the nobility of parchment goes down

“… il est plus important qu'on ne pense en politique d'extirper cette diversité d'idiomes grossiers qui prolongent l'enfance de la raison et la vieillesse des préjugés.” (... in politics, it is more important than you might imagine to extirpate that diversity of vulgar idioms which prolongs the infancy of reason and the senility of prejudices." – Abbe Gregoire.

When LI was a young lad hitching around France, we once hitched to Brittany. We were hitching with a young lass, which made the hitching a lot more fun. And both of us were associated with CODOFIL, an France-Louisiane friendship society. Well, the town that we hitched to was quiet enough that our appearance there, plus Codofil, got us an invite to dinner with the mayor and a picture in the local newspaper. While some of the local muckety mucks were shaking each others hands and exchanging jokes, the photographer sidled over to us and began to explain that he was a member of an independence group. The group had turned its face against the intolerable oppression of Brittany and its Celtic culture.

Well, there is little chance of Brittany becoming independent in the near future, but I was reminded of that incident in the last couple of days, reading references to 1968 in the stories about the riots in France. A better date, if you ask me, is 1792, the year of the Vendée.

By this I don’t mean to imply that the massive autos de fe, so to speak, is on the same level as the thousands slaughtered in the war between the royalists and the revolutionaries in Brittany. Rather, what is being shaken right now is the historical result of that war: an official France that enforces itself, by a long performative act, on the territory of France. When Abbe Gregoire presented his inquiry into the languages of France to the Commission on Public Safety in 1794, he called it: "On the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalize the french language.”

A friend from Paris wrote me that I should understand a little verlan to understand the rioters. I had not even heard the term verlan – so far out of the loop am I – but quickly caught on that this is the hip hop street slang, and that this slang is a marker – it is a marker of what needs to be annihilated. But our feeling is that the old and successful system, Gregoire’s France, is on an unsustainable course of confrontation with French reality. That reality is about an enclaved population that is desperate for representation – for power. As well it should be. My friend told me about listening to Jospin on the radio last night. He has written a memoir, and is out on the book trail. He was asked about the rioting and told a story about some immigrant rugby player who made it into the political elite. It was a pointless story, from the point of view of the street. But from the point of view of Gregoire’s France, it made total sense – it was exactly the kind of myth Barthes wrote about.

To draw a practical consequence from these riots, from the point of view of the Greens, communists, and socialists is going to be difficult. My correspondent tells me that Sarkozy’s removal is not only an obsession of Humanité’s, but is demanded by the rioters themselves. Our point is: if Sarkozy disappeared tomorrow, the social motives for rioting would still exist. And the inevitable riot aftermath – the reaction – is not going to be blocked by a politics that can’t reach beyond persons.

To end on a dialectical note: while Abbe Gregoire’s thesis about language might be taken as a sort of ultranationalism, one has to remember that historical categories are contingent and precarious. Actually, Abbe Gregoire was one of the Assembly’s fiercest defenders of the Haitian revolution, a political position beyond the political limits of mere abolitionism. An unpopular position to take. So, in fairness to Abbe Gregoire, two further quotes:

“De toutes parts on y parle de droits, de devoirs, de constitutions, de représentation nationale; partout resplendissent les emblèmes de la liberté, l’esclave les voit; partout se font entendre les chants de la liberté, l’esclave les entend. Croyez-vous que ces étincelles électriques n’atteignent pas son coeur?”( Everywhere one speaks of rights, of duties, of constitutins, of national representation; everywhere the songs of liberty are making themselves heard, the slaves hear them. Do you really believe that these electic sparks will not penetrate their hearts?)

“La noblesse de la peau subira le même sort que celle des parchemins.” (The nobility of skin will submit to the same fate as that of parchment)


Alain Genestier said…
Sadly (for somebody who still has some faith in his country) you are right. You can also read today in liberation (pages rebonds) a paper by Alain Duhamel (le bucher de l'integration a la Francaise) developing the same point of view.