Thursday, July 29, 2004

Noblesse Oblige: Expecting French Subjects to Do What the Custodians of State Power Have Decided Is Best for France

In his annual Bastille Day televised interview, the French president, Jacques Chirac, gave a performance illustrating the contradictions of his presidency and the tension in France between Republican values and hierarchical traditions. The style as much as the substance of Chirac's discourse cast light on the dead weight of old French habits and the new opportunities of European integration
wrote the Boston Globe in an editorial entitled Chirac's Hauteur.
…when asked about that possibility in his Bastille Day interview [that French voters will take out their discontent with Chirac's presidency by voting down a European Constitution that he has made a personal cause], Chirac responded with a lordly hauteur that no US president would dare affect. "Honestly," the old Gaullist said, "I have confidence in the French."

Commendable as his position on a referendum may be, Chirac's way of calling on the French to agree with his notion of their best interests is rife with elitist assumptions. His profession of confidence means that he expects subjects of the French state to do what the custodians of state power have decided is best for France.

Chirac was expressing the unquestioned sense of entitlement that lives in members of France's permanent governing class — those alumni of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, dubbed Enarques, who revolve from one ministerial post to another in pursuit of the ultimate perch now occupied by Chirac. To show that he has no intention of yielding to his primary political rival, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac answered a separate question about a dispute between them on defense spending by saying, simply: "I decide, he executes." This was a more explicit version of what he expects the French to do when they vote on the European Constitution. The French call it noblesse oblige.

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