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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Notes on the French election


In the campaign of 2006, Nicholas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal were both asked, by Jean-Jacques Bourdin, about the capabilities of the French nuclear submarine fleet. Royal said that there were 7 nuclear armed submarines. Sarkozy said there were 6. And the interviewer said there were 5. As Royal points out in her account of the campaign, Ma plus belle histoire c’est vous, that all three numbers were wrong did not mean that all three respondents were treated equally. Rather, while Bourdin, the intereviewer, received no flack for asking a question the answer to which he did not know, and while Sarkozy was treated as having a sort of minimal knowledge of the fleet – given a C, so to speak – Royal’s answer was supposed to reveal a fundamental and disqualifying ignorance:

« I haven’t forgotten the UMP communiqué which gave the angle that the commentators were supposed to make about me: “It is not a question of pilling on the candidate. [feminine in the French]. But still, we need to remember that she aspires to article 5 of our constitution, to wit, becoming chief of the armed services with the responsibility over nuclear weapons engagement. Such a  error over the fundamentals of our defense is more than disquieting” On the howler of the candidate [masculine – Sarkozy] – one says the minimum, very quickly, and passes to other things.”

This passage was taken up by a sociolinguist, Ruth Amossy, as an example of argumentation in political discourse, partly because it is an instance of analysing a discourse while making an argument within the discourse. Amossy uses it to argue that one cannot separate some pure logical core – the logos – from the rhetorical form in which it is expressed – the side of pathos –in practical argument.  If two people make the same mistake, and one is blamed for it and the other  is not, than we have to seek some motivation for the inequality of the distribution of blame (and the distribution of blame always leads us back to justice, however instituted).

I bring this up because, last night, at dinner, I was asked by a friend of ours who I’d vote for, if I could vote in the French election, and I said Melenchon. Our friend, who supports Eva Joli, replied that she disliked Melenchon’s macho style. And that made me want to say, what does style have to do with it? Because I do have a certain strategic notion that the pathos of lefty demagoguery, which does tend to the masculinist gesture, results in programs that are much more advantageous to women than not. That  is, if we take into account women in the working class, where the majority of women are, as well as women in middle management and middle class.

But on the other hand, Royal’s anecdote is telling. Style’s power consists in being able to shift the topic. As our friend pointed out, Melenchon was certainly in the socialist cenacle in which DSK flourished, but he, too, seems to have been an enabler. And from this point of view, Joli’s intransigent contempt for corruption and the cult of entitlement is stylistically and logically preferable to the Quixotic invocation of working movements past. I suppose what I’d like is a qualitative leap that connected the two – the unbending problems of  class and gender –and from this perspective, neither Melenchon nor Joli will do.

That said,  I think Joli has been a pretty bad candidate. I’ve been unhappy that a year after Fukishima, and two years after the Gulf Oil Spill, and well into the era of global warming, she has not figured out how to synthesize enviro and economic concerns to create a viable and unavoidable front. Environmental issues have never been so low down on the set of priorities in a presidential race, but in reality, they have never been more important. The financial crisis in Europe is a crisis of rich wankers. The rich wankers are using the moment to take down fifty years of social democracy. Nobody has called them out on it. But there will be a muddle through,  one way or another. There’s not an environmental muddle through – things have to change. This is good news, actually – an enviro-economy within the social democratic framework is the natural, and better, alternative to the neo-liberal management of expectations as the middle class gives up its healthcare, education, and culture in return for superb entertainment-security surround media and longer work hours.  Why Eva Joli has not taken this and burned it into the hide of this phlegmatic campaign is a question I can’t answer, but there it is. This is, like it or not, a failure – it is a failure of style. And a politician without style is, more properly, an appointee - the person who advises the politician, not the figure on the hustings. If you are on the hustings, go for it.  

1 comment:

Ed said...

Though as usual European voters are presented with more proper choices than American voters, I get the impression that even there democracy is increasingly "managed". Whoever is elected will continue with the big bailouts to the 1%, stick with the (rather undemocratic) EC institutions, support to some degree or another the next NATO attack on some developing country, do essentially nothing about the environment, etc. And on there are signs that the right might be more adverse than the left now on the big bailouts.

So you are really casting around for the most effective protest vote, in which case style is really important.