Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Flat of His Saber

The cutting remark is more valued in French politics than in American. American politicians reserve their stilettos for use in private. They lack the French fondness for verbal fencing with unblunted swords. Sarkozy, when not reading the lofty lines Guaino has penned for him, often falls to slashing, not with the tip of an épée but with the flat of his saber. He came down hard on "Laurent Joffrin de Libération," who, it must be said, led with his chin (a good summary of the entire news conference, including the questions, provocative and otherwise, can be found here). Joffrin asked if Sarkozy's "personalization" of presidential power had not made him an "elective monarch." Sarko responded by pretending to take Joffrin's self-identification as "Joffrin de Libération" as a sort of aristocratic pretension, as though he were falsely claiming a noble particule: "Vous étiez Monsieur Joffrin avant d'être Monsieur Joffrin de Libération." Score one for Sarko. Then he reminded Joffrin that he had been elected and was not Jacques Chirac's illegitimate son (forgetting, perhaps, that monarchs sometimes are elected, that monarchy need not be hereditary, but still garnering half a point for the pointed evocation of his troubled relationship with his predecessor). Finally, he riffed on the often authoritarian ways of his predecessors and on the semi-regal conception of the presidency embodied in the constitution of the 5th Republic. The tone throughout was derisive, even bullying, and by the end one almost felt sympathy for Joffrin de Libération. Almost--but his provocation was so sophomoric and pointless, such a smirking waste of an opportunity to probe in public the president's thinking, that it was hard to commiserate. "M'sieur Joffrin est en pleine forme," quipped Sarkozy, and unfortunately it was true: this paltry provocation seems to be the best the opposition press can muster. It's no wonder Sarkozy has been asking for journalists avec du répondant. He suggests that he wouldn't be tempted to trespass into nastiness if the questions posed to him were less petty. There is reason to doubt this. He seems to revel in the putdown. But one would like to see what the Little Knight could do in a joust in which his opponent was also mounted and armed with a lance.

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