'Frenchmen, one more effort, if you want to be Republicans!'
The 2002 French Presidential Election
The Marquis de Sade, whose 1795 tract gave the French another opportunity to be republican, might well have thought, if he were alive today, that he was watching a play put on by the inmates at Charenton -- the asylum where he spent his last days. Or, at least, by the recent French Presidential electoral candidates, sixteen in number, each of whom might qualify for consideration for entry to the asylum as pretenders to be President, in the same way that the three Christs of the state mental hospital at Ypsilanti, all claimed divine lineage.
Sade had participated earlier in the grand game of trying to pick a winner being simultaneously on the list of aristocrats as well as on the list of revolutionaries in la Section des Piques in Paris. One would have thought French polling companies might have learnt the lesson from the Marquis that counting has something to do with who is wielding the guillotine. The understatement of Le Pen's vote signaled more though than the challenge of dealing with virtual citizens for it touched the core of the anti-republican tradition. One believes, even in polling, what one wants.
In either the 1789 or the 2002 case, it would not have mattered too much if it was just a game of the three estates, now degraded into the la gauche plurielle, la droite et les autres. However, we know 1789 ended in terror, just as France is too close to the atrocities of the last century to be complacent about the current estate of supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen -- not to mention the rejuvenated Trotsky factions.
I say rejuvenated as the two Trotsky candidates ended up with a disproportionate share of the 'youth' vote just as Le Pen did better with the troisième âge. However, one must really signal the triumph of the media by the perpetual Presidential candidate Arlette Laquiller whose refrain Travailleur, Travailleuse was the true siren call of the election and the death knell, at least temporally, of the PCF. Fortunately, the youth, unlike their elders, had passed into digital delirium where the 'Workers of the World' were more leaning to the Marquis than the revolution.
The election, perhaps in the tradition of French political theory, from Roland Barthes through Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, was more a run on the bank of French symbolic capital. France's symbolic capital and, a good portion of its real capital, had already taken flight earlier owing to the collapse of the banking and real estate markets. The bailout of Crédit Lyonnais placed the state in the subservient position to the money markets controlled in London and Frankfurt. The 'franc fort' was on its way out and along with it the ideological buttress of the French economic rhetoric. The 'euro' guillotined, in its own fashion, the long line of symbolic republican heads on the French francs, especially regrettable in the case of the rather admirable fifty-franc note with Saint-Exupéry on it. Along with the purchasing power went the tradition of ethics and freedom captured by Saint-Exupéry's own flight though admittedly the airline industry today is anyone's bet as to whether it is on strike or not. Having lost economic sovereignty in his first mandate Chirac is poised to loose republican sovereignty in the next.
Hence, there was something faintly parodic in the President-elect standing in la Place de la République giving his victory remarks not more than a short distance from la Place de la Bastille where Sade shouted out his invective from the Tower of Liberty. Chirac, like Sade who was the last remaining 'prisoner' in the Bastille, casts himself as the last remaining 'true' republican. Each equally deprived of the audience that moved on in the case of Sade to censorship and repression and with Chirac to the next episode of 'Friends'. Perhaps Chirac having been elected with a 'landslide' in the second vote may not have appreciated the voters who cast their ballots wearing gloves or a clothespin over their noses all the while reciting the slogan that 'a crook is better than a fascist'.
Indeed, the Marquis, with his revolutionary hat on, might well have been very pleased by the secondary plots that were running alongside the election. In particular, the financial ruin of the late Comte de Paris that finally brought to an end the royalist line. It appears that the recently departed Comte blew the family fortune sending his children into paroxysms of legal suits all around whether good causes, the cleaning lady, nurse, mistress or some other estate had run off with the loot.
With the royal heirs fallen on hard times the President-elect had reason to smile. His earlier efforts not to have his friends and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé become SDF, like the poor house of the Comte, would now escape prosecution for another five years. With the demise of the royal line the time also appeared to be ripe for Chirac to proclaim himself King, not of course of the Louis style, but rather joining the House of Windsor whose plot was simultaneously advanced after the Queen Mom's death with Charles attempting the retro-fit of Camilla into Queen in waiting. Jacques and Bernadette cannot be far behind. For after all, the Presidential role had fallen so far from Général de Gaulle's megalomaniac vision that the electorate could quite rightly toss out the only person that mattered, the Prime Minister, with the Presidency largely unscathed. All of this seems more like those soap operas airing simultaneously on satellite TV.
The second vote with its image of making a rampart against fascism sounded like a page taken from Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology. Virilio documented the bunkers erected by Hitler along the coast to stem the feared Allied invasion. Chirac weighs in with the heavy rhetoric of unity against the fascist attempting the wall from within. However, Le Pen had earlier sent the debate backwards to the time of the Atlantic Wall but shifted focus to the other sides of the hexagon to stem the tide of the 'immigrants'. Each in a way was the inside out of the other.
The actual rampart was not a wall but a screen -- the TV screens. Chirac immediately went into cover refusing to debate Le Pen. However understandable, it seemed rather at odds with the notion of the rule of reason and the republic. Of course, we have all become far less troubled by the disappearance of debate since 9/11. Still the great French pastime of taking to the streets was in play not the least because of the fine weather and the fact that the French school year was winding down. The first round support for Le Pen was characterized as a protest vote by the disaffected left. Naturally, the polling firms estimated this vote as over half of the Le Pen votes. Such is the mind of the survey crews. These votes were scheduled to disappear in the next round because a fascist France was out of the question and the protests were evidence of it. Unfortunately, the Le Pen vote did not disappear as the critics wanted but remained stubbornly what it was in both run offs. If there is one lesson too learn in all of this it is that the far right voter means to vote far right.
One is tempted to read all of this through Nietzsche's template of the not so 'Good European'. France trying, as Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil (section 241), to purge the views of "hearty fatherlandishness … national agitations, patriotic palpitations, and various other sorts of archaizing sentimental inundations", which was the diet thrown up by the parodic Joan of Arc Le Pen. Nietzsche, of course, knew that the flip of all of this was the 'evolving European': the "super-national and nomadic type of man" (section 242) whose identity was cloned in a fashion similar to the euro. Neither the President-elect nor the rather unfortunate Mr. Jospin (who emulating the other victim of the pollsters of the first vote seven years ago Mr. Balladur promptly picked up his bags and left) wanted to talk about this at all. In fact, the ramparts were up well before Le Pen's triumph in an election that scrupulously avoided talking about anything resembling Europe or the state of France. Jospin did not have to wait to be out flanked by the security issue as he had already taken cover donning the mantle of Monsieur Ni Ni being neither for nor against socialism or capitalism, France or Europe. It must have been a logical conclusion of this type of paralysis that made Le Pen claim that he was both/and, both a socialist and a conservative. In a world that is increasing dominated by the global digital algorithm it is hardly surprising that the voters went to their chat groups as much as to the voting booths.
Jospin may also have been his own undoing in contributing to the record absenteeism of the first vote. Not Baudrillard's 'silent majority' but rather more than likely the absentees who were absent with pay. Once the thirty-five hour workweek came into effect, coupled with the notoriously clever French system of 'bridging' holidays together, much of the nation is on vacation. Nothing wrong with escaping the noose of the factory system as the wish fulfillment of the thirty-five hour week has caused a boom in the vacation industry. This may also account for the popularity of Michel Houellebecg's Plateforme, which details the French fantasy of an inclusive Thai holiday with middle life sexual (dis)satisfaction, and made complete, I suppose, by a final terrorism attack. Here, nonetheless, is the republican spirit of Sade where the sexual fantasy runs the effort to become virtuous -- even if one really comes from Cherbourg. For Sade, the couplet of vacating/vacation was the algorithm of libertine life just as the circulation of the leisure parks and sun holidays dominates much of the 'real' life of the republic.
In any event, M. Houellebecg's personal participation in the campaign did not prove determining. All in all, the absentee voters were roundly blamed for Le Pen's victory in the pastime of blaming 'the other' but on balance they may have had better things on their minds.
Nietzsche, also, had a better vision for the French than just going south for a vacation. Here is how he puts it in his reflection on the 'Good European' in section 254 of Beyond Good and Evil.
"Even now one still encounters in France an advance understanding and accommodation of those rarer and rarely contented human beings who are comprehensive to find satisfaction in any fatherlandishness and know how to love the south in the north and the north in the south - the born Midlanders, the 'good Europeans'"
Clearly, one thing that has been out of balance has been the virtual utter failure to make headway in many of the Algerian quarters in France. The Le Pen vote maps almost directly on the areas with high 'immigrant' populations notwithstanding the length of time these individuals have been French. (It also maps almost identically on the 'crime' statistics of the 1930s.) Here is a nation that might do well in reading its own high school curriculum by turning to authors like Albert Camus who brought a sensibility, however flawed, to the 'Algerian' question. It may just be that Camus is Nietzsche's 'Midlander' whose fate might very well not yet be settled just as Sartre's has been retro-fitted by Bernard -Henri Lévy in his Le siècle de Sartre. Outside of LePen, unfortunately, virtually no words were spoken. The recent appointment of the Man/God (to (mis)read the title of his recent book L'Homme-Dieu) Luc Ferry to the education minister's post may be a sign of the shift back to the old tradition of Charles Fourier, that is, mixing a little love, a little work, a little religion with your wine. All of this is not reassuring that the racism that is hardly below the surface will not become even more intense.
But the central philosophical figures in all of this may not be French at all. Certainly, there is a strong dose of Thomas Hobbes injected into the debates on security. Hobbes' sovereign may still represent the dreams of the French political elite -- back to the days when the sovereign really was the sovereign rather than the President candidate. The turn to the security issue clearly drove out the democracy of dialogue and discussion. Again reflect back on Paul Virilio's comments in Speed and Politics where the control of space by the technology of displacement founds the French state. The dromocrats, to use his neologism, are today the SDF that were victimized yet again in the 'campaign' to make France safe. Even the countryside was portrayed as having reverted back to the state of nature where the country homes of the Paris bourgeoisie were no longer safe from 'vandals'.
Still the philosopher of the hour, in Arthur Kroker's perceptive view, may be Immanuel Kant. Not Kant with a cosmopolitan schema, for that would require a real discussion of America and the virtual class structure, but the more modest Kant as the abstract Bruxelles bureaucrat. Outside of the Hunting and Fishing party of Jean Saint-Josse, whose duck hunt in France was legislated out of existence by a European standard time that closed the season before the ducks arrived, no one really (perhaps though a nod to François Bayrou in this regard) wanted to discuss the European -- whether 'evolving' or 'good'.
Thus, France seems to dissipate its republican tradition, blithely ignoring the digital economy, out of touch with its Trotsky voting youth or right wing seniors (or the undeclared supporters of Le Pen often from the commercial classes), facing the rather defunct intellectual classes whose support of Jospin fell flatter than the first Montgolfier balloon, talking a lot about the SDF but being concerned more with the Elysée Palace, denouncing the anti- Semitic attacks but doing little about them -- the list goes on.
However, this analysis may not be to be point. So I will end with the studio set up of Antenne 2 the second order French television station. Picture the politicians lined up with the right on one side and the left on the other in good old French revolutionary fashion. (If you prefer the TF 1 arrangement replace the left with women and the right with men.) In the middle of the second channel's set, separating the parties, is a track where a digital camera runs up and down. It moves a bit, turns its viewfinder, moves some more, reverses direction. What animates it is a fashion sense and, for sure, it steals the show. As the politicians trot out all the old arguments, it, in voyeuristic fashion, goes its own way more interested seemingly in the non-participants and what they are wearing. Perhaps it was the Marquis, the first of the French voyeurs, in robotic form.
David Cook is a member of the Department of Political Science, Victoria College, University of Toronto.
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