Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Momentous Question of the Day

L'Express writes "top model" in one article, "top modèle" in another. Both are Reuters dispatches. Which shall it be? Of course if the Franglais actually followed its English model, it would be supermodel. Mais top, c'est super, même si un mannequin n'est pas un modèle.

The Polysemic Presidency

Greg Brown offers the following interesting comment to an earlier post:

I think the "racines chrétiennes de l'Europe" has been a theme that, during and since the campaign, has been both central to his public discourse and almost entirely ignored in the American press' discussion of Sarkozy.

I share your reaction and encourage you to pursue this further since some of the same who are been among the most avid promoters of Sarkozy as representing the "new France" with a new orientation towards the world, especially towards the US and towards the middle east, have lauded Sarkozy in part because he promised to reject the supposed "nouvelle judéophobie" that was supposedly a result of "left-wing intellectuals" (and more specifically the PS) tilting towards "anti-semitism" by not reacting strongly enough against the "Islamic menace" to the French tradition of laïcité.

This is an impeccable unpacking of one set of Sarkozyan religious references. The problem with interpreting Sarkozy as sign-maker is that he is such a prolific generator of symbols, and, if I may put it this way, he wears his symbolism so lightly, that it's hard to derive a univocal intention behind his polysemic presidency. What is one to make of the emphasis on "Christian roots" as a signal to those who feared the alleged "Islamic menace" to laïcité on the part of a Minister of the Interior and Religion who also pursued Chevènement's opening to the Muslim community, funding of Muslim projects, dialogue with Muslim leaders, etc? And if Sarkozy appealed to Alain Finkielkraut and the like with his defense of republicanism, Finkielkraut can hardly have been pleased with the evocation in Rome of France's special relationship to the Catholic Church or with the use of a phrase like racines chrétiennes, which obviously resonates with the Polish insistence that the European constitution include a reference to Europe as une civilisation chrétienne--a major stumbling block in the constitutional negotiations precisely because of the opposition of countries like France. Sarko no doubt preferred not to agitate the question of religious identity in European negotiations while perhaps sharing the Polish attitude that Turkey with its "racines musulmanes" would be an alien presence in Europe. Meanwhile, Finkielkraut has been critical of Sarkozy for his affronts to other republican traditions such as the quasi-sacred presidency, whose dignity Sarkozy is supposed to have compromised by his ubiquity (not to mention his jogging shorts, which caused Finkielkraut to groan--philosophically of course--on television).

Sarkozyan symbol-manipulation cannot be analyzed as if it were an element of rational and coherent enunciation of policy precisely because it operates at the level of the id. Sarko instinctively bobs and weaves with his signs, just as he instinctively bobs and weaves with his head as he speaks (his movements as a speaker have more in common with the movements of a boxer than with the gestures of an orator). It is hard to pin him down, because his symbolism is polysemic, and its analysis calls for Freudian cleverness. It seldom makes sense to confine attention to a single utterance. There is a complex corpus, to which new signs and gestures are added every day.

Today we shall be treated, no doubt, to images of the pharaoh and the goddess among the relics of a civilization without Christian roots, or Muslim roots either. Sarko's choice of America as a first vacation destination evoked abundant commentary, but his choice of Luxor as a second getaway is less easily interpreted.* Is it Tony Blair's presence that drew him, as George Bush's proximity to Wolfeboro was said to have drawn him there? Was it the prospect of a photo op among the antiquities and the opportunity to pay homage to an age of Middle Eastern hegemony sufficiently remote to be safe? Or was it simply the warm waters of the Nile as an appropriate and exotic backdrop to presumably steamy romance (if hand-holding may be taken as metonymy for the rest)?

Meanwhile, he flew to Egypt on a Falcon provided by the same Vincent Bolloré who provided the yacht for his post-election idyll. The language of humility that came so easily to the president's lips at Saint John Lateran (like you, he said to the priests, I am but a humble servant called to an immense and transcendent task) was no longer needed to convey a story-book romance that can be captured sufficiently for political purposes in a series of still images: the descent hand-in-hand from the private jet, the ascent hand-in-hand to the nuptial bedroom of the grand hotel, and the stroll hand-in-hand along the ancient river, all of course in the strictest privacy, ensured by thirty carloads of barbouzes and the entire Egyptian army, which is apparently incapable of repulsing a platoon of paparazzi armed only with long lenses.

For François Bayrou's response to Sarkozy's conception of religion and the state, see here.

*Le Monde treats it as a presidential ritual: Mitterrand spent five Christmases in Egypt.


Caroline Ford has an interesting review of a book by Marni Reva Kessler, Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet, which deals with the veiling and unveiling of women as an element in the construction of modernity in 19th-c. Paris. There is a chapter on the Muslim veil and the way it was perceived a century before it became the subject of contemporary controversy.