To some, the 72-year-old philosopher Alain Badiou is a god. Heir to Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser, his annual lectures at the École Normale Supérieure attract queues as long as those once drawn by that other rock star of French academia, Jacques Derrida. To others, this unrepentant Maoist is a chronic nostalgic - a dangerous apologist, even, for left-wing totalitarianism. This, his latest work, newly published in English, could not have been better designed to reinforce this polarity.
Whichever camp you happen to belong to, you may find that your overriding feeling, on reaching the end of this essay on the significance of Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power, is one of mild disappointment. Is this the razor-sharp mind that produced Being and Event, admired the world over for the rigour of its conceptual universe? Badiou's essay, which to a non-French audience won't read as philosophy, published in the aftermath of Sarkozy's election to the presidency, was a huge critical and commercial success in France. It was even compared to Guy Debord's prophetic 1967 masterpiece, The Society of the Spectacle. What follows is an attempt to understand why.
I am inclined to blame some of my own disappointment on David Fernbach's translation. His awe for the great master perhaps made him overly respectful of the original, but the imprecisions and the faux-amis ("unleashed capitalism" for unbridled capitalism, "to support" instead of to bear or to abide) undermine the clarity and authority of the text. The result is that what was no doubt perfectly limpid in French becomes heavy-handed and obscure in English. "The subjective index of this omnipresent affective negativity is the cleavage of the electoral subject," is just one example of the laborious style.
As for Badiou's thesis itself, it is simple: Sarkozy's success in the May 2007 elections is a manifestation of a surrender to what he a recurring weakness to which the French have periodically fallen prey since the counter-revolutionary movement of 1815 and which is nothing more than the fear of chaos. Sarkozy, like Philippe Pétain, disguises the politics of submission (in his case to the hegemony of the capitalist model) as the politics of renewal. But more importantly for Badiou, Sarkozy, like Pétain, seeks to transform a triumphant moment for the left - for Pétain, the victory of éon Blum's Popular Front and for Sarkozy, the revolution of May '68 - into a moral catastrophe for France.
Badiou knew, of course, that his choice of Pétain as a metaphor for counter-revolutionary tendencies in France would have a far greater impact on his public than would the Thermidorean Paul Barras, or Louis XVIII, or Napoleon III. Pétain lies at the heart of the trauma of the Occupation, from which modern France is still recovering, and the Resistance has provided the foundation ever since for all political legitimacy, on the left and the right.
Unfortunately, Badiou has chosen not to name his own fear, which he has expressed elsewhere, but not in this book. To this son of a Grand Résistant and to millions of French people today, what is so terrifying about Sarkozy is not his (highly tenuous) resemblance to Pétain, but his crass attempt to redefine the nature of the French political landscape by saying, "Let's move on." Sarkozy represents the beginning of the end of the postwar consensus that has operated in France since the Second World War, uniting Gaullists and Communists: a belief in state control of the economy, a decent welfare state and, crucially, a critical posture towards America.
By repeatedly invoking Sarkozy's "bowing and scraping" to America, Badiou is appealing to a rich seam of French cultural prejudice. The president, he says, is a slave to what Badiou quaintly calls "the Yankee model", and his election was a momentary "disorientation" of French identity, a loss of the "real" and a "capitulation" to "the model of Bush or Blair" - a dominant model, Badiou argues, equivalent to that of Nazi Germany for Pétain. Already, in the light of Barack Obama's victory in the United States, this line of attack may feel a little absurd, unless you are a dormant Maoist waiting to be woken by a bit of rousing Marxist dialectic, or indeed a French student nauseated by the very sight of Sarkozy, in which case this is certainly the book for you.
At least Badiou's is not another piece of limp, defeatist political journalism of the kind you read all the time in the bien-pensant publications critical of Sarkozy, Le Nouvel Observateur, or Marianne, or Le Monde Diplomatique. Instead, he has produced a thundering, rallying tirade. The language is violent. Sarkozy is the "disgusting" Rat Man (for which Badiou's enemies have groundlessly accused him of anti-Semitism), "the jittery cop", guilty of oppression and persecution, carried into power (just like Hitler and Pétain) by the electoral system itself. For, to this self-confessed "professional soixante-huitard", the vote, which should be boycotted, is simply a seismograph for irrational fear. As if preaching to the converted - which is, of course, what revolutionary literature does - Badiou's essay is not evidence-based and rational, but emotional and sentimental and replete with prejudice.
Indeed, it is Badiou's prejudice that supplies the book with the rich subtext that makes it worth reading, if only for what it shows about enduring French values: the obsession with glory (only another revolution can put France, "a middle-sized power", back on the world map); with nobility (high art must triumph over "entertainment"); romanticism ("love is violent, irresponsible and creative"); rationalism (only mathematics can be the measure of intellectual excellence); unrepentant snobbery (Sarkozy is "visibly uncultured" and "nouveau riche"); and, of course, idealism. Badiou's rather aristocratic tastes, combined with his passion for equality, lead to an inevitably quixotic conclusion: forget elections, forget direct action, just hold on to the Platonic idea of revolution, "the communist hypothesis". Only in this way, he implies, will France remain true to herself.
"The Secret Life of France" by Lucy Wadham will be published in July (Faber & Faber, £16.99). www.secretlifeoffrance.com