Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Siné Affair

Last month, Siné, a 79-year-old cartoonist employed by Charlie Hebdo, was fired for writing that Jean Sarkozy, the president's son, “wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, a Jew and heiress of the founders of Darty. He will go far in this life, the little one!” Actually, he was not fired until Claude Askolovitch of Le Nouvel Observateur went on RTL and suggested that the remark was anti-Semitic. Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, then sacked him, dividing the chattering classes of the Parisian Left in a clash that has now défrayé la chronique for weeks and even been noticed by The New York Times.

I have not written about this affair because it seemed so trivial, and all too familiar as an example of how enormous quantities of ink can be spilled over very little. Yet its persistence and virulence suggest something else. Oddly enough, since it was Askolovitch of Le Nouvel Obs who initiated the affair, the magazine's Web site has become something of a rallying point for pro-Siné forces, publishing a cartoon a day in his support (nearly all are as unfunny as today's). There have been letters and petitions on both sides, an endless string of op-eds, and of course the inevitable pronunciamento from BHL (who has no doubt that Siné is a scoundrel). For instance, here is a piece attacking the editor Val, here is another, and here is yet another indictment of Siné.

What accounts for this orgy of vitriol and vituperation, irony and insinuation? Certainly not Siné's remark about Jean Sarkozy--merely one more nasty inuendo in a long career of similar sallies in every direction, this being among the milder. The underlying issue is rather the status of "the Jew" in French public discourse, particularly on the Left (and this is a quarrel that has roiled the Parisian Left exclusively). The very amorphous nature of the discussion of the Siné affair suggests a compulsive need to discuss "difference," of which, alas, "the Jew" remains the symbol. The republican ideal of absolute assimilation (within the boundaries of public space) leaves no room for this discussion, but the need for it is all the more acute because of the glaring persistence of obvious differences (ethnic, racial, religious) in everyday life. What are the limits of assimilation? What differences can a state tolerate without risk to its integrity? These are the questions that France would like to resolve. The obsessive discussion of Siné is merely a symptom of this need, which France cannot get out of its mind.

Make no mistake: I do not think that the United States, with its very different attitude toward assimilation, has definitively resolved these issues. The equally obsessive debate last year about the Mearsheimer-Walt paper on the influence of "the Israel lobby" is a case in point. But there at least the argument struck closer to what I think is the heart of the matter than does the squabble about Siné. Incidentally, for comparison, one might want to compare Siné's offense with that of Ben Stiller (himself Jewish) as described in this Times film review:

What’s most notable about the film’s use of blackface is how much softer it is compared with the rather more vulgar and far less loving exploitation of what you might call Jewface. Hands down the most noxious character in “Tropic Thunder” is Les Grossman, the producer of the movie-within-a-movie, who’s played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise under a thick scum of makeup and latex. Heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish, the character is murderous, repellent and fascinating, a grotesque from his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest.


kirkmc said...

Could it also be that this whole thing has been blown out of proportion because there's nothing else going on in France? The unions are on vacation, the students are sunning themselves, Sarkozy has finally reached stasis and journalists don't have much more to say about him, so all this hot air is, indeed, filler?


SNi said...

I have to say I had to shake my head over this one. I'm always bemused by the mixture of the "low brow" humor deployed right along with "high" philosophical musings, liberally sprinkled with literary allusions. Very French!

Unknown said...

Thanks, sni.
Kirk, the news vacuum may have something to do with it, but eruptions of this sort are a French specialty. The practice of sniping back and forth within the pages of one newspaper or from paper to paper was a French specialty long before it became a characteristic of the blogosphere. Sometimes the polemics are interesting. Sometimes they are even world-historical, as when Camus and Mauriac battled over the postwar purge. But the Siné affair is a bathetic re-enactment.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested by the attempt to pick out & unveil what is really being debated - ie, the compulsive need to discuss difference, - if not "l'autre"? - on the Left among Leftists & for Leftists. Naming things correctly is key.
Perhaps its debatable that the current protagonists are really representative - be that as it may, I think its less a question of their "thought" on the Jewish question than the informal limits of their sensibility(ies) pertaining to Jewish identity in the French republic, anti-Semitism and finally, the Israeli oppression, as many would say, of Palestinians.
But what are the "ressorts profonds", the deep underlying reasons, to explain the quickness with which the invective & vitriol grew if not to say the obsessive compuliveness among the protagonists? Makes me think that that "différence" and/or Jewish question issue was heavy on the chest of many a person and this minor spark set alight dry wood waitin' to be burnt.
Is it wrong to assume that the further one goes to the Left on the political spectrum - towards the LCR/New Anticapitalist Party the more likely or more numerous are the pro-Siné protagonists? And that the more centrist-DSK-like Socialists are likely to be..., well, not pro-Siné (not necessarily anti-Siné).

Chris P.

Unknown said...

There does seem to be considerable pro-Siné sentiment in the LCR, but Le Monde published a piece by an ex-LCR who insisted that the party had no business supporting him.

Anonymous said...

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