Danger man?

The one thing everybody knew they would get from Nicolas Sarkozy was change. So no one will be surpr

"I am a little Frenchman of immigrant stock . . .

"I have known failure and had to overcome it."

So said Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president of France, whose modest self-assessment masks an ambition the size of Macbeth's. That is not to say his reign will surprise France; it promises rather to shake the nation out of its hidebound ways. His rise to power breaks an old mould, presenting the world with a new France much as Margaret Thatcher once introduced a new Britain.

It seems clear that there will be greater change with Sarkozy than there could have been with Ségolène Royal, the left's defeated presidential candidate, because it is a surge of energy that the French have voted for. In the recent years of economic torpor, ghetto disturbances and social despond, France has looked like the sick country of Europe. Poor Ségolène, "new" as she appeared, was hobbled by a little too much old Socialist baggage to be able to offer enough energy. Though Sarkozy, aged 52, has served near the top of the conservative government for five years, he has none the less convinced enthralled voters that he offers change aplenty. With Sarko, it would seem, taboos are there to be broken.

Danger man! Brute! Chancer! Epithets that cling to the diminutive president-elect - mostly thrown by the humbled left, it must be said - have actually served to promote his cause: a break with past political thinking and with a national aversion to risk.

If this Thatcher-in-trousers is heading into an inevitable confrontation with the unions, no one can say he hasn't prepared France for the scrap. He will amend the 35-hour working week so that it is no longer the reposeful regulation it implies; he will force strikers to maintain a minimum service for trains, buses and other public services to prevent the total standstills to which France is wearily accustomed; he will slice into the bloated state bureaucracy, where the unions are strongest, by permitting one replacement for every two retiring government office workers. As a prospective union tamer, he has to contend not so much with the size of union membership (the numbers are proportionately smaller than in Britain), but with the benefit-driven French culture that the unions resolutely uphold.

Roughly stated, President Sarkozy's goal for the French is: put aside the welfare culture, work more, earn more and thereby enrich the country, thus creating more jobs. The accent is on the value of hard work and getting up early to start it. He and his supporters have coined a wonderfully bleak word for work-shyness that hardly needs translating - assistanat. Sarkozy's France is poised to remove equality and perhaps fraternity from the illustrious triad formed in 1789.

Uncompromising

His is a free-market, self-responsibility venture that he claims every advanced country in Europe, from Britain to those in Scandinavia, and lately Germany, has adopted to its advantage. In this sense, he represents not so much novelty as catch-up politics with a conservative twist. Long ago, when he first started planning his assault on the presidency, he provoked fellow conser vatives by saying that the traditional "French model", pursued to differing degrees by both left and right, no longer worked. His iconoclastic solution: "When something doesn't work, change to something that does." Conservative grandees, from the outgoing president Jacques Chirac down, have loathed Sarkozy for his pushiness, though they have felt it wise to keep him in charge of law and order as interior minister, where his uncompromising language has proved popular with most sections of opinion except the young and immigrants.

The man who will rule France for the next five years, very possibly ten, speaks his mind more than most politicians. He has taken the politics of the personal to unexplored frontiers in France and voters have evidently admired the candour, however contrived. Ségolène Royal, for all her courage, came across as closed and humourless by comparison, reciting her caring leftist beliefs by rote. In the end, his victory came with a clear six-point margin (53 per cent to 47 per cent) - quite enough, in view of a vigorous voter turnout, to give him full legitimacy to carry out his programme. Moreover, he has done France the favour of incapacitating the extreme right, ending the truculent career of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The "little Frenchman of immigrant stock" is indeed the son of an immigrant, a distressed but not impoverished one - a Hungarian squireling who landed in France before Hitler's war to avoid the turbulence in the Habsburg lands, and then married the daughter of a Jewish doctor from Ottoman Greece, himself a naturalised Frenchman and convert to Catholicism. The exotic marriage failed, leaving what Sarkozy calls a bitterly unhappy mark on his childhood. He became a lawyer before turning to full-time politics with extraordinary zeal in his mid-twenties. To the delight of the gossip columns, the personal candour he has come to trade upon reaches to owning up about his on-off relations with his wife, Cécilia, who twice left home on his route to the presidency and who at his moment of triumph on election night last Sunday was absent, showing up only for a mass late-night victory party on the Place de la Concorde.

Whiff of nationalism

As such, Sarkozy is a largely sympathetic figure even if you don't care for his policies. Besides the dynamism, there is an easy intimacy - a desire to be matey - that is likely to disarm even dour Gordon Brown. Tony Blair, whom Sarkozy has often cited as his example, made a video in French and rushed it to Paris for the TV networks to congratulate "mon ami Nicolas".

The object of Blair's affections is far from an ideologue: for Danger Man read, more accurately, Action Man. His emphasis on national identity - for which he intends to create a new government ministry - carries a whiff of nationalism of the kind that many people in France and abroad frown at, and is certainly a concern for today's mainly Arab immigrants in France, yet he presents it as the key to successful integration. That said, yes, he is tough on immigration. Those who insist on treating women as inferior or who don't learn French will fail the identity test he has in mind for newcomers. He wants to fix immigration quotas according to the newcomers' capacity to find work and housing. With him, French identity is deeply emotional stuff, as he indicated when claiming victory: "I love France as one loves someone dear who has given you everything, and now it is my turn to pay her back for what she has given me."

Don't look for grandeur, though. Listen instead for some sharp crowing from the French cock, especially on the vexed subject of Europe, which he is making his first priority. Immediately after taking office on 16 May he will head for Brussels and then Berlin, where Angela Merkel awaits him to revive the elusive EU constitution that France threw out in a referendum just two years ago. He is, he affirms, a committed European and he supports the concept of political union from which Blair and Brown have shrunk.

He will sign up to Merkel's slimmed-down constitutional treaty, containing the essentials of the rejected one, and have it ratified by a new French parliament to be elected in June. No more awkward referendums on Europe for Sarkozy.

The cock will crow loudest over Europe's economic status. While he embraces the market-capitalism ethic for his new France within the EU, Sarkozy is too wary of "outsourcing" to agree to leave Europe without protection from the rest of the world. Economic intervention is one temptation French leaders can't resist, and the new president will be no exception. For a brief period when he served as finance minister between his law-and-order responsibilities, Sarkozy's sniping at the European Central Bank showed that he dislikes the very thing that makes it tick - its independence. He wants member states to guide the bank in setting interest rates. Here lies ground for conflict with Brown, for while Britain is not in the eurozone, the PM-to-be prides himself on his initiative in making the Bank of England independent.

Royal and the French left are adrift once more, as they were after the previous presidential election in 2002. They are a social-democratic tribe without its script and logo: they confess they have been too slow to shed hoary socialist principles and lingering Marxist ideas for the modern electorate. Their outlook is bleak for the legislative elections on 10 and 17 June.

Sarkozy should have little trouble in inducing voters to give him a sizeable parliamentary majority in the two-round poll. He promises to give parliament more power, but only to assert himself as an American-style president exerting close executive control - less the omnipotent umpire that past presidents have been, more the Action Man. His ambition may yet be chopped and sawn by the unions, but the trees have a long, long way to go to Dunsinane.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?