Sunday, July 2, 2017

Le Silence

There is nothing quite like the silence of Paris early on a rainy summer Sunday morning. It is a nostalgic silence, full of something almost like reverence for a time when actual reverence existed, when Sunday was actually a respite from getting and spending to be consecrated to higher things, rather than simply a pause.

The silence this Sunday morning is almost eerie. There is not a trace of an echo of the secondary explosion that occurred yesterday, when the beleaguered remnant of the Socialist Party detonated, or rather popped like a lanced boil, with Benoît Hamon's announcement that he will strike out on his own. His traversal of the desert is likely to last more than 40 years. With him are Yannick Jadot and Cécile Duflot, whose presence at the Pelouse de Reuilly made the occasion more green than pink.

Meanwhile, what remains of the non-Macronian, non-Mélenchonian, non-Hamonian left will apparently be contested by Arnaud Montebourg, who fancies himself the left wing of the rump (if rumps have wings), and Stéphane Le Foll, who has appointed himself the night watchman at the Hollandiste Memorial Cemetery, where those who fell in the Phony War on Finance lie interred. They, too, have been relatively silent, particularly as to what purpose the Socialist Party would serve if they do manage to salvage it--other than, of course, as a vehicle, however decrepit, for their personal ambitions.

There is silence also from the Kremlin Elysée, as the president works on the program he will present to the Congress in glory assembled. A noted intellectual told me the other day that she feared France was on the brink of an "authoritarian" turn. Macron's eagerness to wrap himself in the Gaullist mantle has unsurprisingly revived primitive fears of the legal coup d'État. These are overblown, I think, but the outsized symbolism of the French presidency is more or less designed to awaken them, insofar as any human being manages to incarnate the symbol, and thus far all of Macron's talent and effort have been bent to just that end: performing the incarnation, as it were, in an almost sacramental ritual of presidential posturing.

The official photograph, which has elicited much impassioned commentary on this blog, was of course part of the effort of sacralization, even if the realization took the form of a rather strange iconic sabir. The two cell phones and the virile but at the same time décontractée pose clashed with the traditionalism of the literary selection and architectural setting. Le Rouge et le Noir was a bold choice for a brashly self-confident youth who stole an older man's wife, a revisiting of the scene of the crime, as it were. The inclusion of Gide might also be considered bold for a president about whom certain rumors were circulated, but Les Nourritures terrestres should probably be taken as a proto-green rather than a proto-rainbow manifesto. The Gaullian memoir needs no commentary. But leaving aside all these no doubt interesting details, what the image conveys to me is a certain coldly appraising implacability. This is not a young man I would want to cross. His icy gaze conveys a "Don't get mad, get even" lethality. France has a leader who knows that politics is combat and who does not intend to lose.


bert said...

Much to Macron's credit, he's been unusually explicit about what lies ahead.
First, reform of the labour code. Out goes the old testament plus talmudic commentary, in comes a PowerPoint deck for a startup pitch meeting. In the process some acquired rights will be removed from a varied bunch of people.
And the context for this will be a continued spending squeeze, because Maastricht.

After the labour market reforms have been accomplished in full, and after a period of fiscal retrenchment long enough to serve as proof of unswerving reliability, Germany will weigh up France's trustworthiness as a partner. The terms and timescale of this assessment will be made in Berlin. At that point Wolfgang Schäuble will consider what concessions he feels he needs to make toward establishing a transfer union and setting France up in a privileged seat at its controls.

This isn't just a description of what lies ahead. It's a faithful account of the description of what lies ahead currently being given by the new President. So I reckon it's not unreasonable to see the eerie calm you're experiencing as the sort you get before a storm.

Anonymous said...

Another populist "outsider," albeit coming from a different angle than the others. Wake me when he gets something past the unions; I remain unimpressed [by ALL the outsiders.]

bert said...

As a caution against macron-scepticism, remember the campaign. He walked across the battlefield completely unharmed, as shrapnel blew holes in his rivals one after another.

He comes to office at the start of a cyclical upturn for the eurozone. Assuming it continues, it will deflect hostile fire and shift obstacles from his path.

It's almost as if there's a higher power at work.
Art mentioned that he's got an unsettling Tom Cruise look to him recently.
On the logic of Pascal's Wager, it might make sense for us all to get on board with the galactic warlord Xenu.

Alexandra Marshall said...

His clunker of a speech today and his recent unbelievbly haughty pronouncements (the press doesn't understand the complexity of his thinking and needs statements rather than press conferences???) have me thinking he's going to give Jean Q. Publique a lot more vim to get into the street when the protests start in September. Dial it back, Petit Prince. A little kingliness goes a long way in 2017.

Robinson said...

From the incomparable Perry Anderson, here's one of the best English-language articles on Macron I've run across:

Everybody in this space who has been making fun of Macron's photo should enjoy Anderson's digs at the pretentious manner in which Macron parades his culture.

Anonymous said...

Incomparable Perry Anderson. Indeed, but that is not necessarily a compliment. The New Left Review has been incomparable for a long time in the sense that it has no influence outside academia and deserves to have none. Its ideology, however, is old, old, old. All too comparable to vieilleries of Mélenchon.

Anglo-Saxons always make fun of the literary culture of French politicians because their politicians have no culture--- of any kind. After the unlettered philistine Sarkozy, the barely articulate Hollande (his speeches were among the worst I have ever heard and his French was sometimes comical), Macron at least seems to have learned something from French literature.


Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: there is plenty of truth to this comment, but "Anglo-Saxon" isn't fair: there is an Atlantic divide. British politicians, so far as I can see, are as cultivated as French or German ones, although the French advertise their culture and the Brits don't. The polyglot Nick Clegg - I learned from an election profile - is a fan of Sándor Márai; Corbyn is a Mahler lover whose favorite novel is Ulysses; the Millibands are sons of an important political theorist. Even Tories, like George Osborne or Essex Man Eric Pickles often turn out to have hidden depths. I wasn't surprised to learn that Osborne was reading an interesting novel; I would be mildly shocked to hear that Obama, Sanders or Trudeau Jr. were doing so.

As to the NLR: they used to call it the what's left review. The past five years have shown that the far left has a lot more juice in it than anybody had thought. One can disagree with Anderson, but the strength Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon and Iglesias is sign enough that the far left is not just a relic of a bygone age. Anderson's critique of the structure of the Eurozone is quite simply correct, and more mainstream writers simply don't have the guts to follow Anderson to his justified conclusion. One can say against Anderson just what one can say against JLM: the far left is not ready to govern. In power Melenchon would not be a French Chavez: he would preside over a fracas. The lefty critique of the Eurozone is still right, and until France insists that Germany change its ways the current slow burning Euro crisis will continue, and Europe will continue to be outstripped by the USA, however incompetent the American president may be.

bert said...

There's a nugget in the footnotes which was news to me. In the eighties, old man Le Pen used to play Ode To Joy through the speaker system at FN rallies before coming on to speak. Who knew?

As for Perry Anderson, I envy his certainty. To me the last couple of years have seemed very contingent, chaotic and unstable. It shouldn't be surprising - he comes from a school of thinking where outcomes are deeply determined and play out implacably. If you don't like the NLR (would he be his own editor there?), the LRB has a couple of his more recent pieces on France that aren't paywalled. Worth a read.

Anonymous said...

The lefty critique of the Eurozone cannot be right if it fails to convince the majority--- in France or anywhere else. I exclude Britain, which has always been the odd man out because of its "special relationship" with the US. Sanders, Corbyn, Mélenchon.... what dreary bunch they are.

You are right about British politicians in comparison with American politicians---some of them at least (they are after all products of Oxbridge)----but they do very good job of concealing their culture. In the case of Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson I would say that there is nothing much to conceal.

bert said...

I don't think Maggie Thatcher had much culture. Occasionally she'd get together with Freddie Forsyth over a bottle of whisky and do some racism. That was about it.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand. He read Classics at Oxford, and makes sure nobody forgets it. He's the single most repulsive front rank politician in Britain today, and there's a legitimate question about whether he's as well read as he makes out. But don't be deceived by the woosterish blithering - it's part of a carefully constructed act he's been honing since Eton. If I remember right you don't pay much attention to our politicians, and I don't recommend you start with Boris. Maybe just take my word for it that he does the opposite of conceal whatever reading he has done.

On a more general level, and at the risk of provoking a prickly response, the issue isn't 'intellectualism' or 'culture'. What earns you a kicking in the UK is pseudery and bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Boris also speaks passable if thickly accented French, learned no doubt while pub-crawling in Brussels. I will take your word for it that he is a show-off. If anyone deserves a kicking for bullshit..... I am thinking of his silly remark about the EU as the heir of Napoleon and Hitler. If that is the result of an Eton and Oxford education, give me the Ecole Normale Supérieure and all its pseudery.

In any case, I don't think Macron, who did not go to ENS (in fact was turned down twice), is a bullshit artist or a pseudo intellectual. He studied with Paul Ricoeur, seems to have genuine taste for literature and apparently wanted to be a writer before going into politics.

Robinson said...

Alas the lefty critique of the Eurozone *can* be correct, even if most Europeans fail to vote for left or what Anderson likes to call "anti-system" parties. Anderson, in spite of comradely gestures of respect for Iglesias and Melenchon, does not seem to believe that the far left is anywhere near power in France or anywhere else in the EU. He even has some backhanded compliments for Macron's intelligence and drive. I don't think that Anderson's concrete analysis of France is so terribly different from Art's: Anderson is simply more dyspeptic.

bert said...

Yeah, there's something not right still, something I'm not nailing down.
Thatcher was a cultural wasteland, but she was very interested in ideas, and enjoyed testing them against all comers. As a result she gets respect in a way other politicians don't, even from those who disagree with her and dislike what she did with power.

What doesn't get indulged around here is displays of culture or intellect that are a) phoney, or b) all about me, and how splendid I am. Too often, when carried out on a Sunday magazine supplement level, as they so often are, French politicians' efforts in this area break both those rules. There's a market for it, and they respond to incentives like anyone else. It meets local tastes, but exports poorly.

There's noone in the UK like Bernard-Henri Levy, not because there's a mistrust of ideas or culture, but because there's an ingrained resistance to swanking pricks.

Now I'm painting this as if it's a great virtue. Obviously it shades by degrees inexorably into vice. Philistine fatheadedness. No shortage of that in Britain, particularly inside the Stupid Party.

Anonymous said...

We are talking about politicians, not intellectuals. If you want to bring in BHL, fine, but he is not a politician. And why do all Anglo-Saxons mention BHL and no one else? Could it be because they don't know much about French intellectual life and/or about the history of France? Perhaps because they just don't read much or rely on British tabloids.

I am not impressed by the intellectual life of your country, and I am not impressed by your comments about phoney French intellectuals. They are banal and stupid.

Anonymous said...

BHL is a real phenomenon, and the symptom of something wrong with the intellectual life of France, or its reflection in the media. I would put it this way: intellectuals traditionally have a greater public presence in France than more or less anywhere else. This tradition has always been vulnerable to abuse: Sartre and Foucault used their prominence in the media to say any number of stupid things. They were nevertheless figures of great substance. Levy, who is extremely intelligent but more or less without substance, has been able to rise to a similar level of media prominence without being respected by anybody serious. He is a sort of media parody of a French intellectual (and he gets press in the Anglosphere because he conforms to any number of Anglo-Saxon stereotypes about the pretentious vacuity of French intellectuals.) Of course there are any number of genuinely serious French intellectuals, some of whom get quite a bit of attention even in the Anglo-Saxon world: Piketty, for example. Or all of the postmodernists and neo-Marxists who are so popular in American universities. Or the liberals translated in Mark Lilla's "New French Thought" series. Or the authors of all of the books Art has translated.

Boris Johnson is actually quite similar to BHL in that he is a médiatisé parody of an old and very respectable English type: the classically educated Oxbridge scholar-politician. These were often quite formidable creatures: Harold MacMillan and Enoch Powell were every bit as cultivated and erudite as Pompidou or Mitterrand (as was Michael Foot on the left, although he fit a different profile from the one Johnson is trying to ape). Powell's 1938 Lexicon to Herodotus remains in use to this day, and his infamous political career shows that intellectual attainment is not the most important quality in a politician. There is a sort of ingrained cultural memory of this type in person in England: of Churchill above all, although Churchill didn't go to Oxford. Boris imitates Churchill by making a show of knowing Latin, writing a lot in the press and making rude jokes. He beats even BHL in the swanking prick department, I must say.

bert said...

Not long ago there was a book about how to talk about books you hadn't read. It was a big success, in part because it was a broadly good natured piece of fun. But it also struck a chord because it dealt unembarrassedly with the pressure imposed by a cultural norm. Politicians, being people too, respond to this pressure. But their deformation professionelle requires them to maintain a dishonest front. Nobody doubts the many virtues of French cultural and intellectual life. Politicians' hypocrisy is the tribute paid to it by vice.

These comments are banal in the sense that they are so obvious they barely need stating. Earlier I drafted an angry instant response that didn't get posted, for which I'm glad. Anonymous at 12.54 makes many of the points I would want to have made instead, with coolness and good sense.

Lastly, my apologies to other readers for recently talking about Britain rather more than I have in the past, given that French politics is what we come here for. I'll control myself as best I can. It should be the silly season, but instead the mood is sour and fretful. One small bright spot is that support for a Boris leadership has gone very soft inside the parliamentary Tory party - let's hope it stays that way.

Anonymous said...

Nothing on Simone Veil?
Compared to the US, her achievement is to have framed the abortion debate in terms of public health, not women's freedoms or rights - because there will always be people who don't care about women's rights, but far fewer can argue in favor of 'mutilating women'. It's striking how she imposed the word "ivg" to replace "avortement" when in the US we only have one word, "abortion", or, for health reasons, she required " ivg" to take place in recognized clinics and public hospitals with maternity wards (hence ensuring there wouldn't be special clinics that could be attacked, nor could women be singles out since women in a hospital waiting room can be there for any reason.)