By Nicolas Sarkozy
(Herscher, 304 pages, $33)
Published on September 22.
Only available in French.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made headlines this year when he became the first president in French history to receive a prison sentence. In September, the sixth president of France’s Fifth Republic was found guilty of exceeding campaign finance limits during his 2012 re-election campaign; he was ultimately defeated in that election by François Hollande with a 3.2 percent margin. This guilty verdict was preceded by a conviction in March for influence peddling.
Sarkozy will serve out a total of one year of his three-year sentence at home monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet. During all this brouhaha, Sarkozy, who also previously served as president of the Union for a Popular Movement and remains popular with France’s conservative base, released a new book. Promenades, named for the walks which the young Nicolas habitually took with his grandfather in Paris, is simultaneously a testimonial for the arts, a political manifesto, and a personal recollection.
The title is particularly appropriate because it was during these walks with his grandfather, with whom he enjoyed a very close relationship, that Sarkozy received his first exposure to art in the form of postage stamps. This introduction in his formative years inspired the future leader to become a stamp collector, private art collector, cultivator of public art creation, and ultimately, a champion of artists, writers, musicians, and cinematographers.
Promenades is a surprisingly delightful read. Collectively 300 pages, the text is limited to 75 pages with the balance of the content dedicated to illustrations of legendary artwork, copies of original correspondence, and quotations from famous writers like Victor Hugo and artists such as Pablo Picasso which extol the power and beauty of literature, art, and music. The book’s simple format belies its complexity and its brevity makes it highly accessible. Promenades is first and foremost a book about the arts and their inherent ability to inspire, challenge, and comfort. Moreover, the arts are depicted as though they are as necessary as food and water. As Sarkozy says: “L’être humain a besoin de l’art pour vivre.” — “The human being needs art to live.”
Promenades is also a deeply personal work without actually being a memoir. The work is intimate because it is a compendium of Sarkozy’s favorite artists and their respective works alongside related anecdotes detailing his exposure to his chosen creative muses. Sarkozy cites his involvement with the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, highlighting the architecture of Rudy Riccotti as an example of design that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also popular with the residents of Marseille. On a more personal note, Sarkozy describes how his wife Carla Bruni’s music so resonates with him that he forgets that she is his wife.
The book is also a primer on best practices for experiencing the arts and for teaching children and adolescents to cultivate an appreciation for them. Sarkozy argues that an affinity for artwork, literature, and music does not happen in a vacuum, but instead involves disciplined exposure. To that end, he set a personal goal for himself to read 50 pages each night. He also believes that schools and parents need to take a more targeted, age-appropriate approach to arts education. For instance, he makes the point that educators sometimes do students a disservice when they introduce them to complex literature before they have the maturity to fully appreciate the story, the characters, the language, and the work’s historical context. The same adage applies to cultural activities outside of school. Dragging a child to museum exhibits for long periods of time is not a way to foster appreciation. It is better to arrange for shorter visits to specific exhibits where the child can experience art at his own pace.
At the end of the day, Sarkozy is still a politician despite his professed exit from political life. Consequently, Promenades is inherently a political commentary. For instance, the former president is critical of the elitist narrative that there should be a firewall between art and commerce. He highlights the hypocrisy of film award entities who overlook the artistic merits of financially successful films largely because they have mass-market appeal.
Sarkozy also uses Promenades as a vehicle to protest political correctness and the cancel culture movement. He provides various examples of attempts to eradicate art and literary works that are deemed culturally offensive such as the paintings of Paul Gauguin, which have in recent years come under fire for their perceived depiction of nude Tahitians in a colonialist construct. Sarkozy makes a compelling argument that other cancel culture opponents have not articulated quite so eloquently: “La culture ne peut être une victime collatérale des crises de ce début du XXI siècle car elle est la première réponse a ses crises.” — “Culture cannot be a collateral victim of the crisis at the start of the 21st century because she is the first response to these crises.”
Sarkozy has also integrated an anti-globalism message into Promenades. He posits that a national culture and language is critical to the survival of a nation with the caveat that the nation’s framework is welcoming to those who choose to make a particular country their new home. “Pour former une nation digne de ce nom, il faut avoir eu de la chance de lire les mêmes livres, de s’enthousiasmer autour des mêmes films ou series, d’écouter et de danser au son des mêmes musiques, de fredonner les mêmes chansons. Il n’ya pas de nation perenne sans une culture commune.” — “To form a nation worthy of its name, it is necessary to have the opportunity to read the same books, get enthusiastic about the same films or series, to listen and dance to the sound of the same music, to hum the same songs. One cannot have a perennial nation without a common culture.”
He points out efforts to dilute the French culture and language such as his alma mater the Paris Institute of Political Studies’ (Sciences Po) decision to offer a significant proportion of its courses in English. As an American who studied briefly at Sciences Po years ago, I took pride in the fact that I was studying French politics in French at a prestigious French university. A national identity is not just important for the citizens of a nation, but also for the citizens of other nations who elect to immerse themselves in the host nation’s culture.
Promenades is a highly accessible book that succeeds on three fronts. The work provides additional insight into the popular but controversial man who is Nicolas Sarkozy. Secondly, it reinforces the importance of retaining a national culture and history. Finally, Promenades encourages us to explore and embrace art in its many forms to enrich ourselves culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. And that is a message which cannot be delivered often enough.
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