Saturday, October 20, 2007

Où sont les adhérents d'antan?

Much was made of the fact that the Socialist Party had thrown open its doors to bring new and younger voters into the process of choosing its presidential candidate. For 20 euros, anyone could join and vote in the internal primary, with no obligation to attend meetings or distribute tracts. Without these "20-euro members," the choice of candidate might have been different. But now that the renewal of the party failed to produce a victory, many of these new members seem to have disappeared. Estimates differ, and the data seem extremely dubious, but Rue89 reports that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the 20-euro contingent has disappeared. Yet another unhappy sign for the PS.

Strike Politics

Sous le pavé, la plage: this May '68 slogan springs to mind as I read about the negotiations now under way between the SNCF and the CFDT and the autonomous FGAAC representing agents de conduite about ending the strike against the SNCF. It was inevitable that the government would seek to divide and conquer, and it was clear before the strikes that some unions were prepared to get what they could out of the situation, accepting the reform of the special retirement regimes, at least in the long run, as a fait accompli. One has only to glance at the demands of the FGAAC to see that there are many areas in which compensation can be sought for the retirement concessions: wages, the volume of new hires, and detailed rules for computing retirement benefits, for example.

The street theater of a French strike is often fun, a form of historical pageantry. But these days, the real action is almost always elsewhere. It's not for nothing that the term "Grenelle" has become ubiquitous to describe the discussions around a table that settle the outlines of future policy in some important domain of governance. Because it was after May '68 left the streets and moved indoors on the rue de Grenelle (Hôtel du Châtelet, pictured above) that the real business was transacted. François Chérèque of the CFDT didn't even bother to take to the streets this time. He was already at the negotiating table.

Sollers on Mitterrand

Philippe Sollers, l'ancien enfant terrible of French letters, now in his 70s, narrates his second meeting with Mitterrand in his new memoirs. Mitterrand had read his Femmes, "much of which is set in Venice in an atmosphere of revived Casanovism." One is meant to understand the source of the book's appeal to Mitterrand. "The president looked pleased. He pounced on me, saying, 'So you're the terrifying M. Sollers!', sat me down on a couch, took my left arm, and said straight out, 'I hope you're taking care of your health.' It took me a second to understand that he thought a true libertine risked his life nowadays with AIDS. Was he about to offer me a condom? No, he told me how much he loved Venice and talked about his discovery of Casanova."

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.