Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bluster of the Right

Here's another anecdote from Bruno Le Maire's book, Des hommes d'État. We're in early January of 2006. Le Maire, as Villepin's assistant, has just presented the plans for the CPE to Chirac. Chirac responds:

Ce qui m'inquiète dans votre truc, c'est la tuyauterie. Je peux vous l'assurer, pas un Français ne comprendra. ... Du haut de mon incompétence, et elle est incontestable dans ce domaine, je vous dis que vous faites ce que vous voulez, mais vous faites une connerie.

Vous faites ce que vous voulez, mais vous faites une connerie: this is the regime that those who criticize the hyperprésidence sarkozyenne presumably prefer, in which the president, elected by the universal suffrage of the French, concludes that his unelected prime minister is about to make the blunder of a lifetime but tells him to go right ahead and make a hash of things.

And that's not all. On reduction of the size of the bureaucracy, Chirac says, "ça aussi c'est une connerie." He continues:

C'est vraiment le genre de sujet sur lequel il faut faire, mais ne rien dire. Mais nous, à droite, nous sommes les champions pour faire comme, comment il s'appelle déjà? Avec Charlemagne? -- Roland? -- C'est ça, Roland, qui souffle tellement dans l'olifant qu'il crève.

Ah ... the lucidity of the fin de règne. Reading between the lines of Le Maire's account, which buries the essential beneath a profusion of exquisitely drawn detail, one gets the impression that Chirac's stroke detached him from his office and left him with only one wish, that someone other than Nicolas Sarkozy succeed him. Villepin being the only palatable and plausible alternative, Chirac decided to allow his prime minister to take whatever gamble he wished to wrest the prize from Sarkozy's grip. Villepin, believing that his only hope was an audacious coup, decided to bet everything on the CPE and lost.

I like the image of the Right blowing its own horn so hard that it blows itself to death. And I like the attribution of the image to Chirac, as well as his transfer of the chanson de Roland to the custody of Charlemagne--a Lemairian touch, perhaps, to portray the president as simultaneously clairvoyant and befuddled.

Suggested title for a recent history of the French Right: De l'olifant au tube de Bruni.

Kouchner on the Russia-Georgia War

Bernard Kouchner appeared last night on France2 to register French concern about the rapidly escalating war between Georgia and Russia. He was oddly belligerent himself, repeatedly cutting off his interviewer, chiding him for carelessly worded questions, and managing to look rather disheveled and nonplussed for a diplomat. To be sure, Kouchner is an unusual diplomat, and he did not achieve his position by a long apprenticeship in the art of saying nothing in portentous and pompous language.

France can be forgiven for having no settled policy in regard to this conflict. It was not alone in failing to anticipate the explosion. But it was a mistake for Kouchner to make the frantic effort to improvise so plain and to rap the knuckles of other European countries such as the Netherlands, which are equally reduced to improvisation. "Let's not go into the details" of who attacked whom, Kouchner loudly insisted. Indeed, this conflict has a long history. But it will also have long-term consequences involving Europe's energy supply, and dealing with Russia over energy has been a central focus of Sarkozy's maneuvering. And Sarkozy opposed Georgia's bid for NATO membership--a move that in retrospect appears prescient, for it would be awkward indeed for NATO now to be facing an invasion of a member state by Russia.

Will Sarkozy be able to unite the EU to take a common position on the war? No doubt everyone can deplore its existence, but what then? Pipelines passing through Georgia make the stakes vital for the EU, but ultimately the oil and gas are controlled by Russia. The conflict is extremely messy, so perhaps Kouchner's disarray was merely an accurate reflection of the consternation prevailing at the Quai d'Orsay.

Some Interesting Links

Forgive me for straying off topic, but there are several items on the Web today that may reward a moment of your attention even if they have little or nothing to do with French politics. The first is an article by Nina Khrushcheva, who writes about the link between the 2008 Olympic Games and the 1936 edition. The parallels are eerie: not only have the games been appropriated for purposes of national self-glorification; not only has the aestheticization of the political been carried to extremes by a talented filmmaker turned impresario of the spectacular; but also, and more surprisingly, Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler's architect, was employed by the Chinese to design the master plan for the 2008 Games. "Of course the sins of the father should never be visited on the son," Khrushcheva adds--and, as the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, she knows whereof she speaks. A fascinating piece.

The second item is a collection of photos from the Paris photo agency Roger-Viollet. The Roger-Viollet shop has always fascinated me, as you can see from the picture above, which I took through the shop's front window two weeks ago in Paris. It shows the ancient file folders in which the hundreds of thousands of photos in the R-V collection are classified, folders with titles of Borgesian incongruity that jump from "Accidents de Route" to "Allégories," for example. You can view a breathtaking sample of R-V photos here. For those who are in Paris, the shop is located behind the Institut, next to the statues of Voltaire and Montesquieu on the rue de Seine.

Finally, I was encouraged to write about Roger-Viollet by Polly Lyman's notes on another favorite Paris shop, Deyrolle, which recently suffered a fire. A friend told me that the neighbors have taken up a collection to help restore the Deyrolle collections.