Saturday, June 30, 2007

Gay Pride and Doctored Imagery

There was a big gay pride rally in Paris today. One purpose of the march was to put pressure on the new government to extend marriage and adoption rights to gays, but few UMP dignitaries attended. For the Socialists, Bertrand Delanoë was there, as were Jack Lang and Anne Hidalgo, and the Communist senator Nicole Borvo and LCR's Alain Krivine. But MoDem didn't send anybody, and UMP conseiller régional Jean-Luc Romero attended only in an "unofficial" capacity.

A short while ago, Prime Minister Fillon made a campaign stop in the Nord, during which he was photgraphed with UMP deputy Christian Vanneste, who enjoys the distinction of being the first person in France to be sentenced under the law of 30 December 2004, which makes it a criminal offense to discriminate against homosexuals or make homophobic statements. This law was passed by the UMP majority. A photo of the prime minister in the company of Vanneste was actually posted on the prime minister's Web site, but when it drew protests, the photo was edited to remove the homophobic deputy from the scene. Allegations of "Soviet-style" rewriting of history were then raised.

The picture at the upper left is from the Act-Up Paris Web site. Click to enlarge for a clearer image of the state of play in this part of the political arena. The image speaks volumes. Nevertheless, Le Figaro reports that a good dialogue took place last week between the President's chief of staff, Emmanuelle Mignon, and representatives of Inter-LGBT, the gay-lesbian-bi association. Although Sarkozy opposes marriage and adoption rights, he has proposed granting a status of stepfather or stepmother to the partner of a parent in a same-sex couple, and ILGBT, while critical of the proposal for not going far enough, recognizes that it does offer the prospect of rapid progress.

Rocard Hospitalized

Michel Rocard has been hospitalized in India. He is reported to be in stable condition.* Today is not the time for a lengthy essay on Rocard, but maybe a reader or two would like to reflect on where the left might be today if it had followed Rocard instead of Mitterrand in 1978 or Delors instead of Jospin in 1995. Or on why these turns were not taken.

* LATER: He has been operated on for a cerebral hemorrhage and is "not out of danger," according to a doctor.
NEXT DAY: "Il a réclamé des mangues et entamé la lecture d'un bouquin de Jacques Attali: l'ancien Premier Ministre Michel Rocard semble bien se remettre de son hémorragie cérébrale de samedi." (Perhaps his judgment was affected by the stroke: if I survived a near-death experience, I might ask for a mango, but I would not pick up a book by Jacques Attali.)

A Period of Adjustment

One finds in the French press an emerging line of criticism of Sarkozy's presidency. This Libé article is a good example. "Has anyone told Nicolas Sarkozy that he's been elected President of the Republic?" is Alice Géraud's lead. It seems that Ms. Géraud is disconcerted by the Sarkozyan style, which she finds too informal, relaxed, accessible, and therefore "unpresidential." The President continues to behave as though he were on the campaign trail, she writes, "seeking to persuade each of his interlocutors that his projects are well thought out and making a great show of a relaxed and deliberately seductive style."

Of course it was a commonplace in presidencies past to remark on the ease with which republican equality could be buried beneath the trappings of regalian splendor. Leading historians such as Jacques Revel in Lieux de mémoire and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in Saint-Simon et la cour de Louis XIV riffed on the all-too-evident parallels. It was even said that the French preferred the exaltation of monarchy and the grand style to the pettiness of political parties and the drabness of la vie quotidienne. De Gaulle's "je me suis toujours fait une certaine idée de la France" was thought to be a modern echo of Louis XIV's apocryphal "l'Etat, c'est moi." So it is not surprising to find Géraud commenting on the plainness of the décor at the construction site where Sarkozy spoke yesterday. The plainness is real, she implies, but the choice is contrived to reinforce the presidential desire to make himself out a man of the people. "I speak simply," Sarkozy says, but reportorial irony turns the simplicity into an artifice.

Similarly, countless articles have arraigned Sarko for his omnipresence. This, too, is said to be unpresidential. The President, the critics imply, is supposed to be like the Jansenists' Dieu caché, hidden so as to absolve himself of responsibility for this world and its inevitable sordid taint. "Where is Fillon?" one paper asked the other day. "Is there anything left for him to do?" Higher education minister Valérie Pécresse was asked if she didn't feel diminished by Sarkozy's intervention in her negotiations with university presidents and student union leaders. Shouldn't such matters be left to mortals while the President communes on Olympus?

It's a pity that these journalists appear not to be readers of Proust. If they were, they would know that the royal hauteur that they have come to take as the mark of presidential authenticity was a late development, a quite inauthentic ruse of the Sun King in his post-Fronde humbling of the aristocracy. Proust's Baron de Charlus, that relic of the old aristocracy, was always at his most natural with "his" peasants (not to mention his chauffeurs, but that's another story). Charlus reserved his hauteur for those he imagined might have the impudence to address him as citoyen.

The critique of Sarkozy's stage-managed simplicity and camera-hogging ubiquity misses the point. He isn't humbling the presidency or exposing it to blame for failure; he's rather positioning himself as the people's mediator, the indispensable intercessor. And this is the position in which monarchy always succeeds best. When it transforms itself into autocracy, failure looms. As the tertium quid, it frees itself to maneuver. Mitterrand was a sham monarch, almost a figure of comic opera; Sarkozy, lacking Mitterrand's historical cultivation, nevertheless has the true monarchical instinct. He knows how to make himself indispensable, not by humbling all around him but by raising them up, if only for the moment in which they feel his invigorating touch, the touch of le roi thaumaturge (if you don't know the reference, see under Marc Bloch).

A Little Background

sushi105 wrote:

PS some of us would love to comment more but now that you're back from greece you're putting up SO MANY posts it is hard to keep up.

Yeah, I feel your pain. Sometimes I do get wound up, and then, as Tony Blair noted in his comments on the media, once you insert yourself into the news cycle, a relentless rhythm takes hold. It has been a bit of a culture shock for me too to be wrested from my quiet study and thrust into the blogosphere. Since today is Saturday, I'll try to restrain myself, but who knows what news might break?

Being in the blogosphere is sometimes amusing. For example, this morning I received from the "Political Science Weblog" advance notice of the publication of a paper by my friend and colleague Peter Hall--a paper I had commented on long ago. It's a really excellent piece that will give younger readers an idea of some of the intellectual distance traveled by your elders, who came of age in the '60s and learned at the feet of scholars, many of them European, who came of age in the '30s. Henry at the Poli Sci Weblog evokes all of this. History and political science, he writes (paraphrasing and quoting Peter Hall),

may be swallowed up by an emerging intellectual hegemony that privileges a combination of economics and genetic science. More generally, there is a feeling of dispiritedness among liberals and leftists in the university - “the formative context for young scholars today is not the collapse of Weimar or the politics of the 1960s but the experience of life under neo-liberalism and globalization.” Radicalism has shifted towards cultural studies, but has been shorn of any tools for systematic investigation of social problems and identification of solutions as a result.”

This sense of a lost world of engagé scholarship is, I think, one of the anxieties that motivates my blogging activity. So if you want to know more about where I'm coming from, read Peter Hall's paper, which can be found here.