Monday, August 16, 2010

Sarkozy wounded by a word

In a recent issue of his Marianne weekly, the distinguished journalist Jean-François Kahn chose a very strong word to designate Nicolas Sarkozy. He referred to him as the "voyou de la République".

[Click the image to access the article, in French.]

This time-honored colloquial term is derived from the Latin via (street, road). A voyou is a hoodlum who hangs about on the streets, often a loutish delinquent.

[TRIVIAL ANECDOTE: In my French family, this word evokes a harmless verbal encounter, long ago, between my charming mother-in-law and me, at a time when my French was not very subtle. Feeling that her questions pried mildly into my personal existence, I reacted with a smile: "Madame, je ne suis pas un voyou."]

Kahn's harsh words concerning the president are motivated above all by Sarkozy's treatment of recent urban unrest in the nearby city of Grenoble. The police shot and killed a young bandit who had just returned from an armed attack of a casino in the region. Companions of the deceased bandit then assaulted police forces and behaved riotously for several days and nights. Apparently judging that the rioters belonged to families with origins in the Maghreb (prior to becoming naturalized French citizens), the president dared to evoke the notion that offenders of this kind might be deprived of their French nationality. Now, you don't need to be a expert in French and international law to realize that this idea goes against the grain of certain fundamental republican principles: above all, the legal equality of all French citizens, regardless of their origins. It goes without saying that any attempt to change this principle in France would immediately bring to mind the ugly epoch of Pétain and Laval, when the authorities made a distinction between "pure" French people and those with foreign origins…

In Sarkozy's reactions to the violence in Grenoble, he gave the impression that the killing of a French police officer is "worse", from a legal viewpoint, than, say, the murder of an old lady. If the first killer happened to be of Maghrebi origins, he could be condemned to a stateless existence, whereas the murder of the old lady would remain French. In his anger, Sarkozy even evoked the curious idea that parents could be punished for the delinquency of their offspring.

A few years ago, this same weekly, Marianne, contested strongly the idea that Sarkozy might be compared with George W Bush, as a dogmatic and sectarian ideologist. On the contrary, Sarkozy was designated as follows: "He is a pragmatic and talented Bonapartiste (the best candidate put forward by the Right for ages). He is capable, if he thinks it's in his personal interests, of stigmatizing the 'big bosses' or criticizing capitalism. However, the giant proportions of his swollen ego, the amplification of his self-adoration, and the force of his almost unlimited quest for power and control are close to madness. And they represent a threat for our conception of democracy and the republic."

The present article by Jean-François Kahn gives the impression that Sarkozy will be judged severely for his excessive reactions in the aftermath of the Grenoble rioting. It's important to understand that Kahn states unequivocally that the president is certainly neither a Pétainiste, a racist, a xenophobe nor a Fascist. No, he's simply an urban delinquent, a voyou. Here are Kahn's conclusions concerning Sarkozy, which I've translated freely into English:

"No ideological or ethical constraint ever reins him in. No transcendental principle or moral imperative ever affects him. No Freudian super-ego ever stops him in his tracks. To conquer and to stay in power, he is capable of anything. Absolutely anything at all… in the style of a suburban gangster. In fact, equipped with the talent that such a mentality requires, and the necessary sense of taking risks, Nicolas Sarkozy is a voyou. He is a suburban gang-leader, whose suburb happens to be Neuilly. [Neuilly is an elegant residential neighborhood on the Western outskirts of Paris.] Seen in this light, it is typical of Sarkozy to 'declare war', in all kinds of situations, against rival gangs!"

It was quite unusual that an August issue of a political weekly should have created such a stir, when most French people are away on holidays. I don't have the impression that things will quieten down soon for the president. Henceforth, in evaluating Sarkozy, there'll be two time references: before and after Grenoble 2010.

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