Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sarko: La Forme

In the previous post, I wrote about the substance of Sarkozy's televised interview tonight. But the substance, as is often the case, was intimately intertwined with the form. Sarkozy a une certaine idée de la présidence, and he is at pains to project himself into it. But he also has une certaine idée de lui-même, as a man who will brook no criticism from anyone, who makes standing his ground a point of honor, and who appears not to recognize that the bully pulpit of the presidency can make him seem like a bully tout court when he uses it to silence interlocutors who are not at liberty to take as aggressive a tone with him as he takes with them.

First, the setting. It was an odd arrangement: a triangular get-up suitable for a TV studio plunked down in the middle of a palatial room of gilded columns, coruscating chandeliers, and plush carpeting. Off to one side sat a select but silent audience, like bishops attending a mass, gathered beyond the rood screen in their narrow pews while a cardinal officiated at the high altar. Or perhaps it was a lit de justice, with the president in a swivel-chair throne, two premiers présidents du Parlement de Paris serving as intermediaries, and three journalists called one by one as supplicants before the monarch to plead their cases and hear the royal decrees for or against their constituents.

In the background, visible through the windows, were the grounds of the Élysée, or was it a painting of the grounds by Monet, all in blues and greens and purples, an exquisitely restricted palette that communicated not nature but art, taste, and infinite refinement? Evening slowly enveloped the canvas, muting the colors and artfully blurring the details.

The camera movement, discreet and well-calculated, showed just enough of the room and audience to establish the desired subtext: grandeur, tradition, venerability, du sérieux. The president wore a dark suit and dazzlingly white shirt (not the best choice for television) but as usual left his tie just a tad too loose and slightly skewed to one side, conveying an impression of personal fecklessness at odds with the professionally set scene. He wore a patriotic lapel pin (copied from Bush, perhaps?--OK, it was Comm. de la LdH, but just think if he'd worn an American flag, what a sensation!) and thus would have escaped the treatment that Obama received at the hands of Stephanopoulos and Gibson. Oddly, Sarko kept tugging at the wings of his jacket, as though afraid of exposing too much belly, or perhaps a director was whispering to him through an earpiece that the excess white was a problem for the cameraman.

The president began in a philosophical mood, hoping to seem imperturbable and therefore presidential despite the accusations of failure, despite the best efforts of the newsmen to give him the répondant he had found lacking in his previous encounter with the press. But soon enough the philosopher gave way to the pugilist. Sarko is more comfortable in the latter role. He has developed a whole series of gestures and tics of language to make the point that he is not a man to be trifled with. There is the habit of bringing thumb and index finger together in a downbeat motion to enumerate a series of points, beat after beat. There is the device of insisting that no choice but his makes the slightest sense by turning any attempt to question his decisions back on the questioner: "Qu'est-ce que vous voulez que je fasse? Vous voulez que la France ne fasse rien?" Note the identification of self with France. Observe the slicing of the air with the lower edge of an open palm. Watch the opening of the arms with palms up, as if to say, "Have I not already thought of everything?"

But above all there is the device of addressing each interlocutor by name, in order to reduce the question to an expression of personal animus rather than a matter on the mind of the nation, posed abstractly in the name of all, of Public Opinion, and therefore every bit as legitimate as the president who is himself nothing more than an emanation of the same public as the journalist. Thus we hear repeatedly locutions of the following form: Je vais vous dire pourquoi, M. Pujadas. Je regarde votre émission, M. Calvi, je vous vois tempêter quand la loi est tournée ... Attendez, M. Poivre-d'Arvor, je vous dirai le fond de ma pensée, mais il faudrait quand même un peu de patience. And then there is the habit, mentioned in the previous post, of avoiding debate about the logic of a policy by shifting the ground from generalities to examples: Je vais vous donner un exemple, M. Calvi. ... Autre exemple ... Et puis cet autre exemple ... Thus the viewer is treated to an impressive recital of memorized facts and figures, to a rich reportoire of specifics and details, but never to the rationale of a reform, to the intricate way in which one policy is supposed to intertwine with all the others, since we have already been admonished that toutes les réformes se tiennent. Sarko, with thirty years of experience of browbeating interviewers and interlocutors, is a past master at this game. But each time he plays it, a little of the presidential sheen erodes, and in the mind of the viewer he slips back into the role of the brash partisan attack dog known to all.

No comments: