of all the French. His discovery of Môquet was one of the instruments of his metamorphosis. As such, the reading of the Môquet letter can serve not only to stimulate a discussion of les années noires but also to instruct the young about the realities of contemporary political communication.

For more on Môquet, see here.


jeyi said...

Provocative, well-written, even passionate. Reminds me why I follow your blog.

gregory brown said...

Will the mandatory reading be followed by a mandatory "2 minutes hate" of "elites" and the "spirit of May 68"?

Art, your observations about Mandel and about the resourceful of young minds are well taken and important, but it seems to me you've missed the more significant part which is the "mandatory" nature of the reading. This is not a decision that was made by the sort of curriuclar process that decides, for instance, what texts will be read by students preparing for the agreg or the CAPES.

Its the state dictating a patriotic reading, put forth entirely with the intention of posturing and creating a false controversy.

Moreover, the very idea of mandating of a specific text to inculcate certain values is so proposterously antiquated as an approach to teaching that teachers would be professionally negligent not to oppose this idea on pedagogical grounds alone, no matter what reading was being mandated.

To make my point succintly isn't this sort of scholastic indoctrination precisely what is being, rightly, criticized in Venezuela right now?

Finally, on the historical issue, what do you mean by "pre-mature anti-fascist"? The term, as I understand it, refers to a charge made by Communists after 1941 against those who had defied the party's directives prior to that time, which called for a tactical alliance. Have I misunderstood how the term can be applied to an anti-fascist right-winger -- I take your maning here to be that he was "prescient" in his anti-fascism?


Unknown said...

Yes, the mandated reading is offensive. The amalgam is offensive. Everything about the move is offensive. Nevertheless, I think it's a waste of time to protest; teachers should rather use the opportunity to divert the specacle ("détourner" in the sense of Guy Debord)to make whatever pedagogical points they feel called upon to make. There is too much "high moral dudgeon" in this kind of protest and not enough pragmatic thinking along the lines of, "How can I use this opportunity?"

Most official historical commemoration is offensive to the true historian's sensibility. Was Mitterrand's celebration of the Bicentennial less twisted than Sarkozy's mandatory reading merely because it was pervasive and inescapable rather than mandatory? Well, perhaps slightly ... but the spirit was equally manipulative. Yet historians from Furet on one side to Steven Kaplan on the other used the opportunity to make good points, rather than fulminate ineffectively.

As for "premature anti-fascist," the term in my lexicon is intended to recall its ironic use by members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who ruefully recalled after fascism had become everyone's enemy that they had been fighting fascists in Spain before their government recognized the need to confront the menace.

Mandel's prescience equaled that of leftists but had a different source: as an Alsatian, a rightist, and a nationalist, he had a visceral dislike of German militarism. He opposed the grant of full powers to Pétain, opposed Montoire, and helped spur de Gaulle to resistance. Historians of course know that the Resistance had its right-wing as well as left-wing elements, and insofar as the grievance about the Môquet letter has to do with the notion that a leftist resister is being taken over by the right, it's a truth that hides another truth.

Anonymous said...

An excellent blog, as always, apart from one tiny mis-reading which caused some hilarity this end. The phrase used recently by Odette Nilès to describe her conversations with Guy Môquet 66 years ago through the wire separating men from women at the Chateaubriand camp was "il m'a demandé de faire un patin" Far from having anything to do with roller-skating, this was the common term for giving someone what we anglo-saxons call a French kiss. Larousse, always good on technicalities, says that to qualify as a patin "the tongue has to be in the mouth" (where else would it be? They presumably mean of the other person). Alain Rey says more simply that it is a "deep kiss". As hommage to the late Deborah Kerr, Americans of a certain vintage might prefer to call it a "From-Here-to-Eternity" moment. Certainly that is what followed for the unfortunate Guy Môquet. Either way, not quite so innocent as roller-skating, and usually much more fun.

Unknown said...

Oh, how embarrassing!! In my defense, I can only say that it was 4 in the morning.

Anonymous said...

With due respect, the reading of the letter seems to me inoffensive. I assume you are not saying merely that the reading contravenes current educational theories, so that it is offensive in the sense of offending some people.


Unknown said...

One has to be awfully carefully about expressing oneself in public. I begin to understand why politicians watch their tongues. To be sure, I don't find Môquet's letter "offensive," and as I think my post made clear, I think that teachers are free to make use of the government's offensive usurpation of the letter for their own pedagogical purposes. As for "current educational theories," if you mean the teaching of critical thought rather than the inculcation of patriotic sentiment, then, yes, I prefer current educational theories.