Thursday, August 7, 2008

Conversations

We are taught to be wary of anecdotal evidence, yet we often live by it. What is dangerous, it has been said, is not what we don't know but what we think we know that isn't true. In France I talked to many people from different walks of life: professors, engineers, schoolteachers, farmers, waiters, hoteliers, chance acquaintances in a train or café. I heard many different stories, often contradictory. On the whole I found little evidence of obsession with Sarkozy. Though some observers of France, including some readers of this blog, had told me that the French could talk of nothing else, this wasn't the case with my interlocutors. Most were neither passionately for nor passionately against him. Some found him faintly ridiculous. Others, willing initially to give him the benefit of the doubt, expressed disappointment that so little appeared to have changed: whether they voted for him or not, they had hoped that he would shake things up. Underlying this disappointment was what one might take to be a positive sign: a dawning appreciation that even a president who claimed all powers and enjoyed an insuperable majority could not make things happen, so that real change would have to come from somewhere other than the top.

People everywhere, not just in France, are willing to believe many things that cannot possibly be proved. Sometimes these stories are pernicious, as when they pertain to the alleged behavior of minority groups, reported third-hand but taken as gospel. Sometimes they are merely amusing. Often they involve gossip about public figures. Did you know, for instance, the story of how Sarko wound up on Bolloré's yacht immediately after his election? I have it from someone who purports to know someone who purports to know someone who knows somebody else who allegedly witnessed the scene at Fouquet's on the night of the election, when Sarko announced to Cécilia that he wasn't going to a monastery after all but rather to the villa of his buddy Christian Clavier, the actor. Now, my informant claimed to know from her informant, etc. etc., that at this point Cécilia threw a fit, because it was at Clavier's, supposedly, that Sarko had initiated another affair ... So Bolloré offered up his yacht to put an end to the first couple's spat.

Well, you know, it could have happened like that. It's one of those stories too good to go untold, even if it happens to be untrue. Such are the hazards of public life. Everyone is willing to speculate about the reasons for your behavior, and may the best story win. At a certain point the boundary between fact and fiction dissolves as fully as the boundary between liquid and gas in the phase known as critical opalescence. In the end, all that remains is a blur, a misty glow that reveals more about the speaker's state of mind more than about the person who is the story's object. I would like to know whether some of the things I was told are true or not, but the nature of Sarkozy's relationship to Christian Clavier or his ex-wife is not one of them.

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