Another Perspective

Chatter and Trouble

Mrs. Sarkozy isn't the only one forgetting that civic life requires a certain reserve.

By 3.14.08

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I was about to sit down and write about France's first lady but events overtook me. Women and politics are everywhere in the news. If there's always a woman behind the throne, there is often a woman under it as well -- sometimes the same one -- preparing, or at least prepared, to blow it up.

Carla Bruni, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife of a few weeks, gave an interview in which she said that she was "faithful... to myself." Well, that's novel. Not so much the concept as the public acknowledgment of it. To thine own self be true and so forth, but she was specifically referring to conjugal fidelity, and you have to ask yourself whether she, a known leftist, was trying to embarrass her man, who is boldly trying to show that in France these days, serious reform comes from the right.

Evidently not; it seems rather France's premiere dame was trying to express her passionate, her Italian (she made that questionable ethnic generalization, not me) nature. Now in France, it has been a given since the mid-19th century when Gustave Flaubert created the character of Madame Bovary, that when a woman seeks "passion" outside the conjugal bedchamber she usually merits more pity than contempt, for anyone trite enough to confuse true passion with a fling exhibits not emotional depth but frivolous shallowness, an inability, in fact, to "authentically" feel. (And of course the French are wrong; Emma is shallow, but her milieu is vapid and cruel; and Flaubert says: that's life.)

However, for the other occupant of the Elysee Palace to put a red light on the door is not likely to help the president's image as a hands-on, hyper-active reformer. The French are famous for their supposed tolerance of one another's peccadilloes, though in practice there is a big difference between how they would like the world to view them and how they view the behavior in question when it affects them. To the degree that, inevitably, people project themselves onto the image presented by their leaders, it is not at all clear that the French are going to enjoy seeing themselves as a nation of cuckolds and nymphos. They may chuckle, shrug, or add this to their list of Sarko faux-pas, but how will they answer their souls' questions at four in the morning?

Carla Bruni bragged of her past "conquests" and spoke of favoring men with "nuclear power," an apt (or alarming) metaphor when you consider that the president of France has his finger on what they call the "force de frappe" (an image that would please the late, great Norman Mailer, who referred to a certain part of the male anatomy as "the avenger"). But he and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have referred obliquely to nuclear warfare in relation to the Persians. Is she playing to French pacifism with an appeal to making love not war when the man in her life has to plan his position, I mean France's?

Which was it? Was she trying to help or trying to hinder? On its face, neither -- she sounded rather like a spoiled and selfish brat. One imagines that even the most uxorious husband when confronted with such feminine cattiness secretly wishes the little lady would just be quiet.

TAKE SENATOR OBAMA, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination in this year's presidential race. By all evidence he has a wonderful marriage, his attractive young family an asset to his life and his ambitions. But Mrs. Obama, a highly paid corporate lawyer, has been heard to make some awfully weird remarks about her own country, suggesting that there is a resentment in her that is painful to behold and that some close observers of the senator believe represents his point of view as well.

Resentment is always painful to behold, though in the case of Michelle Obama, it can be argued that she comes by it honestly. You might be resentful too if you were the descendant of people kidnapped into slavery and abused by a system of legal discrimination. You might want to, as they say, "vent."

As a Jew, I spend one, sometimes two evenings a year saying mean things about mitzrahim, Egyptians of ancient times, who abused and kidnapped and discriminated against my grandparents. Well, no, my grandparents were persecuted by Cossacks, but my point is that the humiliation may be very close to home or very far away, but such legacies are transmitted.

And yet, civic life requires a certain reserve. What you say in the private sanctity of your home during the Passover seder is not what you say in the public square. Would I want my wife to say she was proud of America only because, at last, as I run for city council (which I am not, but you know what I mean), voices can be heard in the neighborhood -- or more accurately, to make the comparison with Senator Obama better, voices cannot be heard in the neighborhood -- about the rightness or wrongness of letting a Hebe represent the shvatzes.

To be honest, no, I would not. I would prefer she stay in the kitchen. She is a terrific cook. As Dashiell Hammett once said to Lillian Hellman, -- but never mind.

On the other hand, people in thirst of "change" may develop doubts about their herald after this. Is the candidate buying into this sort of openly, ragefully expressed anti-American resentment? Is that the kind of change anyone wants? This sort of thing comes with a price in lost votes.

WHAT WE ARE WITNESSING, it seems, is an outbreak of women putting their feet in their mouths. Not being Dick Morris (a Democrat), I cannot find this attractive. Geraldine Ferraro (a Democrat), much maligned lately for saying something about the young senator that on the face of it is not controversial, is being browbeaten as a mean racist and told that she is objectively advancing the Republican cause.

All this is not evidence for keeping women out of politics. Neither Mrs. Margaret Chase Smith (Republican), nor Mrs Thatcher (Tory) ever made remarks so gauche as those of Miss Bruni, Obama, and Ferrarro. Nor did Mrs. Meir (socialist) or Mrs. Gandhi (authoritarian). Joan of Arc was a class act and so was her Algerian (Jewish) (yes) predecessor, Kahina, who fought the Arab invaders. But observe that these dignified and classy ladies -- never mind if you agree or not with their politics -- were in power, not standing behind, or next to, or what, a man in power or seeking power. Think about it.

Which reminds me, you have to be awfully careful what you do. The governor of New York (Democrat), probably ex-governor by the time I finish this, could be held up as an example of hubris, but that would be easy. I think it's his wife's fault. She should have scolded him for spending so much time in other towns and running up such bills. She should have done that. In private.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.