Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Danny Asks a Good Question

Daniel Cohen-Bendit asks why more of Total's 14 billion euro profit is not taxed to finance the development of renewable energy sources. More generally, why is the stimulus plan not more focused on advancing the environmental agenda?

Car nous l'avons tant aimée, la Princesse

There will always be a France. Sarko doesn't like La Princesse de Clèves, so, hop, thousands of his concitoyens have suddenly discovered that they do, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie. There is a marathon reading of Mme de La Fayette's ouvrage at the gates of the Panthéon.

My old haunts--not the Panthéon but the neighborhood. In 1978 I was an habitué of the Café Soufflot, just down the street, and lived at 214, rue St. Jacques, just around the corner. I can't say that I was struck at the time by a passion for 17th-c. literature--none that was evident in the streets, at any rate, or in the bookstalls, where one was more likely to find a beat-up copy of L'Ecume des jours with its cover torn off, or the latest Barthes in paperback.

But with characteristic genius for illuminating forgotten corners of French history (Georges Mandel, anyone?), Sarko has put the forgotten Princesse back on the map by making an example of her (see the clip at the first link above). If you want to take the exam to be a cop, you shouldn't have to memorize La Princesse de Clèves, the president argues. Seems reasonable enough, no? I mean, did you really have to memorize La Princesse, that model of exquisite delicacy and finesse, to qualify to swing a billy club or nab turnstile jumpers in the Métro?

In any case, the president chose to make an example of the princess. He was speaking off the cuff, joking--bullshitting, we might say in English (pardon my French)--and offhandedly committed a crime that innumerable guardians of the flame of French culture evidently regard as lèse-majesté. His joke was taken as a revelation of his supposed deep antipathy to things literary.

And no doubt it may have been, but his point remains a valid one, open to reasonable debate. Is it perhaps the case that a literary or at any rate verbal competence has been overemphasized in the French meritocracy, selecting for the wrong attributes in a world in which any exception to strict egalitarianism must be licensed by some demonstrated merit deemed to be in the public interest? Is it not the case, in fact, that literary merits have already been deemphasized in many areas of the meritocracy? Isn't the math-science filière (rather than the literary) the one most likely to lead to the grandes écoles these days? Perhaps nonverbal cops deserve the same break as nonverbal financiers and physical chemists--a different sort of examination.

I don't know. Maybe Sarko is just dredging up some childhood trauma of his own that has nothing to do with the realities of civil service examinations in France. Maybe his franc-parler populaire et populiste is entirely beside the point and is making him only enemies, eager to line up outside the Panthéon to read Mme de La Fayette in the winter cold. But his political instincts are usually pretty good. Maybe he's not the only person in France who prefers Marc Lévy to La Princesse de Clèves. But nobody stands on a soapbox outside the Panthéon to read Lévy. You don't win points as un ami de la culture française for doing that.