Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sarkozy, Peacemaker

Nicolas Sarkozy has thus far acquitted himself honorably in the Russia-Georgia fracas. There has been little complaint about his hyperpresidential upstaging of Bernard Kouchner. Apparently this situation was deemed grave enough to warrant the president's personal intervention, even if it put him hard on the heels of his foreign minister. To be sure, the Russians had no doubt decided to halt their onslaught for the time being even before Sarkozy arrived, and his presence was surely not the decisive factor. Nor is it clear that he achieved any modification of their terms for a cease-fire, which included continued Russian occupation of South Ossetia as an "international peacekeeping force," certainly the most remarkable epithet ever attached to a belligerent in an affair of this kind.

But in the long run Sarkozy may indeed have achieved something of importance, though not in regard to the rapport des forces between Russia and Georgia, which is what it is and will remain so despite the wishful thinking that transformed Georgia into a beachhead of democracy in the Caucasus. For one thing, he engaged in his shuttle diplomacy as the representative of Europe as well as France. So Europe now has a foreign policy of sorts, even if it still has no foreign minister, and when Henry Kissinger wants to call Europe, he can dial the Elysée (for the next few months, at any rate). For another, and more important, Sarkozy further established his independence from the United States. Indeed, he harked back in certain ways to the halcyon days of Gaullism, for the General was never one to underestimate the potency of Russian nationalism or the reality of Russian anxieties about its borders. Nor was he likely to be beguiled by the idealism of a forty-year-old Georgian lawyer so Americanized in his ways that he wears a flag on his lapel as a token of his patriotism.

Realpolitik is not always a pretty thing, but in foreign policy Wilsonian idealism is a sham unless backed by a readiness for sacrifice that even Wilson was not able to extract from his war-weary nation. I have consistently said that Sarkozy's primary foreign policy concern is securing Europe's supply of energy. Russia looms large in his strategy. If he joins NATO, it will not be to associate France with efforts to poke thorns in the Russian underbelly. He will continue to oppose NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, as he should. Democracy can be encouraged in those countries without making them part of a western military shield whose mission ought not to be to antagonize Russia, however critical one may be of Russia's internal evolution. Antagonism will only exacerbate the situation. Constructive engagement at least holds out the hope of modifying it.

For Judah Grunstein's take on the war, see here.

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.