Some people think that to be présidentiable it helps to be a pipole (as in People Magazine). All kinds of nonpolitical considerations can make you une star. Current president Nicolas Sarkozy’s pipole-rating spiked when he married beautiful former model and pop singer Carla Bruni. Not that she’s saved him from himself. He’s still the man who called a voter a “pauve con” (poor jerk). Although Sarko, whose campaign platform was brashly “politiquement incorrect,” proved that even a mediocre student and former real estate attorney can be incontournable (unbeatable), the same behavior has lately made him crash in the polls.
Yesterday at the crêperie, Betty and I were downing our “complètes” (ham-and-cheese crêpes with an egg on top), and talking about the trouble one can get into by merely opening one’s mouth. Sarko is so frequently criticized for his inelegant French that the Minister of National Education had to come to his defense. In expert langue de bois (polit-speak, double-talk) Luc Chatel declared that the president’s gaffes are actually an endearing quality, saying that Sarko’s clumsy, even vulgar speech expresses “his sense of intimacy” with the public. “He speaks spontaneously. His words are the opposite of calculated — they’re a sign of great sincerity.”
A French hobby is harassing public figures for neglecting their language. Journalists especially love targeting les politiques for barbarismes — deformed or invented words like expéditivité, françaisement and solutionner. Giving a word a wrong meaning, such as using médiatisation to mean “publicizing” instead of “mediation,” not to mention misusing words like compréhensibilité (often pressed into service to convey “all-inclusiveness” instead of “comprehensibility”) and sportivité (used to mean “athleticism” instead of “sportsmanship”), has earned numerous politicians bad press.
Ségolène Royal, une candidate in the Socialist primaries for the next présidentielles, caused a brief furor a few years ago when she created the word “bravitude” while giving a speech in China. Quel scandale ! Headline: “Ségolène malmène les morphèmes (mistreats morphemes).” A right-wing politician called the word an “ovni lexical” (lexical UFO). For days Royal supporters and detractors fought over the expression: Was it a lapsus (substituting one word for another), a néologisme (a totally new expression) or just a barbarisme ? Betty thinks Royal did it intentionally. “Quel tour de force !” says Betty. “Ségo used her faux pas to get headlines without actually having to take a position on anything.” Now médiatisation has entered the dictionary with its new meaning, and it’s clear that Ségo understands the principle. Even bad publicity is good publicity. If everybody uses your nickname, at least you’ve got name recognition.
On the pipolization score, pas de blème (from pas de problème) for Ségolène. Madame Royal bears the stamp of approval of l’ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration), which trains France’s top diplomats and politicos. Moreover, people like to look at her. Supported by la gauche caviar (rich leftists), she’s classy, pretty, and photogenic — characteristics which can be advantages or handicaps, depending on who’s looking. Above all, Ségo is well-dressed. Even Le Figaro comments on her costumes, in once case nicknaming her “La Dame en blanc” (like Bernadette’s vision at Lourdes), after she made an official visit de blanc vêtue (dressed in white).
The other possible female presidential candidate for the Socialist ticket, Martine Aubry, is neither photogenic nor a fashion plate. Aubry is known for her sérieux (seriousness) — She’s the Secrétaire générale (head) of the Parti Socialiste, and largely orchestrated the mixed blessing of France’s 35-hour work week. Even if she hasn’t developed a catchy nickname for les médias, Aubry, also une énarque (ENA grad), has the added star-power of being the daughter of statesman Jacques Delors. Her father, after serving as President of the Commission of European Communities for ten years, despite much urging decided not to run for President of France in 1994.
However, nickname or no, Aubry can still get into trouble over language. Recently she was taken to task by Ségolène Royal for being verbally uncouth. Royal said that Martine Aubry referred to her as “la Ségolène” on a TV newscast. The exact quote: “Elle est un petit peu impatiente, la Ségolène“ (The Ségolène is being a little bit impatient). In standard French, putting an article in front of a woman’s name is condescending and pejorative — as one commentator remarked, the equivalent of calling Ségo une chipie (a shrew). This is not the kind of mistake someone with Aubry’s background and intelligence makes accidentally, Ségo fumed. It was grave, a planned insult.
Aubry responded that her statement was totally innocent. Its meaning had been changed by a typographical error when it was transcribed into print. Quoi ? Yes, Aubry insists. It wasn’t grave, it was un accent grave. She really said: “Elle est un petit peu impatiente, là, Ségolène” (Ségolène is being a little bit impatient there). According to Aubry, the missing accent grave and comma completely transformed her remark. Some critics still accuse Aubry of habitually using “la petite phrase assassine” (the little sentence that kills) as a way of putting down her competition. But then the press loves to portray women as petty and nasty. It disempowers them. Like the United States, France has never had a présidente.
I’m just a bystander here, but a cat can look at a queen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a woman eventually win the election. Despite her bad placement in the polls, it might even be Ségolène Royal. Not for her campaign platform, or even her leadership abilities, but because being female, photogenic and endowed with name recognition, she personifies three of my favorite French paradoxes.
1) The fiercely individualistic French long for la Nation to mother and nurture them. Who better than a woman socialist?
2) The French admire subtlety, refinement and cultivation, but they often judge these by superficial appearances. Many who think Ségolène’s photographs show le look, la beauté, et l’élégance, assume there’s value underneath.
3) Despite liberté, égalité and fraternité, the French have a persistent nostalgia for la grandeur de la monarchie. Face it, no candidate could be more Royal.