Thursday, July 26, 2007

La Débâcle

Anyone who has followed the debacle that is this year's Tour de France will probably be wondering if anything else can possibly go wrong. Of course all this might seem remote from politics--but not if you've read Georges Vigarello's wonderful essay on the origins of the Tour in Les Lieux de mémoire (it's in the second volume of the English version, Realms of Memory, which I translated a decade ago). Vigarello points out that the Tour was a direct product of the revanchist nationalism that gripped the French between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. The route was designed to trace the outline of the Hexagon, with its truncated northeastern vertex thus recalled to the national imagination. In an era before television and mass tourism, moreover, the vivid descriptions of the various Tour venues and étapes by sporting journalists with the pens of lyrical nature poets helped to arouse national sentiment and patriotic ardor in a mass readership that on the whole had little knowledge of the country beyond the home quartier or terroir. Thus the association that the title of this post would create between the current disaster and La Débâcle, the title of Zola's novel about the 1871 defeat, is not misplaced. There is a direct connection.

Neither was it fortuitous that Sarkozy, a president who is open about his wish to restore France's national self-consciousness, should have sought to associate himself with the Tour, to the point even of appearing in one of the team cars in the early stages, poking his head through the roof, megaphone in hand, to exhort the riders and appeal over their heads to the viewing nation about the wonders of sport, energy, endurance, and speed, all quintessential Sarkozyan values. He timed his entrance well. The disasters had not yet begun to accumulate. Now the Tour has dropped from the presidential rhetoric, and cleaning up the mess is left to sports minister Roselyne Bachelot.

Front National

For a while now, Le Monde has been running a series entitled "Rétrocontroverses," in which contributors look back on debates of past years. Today's concerns the emergence of the Front National as a national political force with its victory in Dreux in 1983, which is also the subject of Françoise Gaspard's book Une petite ville en France.

Yves-Marc Ajchenbaum quotes this interesting observation from the late René Rémond in 1985: those "who think they recognize the abhorred features of fascism in the Front National are making the same mistake they made in treating all the 'leagues' [of the far right] as if they were indistinguishable. Such an error of interpretation is not without political consequences; it leads to errors of strategy." And Ajchenbaum adds: "Doesn't the course of French politics over the past 23 years prove him right?"

I'd like to hear readers' thoughts about this. Is Ajchenbaum suggesting that the right strategy for defeating the Front National has at last been found--by Sarkozy? That the refusal to deal with the Front and the choice to rule its leader, and by extension his followers, beyond the pale of legitimate national debate--which was Chirac's strategy--was historically a mistake? That it would have been better to co-opt the Front's issues, pick off its rank-and-file supporters and mid-level leaders, and, in short, marginalize it by selective engagement rather than rejection en bloc? If this is what he is saying, do you agree with him?

Can't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

I've often made the point that Sarkozy is resolutely future-oriented. He does not want memory to shape the future or to limit his facility to conceive a future unconstrained by the past. Critics have noted how this truncates his representations of France. But he is nothing if not consistent. In Libya, Kadhafi tried to impose his own version of historical memory by insisting that Sarko visit the ruins of his palace, bombarded by the Americans in 1986. This was his way of emphasizing the selectivity of the memory game: you Europeans want us to remember Lockerbie (1989); we Libyans want you to remember the assassination attempt (1986). Sarkozy was able to sidestep this ploy by writing the following in the guest book: "I'm glad to be in your country to talk about the future."

The other day Christine Lagarde told the French that they had done enough thinking, now it was time to roll up their sleeves and get to work. For this she was vilified by those perennial quotables, BHL and Alain Finkielkraut. Today Sarko tells Kadhafi that he's done enough remembering, now it's time to get to work. It would be obtuse to conclude from Lagarde's statement that she is contemptuous of thinking, and, similarly, it would be obtuse to conclude from Sarkozy's that he attaches no importance to memory. But she has her priorities, and he has his. Neither deserves to be condemned by those whose priorities differ.

P.S. Also on the subject of memory: Serge Klarsfeld states his belief that Sarkozy stands in "continuity" with 1995 Chirac's apology for Vichy.

Petites Phrases

Those who enjoy the petites phrases that provide much of the flavor, and at times a good deal of the unsavoriness, of French politics will enjoy this new blog.

For a good example of the particularly unsavory, there's this from Pierre Lellouche:

“On ne peut pas cacher qu’il y a à l’UMP pas mal de décus. Il y en a même qui ont mal au cul. Sarko devrait nommer un ministre de la vaseline, à condition de le choisir dans la majorité”.

I don't think a translation is required.

Economic Patriotism 2

"National champions" have long been an important feature of French "economic patriotism," a subject I broached yesterday. One of the most successful of French national champions is Areva, the world's leading nuclear energy company, which is 90-percent state-owned. Areva is about to sign an "historic" contract with China to sell two European Pressurized Reactors at $3 billion each. In addition, President Sarkozy, meeting yesterday in Libya with Col. Kadhafi, signed a tentative agreement for cooperation on civilian nuclear power, a deal from which Areva is likely to profit (click on this link for a smashing picture of the colonel clad in an eclectic costume that aspires to combine native traditions with Tom Wolfe and John Travolta). The French president's haste to seal the deal as France's top nuclear VRP might appear to be somewhat unseemly, with the Bulgarian nurses still recounting their torture in Libyan prisons, but to the liberator belong the spoils.

Areva's boss is Anne Lauvergeon, the eighth most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes, and the most powerful woman in France. She is a Socialist, promoted through the ranks by Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg and François Mitterrand. Sarkozy approached her for the position of minister of industry--yet another socialiste d'ouverture--but she declined. Areva is expanding worldwide, including in the US, where it signed a deal with Constellation of Baltimore in 2005. One of the reasons for the delay in the GDF-Suez merger that I mentioned yesterday--the feat of "economic patriotism" engineered by Villepin to prevent a takeover of another French national champion, GDF, by the Italian firm Enel--is that the Sarkozy government may decide to privatize Areva and make it the linchpin of a French energy giant that would include a privatized GDF. An impediment to this arrangement is Sarko's promise as interior minister not to privatize GDF. A further complication is the "Grenelle of the environment," the talks the government is conducting with various environmental groups and others. Green groups are skeptical of nuclear energy and will want assurances about government plans in this regard, but Sarkozy, who touts nuclear as "green energy" and "the energy of the future," and who has been talking with Gordon Brown about a lower VAT for "green commodities," might have his own ideas about promoting the nuclear alternative.

Of course the temptation to privatize Areva will be strong, since the money it would bring to the treasury would go a long way toward financing Sarko's tax reforms. On the other hand, it is sure to provoke strong resistance.

P.S. If you live in the US, you've probably enjoyed Areva's animated TV commercial, which makes nuclear power look like as much fun as a day at the beach. It was created by the celebrated design firm H5 in Paris, which also does a lot of work for the entertianment and luxury goods industries. Prominent friends of Sarkozy have interests that span these same areas: communications, luxury goods, energy. The new economy creates some unusual synergies, and the inclusion of politics and the state in the mix is obviously of some interest.

LATE ADDENDUM: For the strong negative German reaction, see here.