The Meaning of Sarkozy

Raymond Kuhn thinks a disparaging volume about the French President should offer deeper analysis

July 2, 2009

This slim volume by Alain Badiou, the well-known radical theorist and philosopher, aspires to provide an insight into the political phenomenon of Nicolas Sarkozy, the successful candidate of the mainstream Right in the 2007 French presidential election. Badiou's standpoint is one of profound hostility, not just to the policies advocated by Sarkozy in the campaign, but to the core ideological values the President is deemed to represent; indeed, in terms of style and substance, Sarkozy personifies everything that Badiou detests in the election-driven politics of contemporary advanced democracies.

None of this particularly marks Badiou out from the many other French authors who have contributed to the large body of negative commentary on Sarkozy both before and since his election. Over the past year, Sarkozy- bashing has become a national pastime in France, with the President's mediatised over-exposure of his private life, his lack of self-control in public and his failure to resolve pressing domestic problems providing much grist to the mill of the critical punditry.

What differentiates Badiou's attack is its mix of linguistic excess and historical framing. Badiou calls Sarkozy the "Rat Man" - a reference not just to the President's hyperactivity and nervous tics but also to Freud's celebrated case of obsessional neurosis. Sarkozy's election victory is attributed to an unscrupulous exploitation of the fear felt by many French citizens in a campaign that scapegoated foreigners, immigrants and youngsters from the deprived suburbs as the enemy within. The Sarkozy presidency represents a variant of what Badiou calls "transcendental Petainism" in its desire to "restore public order and morals", by which Badiou means not that Sarkozy resembles Petain but rather that the "mass subjectivity that brought Sarkozy to power, and sustains his actions, finds its unconscious national-historical roots in Petainism".

This over-the-top vilification may well endear Badiou to those on the ultra-Left who see Sarkozy as the latest in a long line of archetypal reactionary representatives of the Right. However, there is little of substance here for those not already committed to the cause or indeed for anyone who retains a preference for joined-up analytic reasoning based on a rigorous examination of evidence.

Of course, it could be argued that Badiou is deliberately hyping up his critique for effect. After all, France has a long and distinguished tradition of polemical writing in political commentary, with facts rarely allowed to get in the way of partisan invective. Moreover, in the competitive marketplace of ideas, a penchant for excess may well be a commercially attractive strategy - certainly sales of the book in France exceeded the publisher's expectations, no doubt helped by the considerable media attention that followed its publication. Many readers, however, will no doubt feel short-changed by the book's tendency towards sweeping rhetorical generalisations that despite all the best efforts of an able translator sound even more vacuous in English than in the original French.

Aside from the attack on Sarkozy, much of the rest of the book is a well-trodden ultra-leftist critique of capitalism, state power and the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Badiou's attack on globalisation may strike a chord with many in an era of shocking disparities of wealth and income both within and between different societies, while his condemnation of xenophobia and emphasis on a shared humanity find resonance in the context of a French society that has found it difficult in recent years to practise inclusive tolerance. Yet the analysis in these sections rarely goes beyond the banal.

Moreover, when in the final chapters Badiou moves on to sketch a possible response to the problems he has evoked, the reader is invited to enter a world of Peter Pan politics. The book ends with an appeal to embrace "the communist hypothesis", whereby "a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour: every individual will be a 'multi-purpose worker', and in particular people will circulate between manual and intellectual work, as well as between town and country". This book is a disappointment both for those who want to understand the France of Sarkozy and for those who wish to change it.

The Meaning of Sarkozy

By Alain Badiou

Verso, 120pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781844673094

Published 2 February 2009

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