Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hollande's First Presidential Speech

Discours de M. François Hollande en hommage à... by elysee

 No one would mistake the new president for the old one. With Sarkozy, the partisan leader was never far from the surface. He could break into fighting mode at the turn of a phrase. Hollande, by contrast, has put his campaign mode aside. He has donned a new persona to signify that he is president of all the people. Gone are the Mitterandian gestures, the hoarse shouts, the hyped-up intensity. As president, he is all sobriety (the TV commentators couldn't help remarking on his gravity), and his first speech as president was intended to consecrate the value of education, which he intends to make a centerpiece of his quinquennat. (Rumor has it, by the way, that Aubry will be named Minister of State in charge of education, youth, and communication, a signal of Hollande's priorities.)

But--how to say this without seeming condescending?--let's be candid. The speech is a bit boring. More than a bit, in fact. It not only celebrates the glory of the Third Republic's crown jewel, l'école gratuite et laïque, it re-enacts a century of fusty school prize speeches. It celebrates education in such a thoroughly pedestrian way that it surely must have reminded more than one former élève of watching the classroom clock and waiting for the hour of liberation to strike. It's a schoolmasterly speech but far from a masterly piece of rhetoric, and it somehow seems fated that Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German teacher, has been named prime minister.

That said, I'm surely pleased that France has a president who is capable of praising education without attacking teachers, who is capable of praising Jules Ferry and reminding his audience of Ferry's faults in the same breath, who can praise the Third Republic and at the same time denounce the "moral fault" of colonialism. Hollande's intentions are surely good, but somehow I couldn't stop thinking about what it is that good intentions pave the road to. And the speech was only 15 minutes long--much less than five years, and infinitely less than eternity. We may have reason to be grateful that Hollande says he will be a self-effacing president. Too much of such unrelievedly good things as this speech contained could easily become unbearable. And one thing you can say for Sarkozy: he was seldom boring to listen to. Rage at least quickens the heart.


Anonymous said...

Hi Art,

How's your wife enjoying heading over to Haiti?

Cincinna said...

It is never condescending to state the obvious. Hollande gives boring speeches. He lacks the ability and the imagination to inspire.
One feels dragged back in time, not propelled forward to the future, where crisis and problems cannot be solved with old ideas and platitudes.

TexExile said...

I agree with your take on the speech -- both its rather backward-looking content (can't he say more about education if it is really his key priority?) and ability to bore -- save for one thing. The gravitas wobbled at the end.

FH paid tribute to all of the Presidents of the Fifth Republic by name, citing the specific contribution of each to the development of France -- until he got to Sarko, for whom he had nothing more than a 'bonne chance'.

At first I thought I might be reading too much into that (one could argue very reasonably that it is too soon to judge Sarko's contribution to France's historical trajectory or whatever). However, I was not alone in noticing the difference -- a number of colleagues here also commented on it. Some thought it great ('feroce mais juste'). Others thought it tacky (as did I). Either, way, it was widely recognised for what it was -- Hollande taking a moment in his speech to diss his predecessor.

A small thing, to be sure, but out of place in an inaugural address. It lacked both subtlety and grace. And there were no big things in the speech anyway, so it loomed all the larger. In an eleven-minute speech it was probably the most memorable passage.

TexExile said...

And yes, I do realise now that we're not talking about the same speech...

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether such speeches are supposed to be entertaining. I agree it was boring, but I doubt it was meant to be entertaining. I'm quite sure that teachers and old people loved it (French TV has entire TV shows dedicated to tests, there was one last night. I flipped through the channels and ended up on a question where I had to determine the curve of a function. There are also TV shows dedicated to teachers between WWI, who brought knowledge to the savage hinterlands. These are quite popular, apparently.)
I'd take boring over off, though. Sarkozy's first and last speeches were excellent, but in-between things went downhill fast. If Hollande manages to be boring but steady and efficient, I'll be happy.
I don't get "too much unrelievedly good intentions could easily become unbearable". Sure the road to hell, etc, but without good intentions it's the road to hell with arrival at destination much faster. Good intentions only won't do enough but how can they predict things will be bad?