Made in France

Made in France: Words of Presidents

It’s been an exciting few days for French presidents past and present! I mentioned the publication of Mitterrand’s letters to Anne Pingeot in my last post, and now France Culture’s five-part podcast with Pingeot is online, and OMG. I highly recommend you give it a listen if you love anything at all about France – she’s so incredibly vivacious, graceful, and wise, and she talks about social norms, the history of the Musée d’Orsay, art critics of the 1960s, politics, love, life, just everything. It’s an incredible piece of French oral history.

In less jovial (for some) news, Un président ne devrait dire ça… joins Mitterrand’s letters in my Amazon.fr cart until I finish all of my work obligations in an Amazon.fr box on its way to me (I’m weak); it looks to be a ravishing read – discussions with Hollande transcribed by two Le Monde journalists. Some are calling it political suicide, which I won’t necessarily disagree with, but I’m ever curious to learn more about why he chose to do the discussion series in the first place – was it a desire to take charge of communications and manage the media that sort of grew horns and fangs? A good plan that didn’t turn out so hot? A philosophical pitch? How will this affect the upcoming presidential race (which is supposed to launch in December and which is 100% my most excitedly anticipated event of the year)?

I really enjoyed the below edition of “On n’est pas couché” about the book, particularly their analysis of his language. Put anything about French political language in front of me and I’ll savor it for hours on autopilot, but this truly was a fascinating show.

French, Made in France

An Educated Citizenry

Our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Will McAvoy, held one particular truth to be self-evident, and that was that an educated citizenry is vital to the functioning of a democratic state. If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had some… troubles… lately. If you live elsewhere, you’ve likely heard of the same. I make a conscious choice to mostly avoid American television, half driven by the need to focus on native French material, but we watched a lot of CNN in Honduras, and at one point I looked over at my friend like, hey, remember back when the big issue was that the Republican candidate referred to the “binders full of women” he wanted to hire, and we were all like, holy shit, what, how dare he say such a thing? Yeah, wasn’t that a great time?

Anyway. One thing I’d never really paid specific attention to until recently, although I certainly must have intuitively sensed it, is that French political culture is very, shall we say, different. During the last U.S. presidential debate, we talked a bit about what type of grabbing as performed by a candidate for the highest office of the land constitutes sexual assault, and concluded by determining we know nothing about Russia. The text of what was actually said was at about a 3rd grade reading level, and I have no clue what policy proposals were actually put forth.

The last time the French had a presidential debate, things went a little, shall we say, differently.

So here’s what I’m seeing: here we have two highly intelligent (you can disagree with them on principle, but you can’t begrudge them that), exceedingly well spoken (again – I disagree with the Le Pens on literally everything and I still think both Marine and Marion speak very well) candidates who 1) know all the facts and figures and 2) have specific, concrete policy proposals. In the first 10 minutes alone, each put forth 4 pieces of legislation they would enact, down to the rate of a single component of the corporate tax structure that would incentivize specific types of corporations to participate in the rollout of a major  government-backed employment scheme. Ten minutes later, they were arguing over the social VAT rate in Germany (!) and whether its macroeconomic consequences contain lessons for French public finance. Twenty minutes after that, the moderators finally lost it, and not because one of them had admitted to a violent felony on national television – no, they were simply too wrapped up in their debate on the indexation of minimum wage, whereas the moderators’ timeline would have them going on to discuss  fluctuations in purchasing power.

So, yeah. Not quite the same. Most significantly, they treat the viewers – their voters – with the respect they deserve, talking about important issues with the depth and finesse necessary to ensure they never demean the intelligence of the electorate. Perhaps this is why we haven’t had a Frexit – the French expect to be listening to experts.

In other French presidential news, Gallimard recently published Mitterrand’s letters to his lover, Anne Pingeot, which are sitting in my Amazon.fr basket but which I will. not. buy. until I’m done with my existing stack of books. The temptation is super strong, though, because here’s how one critic described it:

Cette correspondance amoureuse, par sa longévité, son intensité, son exclusivité, sa clandestinité et surtout sa qualité littéraire, défie en effet la raison politique. Si elle confirme le talent singulier du Mitterrand écrivain, qui fut notre dernier président à vénérer la langue française, user du subjonctif passé, connaître le chromatisme des métaphores et pouvoir écrire, comme ici, de vibrants poèmes d’amour, elle corrige, en le réévaluant à la hausse, en lui ajoutant soudain un tremblé inédit, le portrait doré à l’or fin du monarque florentin, volage, infidèle et cynique.

Aaaaahhhh want want want. I had to LOL at the reference to subjonctif passé – if only the American people had that type of political problem.

In short, this looks totally magnificent and I can’t wait to dig in.