Sunday, October 11, 2009

On the Difference between 'Art' and Government.

Interesting and unexpected developments followed the Polanski case (see our previous post).
As you may have heard (or not), the whole Polanski case has turned here in France into the Mitterrand case. The French Minister of Culture has been criticized by a number of politicians for his attack on the United States when he expressed his outrage after Roman Polanski was arrested.

It also turned out that the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, (nephew of the now deceased former French-president François Mitterrand) had written an autobiography (‘La Mauvaise Vie’, ‘The Bad Life’) in which he talks about his sexual tourism and adventures with boys. (see excerpt here in French). Imagine how the media got a field day on that one.

The controversy started when Marine Le Pen (extreme far-right) read an excerpt on television and demanded his resign.
What followed was a controversy, a scandal and an interview with French television network TF1 on the 8 o’clock news (which had a record audience) in which Frédéric Mitterand said he "absolutely condemn(s) sexual tourism, which is a disgrace, and ... pedophilia," in which he insisted he has never participated. He also admitted to "errors" in paying for sex in the past, but said he had relations only with men his age.

It is very unusual in France to talk about the private life of a politician. There are very strict laws protecting people’s privacy but this case is different because Mitterrand made it public by writing a book about it, and also because he’s a member of government and as such his words and actions are (and should be) scrutinized.
The other reason why it is unusual is that Frédéric Mitterrand has been a rather popular figure in the French media. He was known for being a great story teller and a bit of an eccentric which the French tend to like. This may explain partly why some people are so uncomfortable with this affair.

That being said, it is pretty obvious to me that he should resign from his position, if nothing else because he is not fit to be a Minister.
  • First of all, he should think before he opens his mouth which clearly he didn’t (i.e. when he defended Polanski by blaming the U.S. without even knowing all the details). He acted as a private citizen, not as a member of France’s government.
    Then, I thought his interview was less than convincing – Thailand is known for the prostitution of its young boys and Mitterrand’s text is ambiguous enough to keep the suspicion. (it is available in French here). He mentions a boy of 20 but he also uses the word “ephèbe” (usually a boy who just reached puberty.).
  • But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, he has still admitted having had sex with prostitutes in Thailand. What is that if not “sexual tourism”? So how can he not see the contradiction between what he says when he said he "absolutely condemn(s) sexual tourism, which is a disgrace” and his actions and his refusal to resign? How can he talk about defending his honor and not admit what he did and humbly resign? What honor is there to cling onto his post?
  • Worse still, I think : he has also turned his sexual encounters into an object of good literature, and here lies another problem – he has kept the ambiguity about whether his book was a biography or partly fiction. It is extremely hypocritical and an easy way to deny reality. I was not born yesterday and am no puritan - I know that from André Gide to Vladimir Nabokov, the subject of sex between mature males and young boys or girls has been the theme of great literature (but clearly not my favorite). But it is one thing to write a novel and be an artist dealing with one’s own demons, it is another to be a Minister and a member of France’s government. Different positions, different standards.
  • His ambiguous words (to say the least) undermine the credibility of France’s government abroad. It also undermines the fight against sex tourism (France has precisely arrested returning sexual tourists from Thailand ) and even, because of the ambiguity of the words he used, against pedophilia.
  • Worse still, it creates sick associations in people’s minds between homosexuality and pedophilia which have nothing to do with each other, and may make some people more suspicious of gays.
  • It also undermines the credibility of the political world (as if they needed it) when the media pundits and fellow politicians defend him simply because they know him. Such defense underlines the collusion of the elite and takes them further apart from the rest of the country. A lot of people might see that there are double standards between the way the little guy is treated by the authorities and how a Minister can get away with pretty much anything. After all, Sarkozy has constantly made a point of tough treatment of sex offenders.
  • Finally, the subtext of how Mitterrand has been handling the situation is that people of talent (i.e. artists) should get away with some things because of their talent. It is the old idea of the doomed artist that no one in the regular world can understand who should be given some leeway so he can do his art. I don’t agree and think it is a myth perpetuated by people in power who use art as a smokescreen. In other words, it is bullshit.

I am not saying Mitterrand should necessarily be put on trial if he committed no crime (frankly, I know nothing of the legal implications here), and I am not for either beating a dead horse or going on a witch hunt but frankly; I don’t want to be alongside traditionalists who may use this for their political agenda, and I certainly do not like what Marine Le Pen has in mind, but it remains that this whole case is a real shame for this country. I find the whole idea that this man should represent French culture abroad impossible to defend. Let him be a damned artist if he wills, maybe a sensitive writer as he is perceived by some who are “touched” by his writing, and certainly a great man of culture but certainly not a member of government.


This is likely to have great political implications in France. I have not read polls on this particular case, and don’t really know what the public opinion is, but the popularity of the Sarkozy government has just taken another dip, and they just don’t need this.

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