Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sarkoy, Bush and Words

Even though this may seem very trivial to most Americans, the idea of a French president not speaking properly may irritate a lot of French people, and lately much has been said about Sarkozy's butchering the French manguage :

Mr Sarkozy jangles nerves with colloquial tics such as dropping the “ne” between pronoun and verb in negative sentences. “J'écoute mais je tiens pas compte,” he said the other day. (I listen but I don't take notice).
He often uses the slangy “ch'ais pas” for “je ne sais pas” and “ch'uis” instead of “je suis”.

Like Tony Blair with his pseudo estuary-speak, Mr Sarkozy is a lawyer with a posh education who uses low-class tones as a way of endearing himself. The style grates because of France's attachment to language as a unifying force. Most previous leaders have cultivated a literary side, including military ones such as Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The President stands accused of setting a bad example when he is trying to stem a
decline in literacy.
His language mistakes are even compared to those of George W.Bush (An insulting comparison in France,) with a smilar goal of trying to reach "everyday Joe". There is for sure a comparison to be made in the divisive nature of both presidents' rhetoric.

".... the visceral dislike of Sarkozy that is so widespread in France [is likened] with the Bush phobia that was until recently so rampant in the US." More interesting, is the idea that "one of the reasons Obama won was that he never ceded to the facility of Bush-bashing. I think there's something to this observation."

On his blog, Arthur Goldhammer says...
[he] has been struck at times by Sarkozy's fluency without a teleprompter. Bush could never have survived if presidential debates in the French format were a part of American campaigning. He could occasionally read a speech well, but on his own he was helpless, and his face always revealed his panic. Sarkozy is never at a loss for words, and he doesn't always "parler peuple" when on his own. He is an actor, who knows how to control his effects and his voice. His body language needs work, as does his superego: his greatest vice, it seems to me, is his inability to conceal contempt without great effort. He likes to let people know how little he thinks of them.

As for recognizing that reasonable people may disagree with what he says, yes, but with one caveat: he has a (lawyerly) habit of reducing complex issues to a stark alternative: it's either X or Y, and Y is so clearly inferior that what would you have me do, if not X? I've remarked on this before, and on the often obvious R,S,T, U,V,W, and Z that might be discussed as alternatives. It's a lawyer's trick, but one that he uses well, unlike Bush, who occasionally tried it ("You're either with us or against us" comes to mind), but so crudely that the gambit was pointless.

As for the penchant for "parler peuple," times change.
Roosevelt could become a secular saint even with his patrician accents, but I don't think any American politician with that accent could be elected today (think of how Bush Sr. was ridiculed whenever he showed patrician touches). Even Obama does it. Even I do it: I don't speak with the same grammar or diction to the UPS deliveryman or the carpenter as I do to my colleagues. It's instinctual, not calculated. And I am more likely to think of an American-born professor who affects an Oxbridge accent as a hypocrite than I am of a politician who modulates his tone to what he believes his audience expects. And as for literature, Richard Poirier thinks that the distinctive mark of one of our greatest literary stylists, Saul Bellow, was his unparalleled ability to veer from the high-flown to the demotic in mid-sentence. In a sense this pliability is the essence of the American language, and in this respect, perhaps, the epithet "the American" really does attach to Sarkozy. Destarching official French has its virtues.
I agree Sarkozy is more convincing than Bush ever was and he is in his own way a master of (populist) rhetoric, but even though Sarkozy's speeches appealed to the French when he was a candidate for the presidency, they have made people really tired. The French expect more from a man who represents their country anyway.

Besides, however powerful it may be, Sarkozy's habit of reducing complex issues to binary solutions is something that makes me uneasy. I suspect it is not the sign of good pedagogism (as in Obama's case) but that it reflects his lack of understanding of the complexity of many of those issues. This binary view may be the reasons for many of the hasty decisions and the ill-conceived laws he has initiated.


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