Thursday, December 20, 2007


Sarkozy, named honorary canon of Saint John Lateran by the pope, visited the Vatican today. Although the Swiss Guards were apparently hoping for a glimpse of Carla Bruni, Sarkozy instead invited the humorist Jean-Marie Bigard, much to the consternation of two observers of the French president, Robert Solé and Bernard Girard. Both see in this gesture further proof, if proof were needed, of the president's "vulgarity." Rolex watches, yachts, speedboats, supermodels, dime-store novelists (see Yasmina Reza's account of the meeting with Marc Lévy), Fouquet's. I would add the staged reading of Camus's Noces in Tipaza, while Sarko stared pensively at the sea in a shocking display of aesthetic obtuseness.

I have no intention of disputing the characterization of the president's tastes as "vulgar." Indeed, I think his vulgarity is one of the secrets of his success. Time magazine's recent piece on the "death of French culture" naturally provoked a good deal of comment in France, but of course this putative death is a regularly recurring event. The mistake, common to outsiders, is to suppose that the high culture of any country is its culture tout court. This is never true, but France had been more successful than many other countries in accrediting among foreigners, and especially Americans, the idea that its high culture simply was its culture. Of course no insider would make this mistake, and a few hours watching French television would be enough to convince one otherwise, but the Élysée is not Michel Drucker's sofa or Laurent Ruquier's platform. A certain decorum was expected of presidents, and if Jacques Chirac, representative of the Corrèze, was comfortable patting the behinds of cows, he also collected Japanese art, and François Mitterrand sought refuge from the tumult of Socialist meetings with the novels of Ernst Jünger.

Sarkozy is a different breed of president. His vulgarity is authentic, and people who share his tastes sense this and are delighted by it. Those who don't share his tastes are repelled by them, but they shouldn't on that account dismiss his political instincts. It is one of the challenges of democracy that people of different tastes must temper their judgments. There is a tendency among cultivated elites to underestimate the politically gifted vulgarian. The classic case is Andrew Jackson, a president whose election horrified his self-styled betters but whose political shrewdness remade American politics. It is too early to say whether Sarkozy's presidency will mark a similar watershed in French politics, but it is not out of the question. And if it does, his predilection for flashy watches and flashier women will not have been the least of it.


Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, Art. My question is: do you think Sarkozy comes up with all these mises-en-scene himself, or does he have a handler/stylist whispering in his ear?

Unknown said...

Hi, Polly
My guess--and it's no more than that--is that he comes up with these things himself. Although political consultants and advertising impresarios have begun to make a mark in France, they're usually not shy about advertising themselves along with their principal, and I'm not aware of any big name associated with Sarko. Perhaps someone else knows more than I do. In any case, we know that he often rolled up his sleeves and participated with Guaino in the writing of his own speeches. He's also said that he considers "communication" an essential aspect of politics and has faulted his predecessor and other pols for their ineptness. And fundamentally I don't think he trusts anyone else enough to handle his image.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. He does handle his image.

I enjoyed reading your article.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog and I find it very interesting: I'm fed up with the obsession of french media to just gossip about the people side of politics. Thx for your "Lafayette, nous voilà" ;-)