Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hollande's First Presidential Speech

Discours de M. François Hollande en hommage à... by elysee

 No one would mistake the new president for the old one. With Sarkozy, the partisan leader was never far from the surface. He could break into fighting mode at the turn of a phrase. Hollande, by contrast, has put his campaign mode aside. He has donned a new persona to signify that he is president of all the people. Gone are the Mitterandian gestures, the hoarse shouts, the hyped-up intensity. As president, he is all sobriety (the TV commentators couldn't help remarking on his gravity), and his first speech as president was intended to consecrate the value of education, which he intends to make a centerpiece of his quinquennat. (Rumor has it, by the way, that Aubry will be named Minister of State in charge of education, youth, and communication, a signal of Hollande's priorities.)

But--how to say this without seeming condescending?--let's be candid. The speech is a bit boring. More than a bit, in fact. It not only celebrates the glory of the Third Republic's crown jewel, l'école gratuite et laïque, it re-enacts a century of fusty school prize speeches. It celebrates education in such a thoroughly pedestrian way that it surely must have reminded more than one former élève of watching the classroom clock and waiting for the hour of liberation to strike. It's a schoolmasterly speech but far from a masterly piece of rhetoric, and it somehow seems fated that Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German teacher, has been named prime minister.

That said, I'm surely pleased that France has a president who is capable of praising education without attacking teachers, who is capable of praising Jules Ferry and reminding his audience of Ferry's faults in the same breath, who can praise the Third Republic and at the same time denounce the "moral fault" of colonialism. Hollande's intentions are surely good, but somehow I couldn't stop thinking about what it is that good intentions pave the road to. And the speech was only 15 minutes long--much less than five years, and infinitely less than eternity. We may have reason to be grateful that Hollande says he will be a self-effacing president. Too much of such unrelievedly good things as this speech contained could easily become unbearable. And one thing you can say for Sarkozy: he was seldom boring to listen to. Rage at least quickens the heart.

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