Another Uproar over Mis-Spoken Words

More now about the verbal misstep committed by that right-wing politician last week in Strasbourg . . .

“Oh no – Berlusconi again?” you might moan. No, no: this time I’m talking about French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. It seems that at a meeting of the Council of Europe there Raffarin let loose with the following bon mot: La France n’en est encore sur le chemin de son paradis qu’au purgatoire, puisqu’il reste des socialistes. “France is not yet on the road to paradise but rather in purgatory, since there are still Socialists around.” (The Socialists are the main party in opposition in France; the Council of Europe has nothing to do directly with the European Union – in fact, it pre-dates it – but instead acts as a general, non-executive European political forum; see its website here.)

I found out about this incident in today’s New York Times (registration required), and, sure enough, from the way the Times described what was going on, it looked once again like a case of a joke – or people’s reaction to a joke – being taken too far. For example, according to Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the Socialist faction in the French National Assembly, “Mr. Raffarin no longer deserves the title of prime minister of the Republic.” So I decided to apply the EuroSavant treatment to it – let’s look at what the French on-line papers have made of it.

Raffarin might have thought he had chosen the right place – the Council of Europe is an international political forum, and therefore not an exclusively French political occasion – but he should have known that this was the wrong time for this sort of thing, for the next day had a vote-of-confidence in his right-wing government on the schedule of the Assemblée Nationale. But at least Raffarin was much more conscientious than Berlusconi had been about trying to control the damage which his remarks had caused, as we can tell from Le Monde’s report of what went on after he left Strasbourg. While still on the airplane, he composed a communiqué apologizing “to all those who had been injured” by his words, and had it transmitted to news organizations as well as back to government spokesman Jean-Francois Copé, who read it out to the Assembly. Then, still in the air, Raffarin decided to go directly to the Assembly to explain himself – but by then it was getting late into the evening, and the Assembly had retired for the night. He tried again the following morning to get space on the Assembly’s agenda to go there and explain himself personally, but such space was not made available. By that point there was little else he could do in any case but see what direction the storm would take – anyway, most importantly of all, French President Jacques Chirac had not yet seen any need for reaction from his office (and, it turned out, would not see any such need).

Also unlike Berlusconi, Raffarin got strong support from his friends as the affair rolled on, as reported in Libération. In particular, leading figures from his party (the UMP, or Party for a Presidential Majority) rallied to his side. Alain Juppé, for example – the former rightist prime-minister who was voted out of office when his popularity sunk after he tried to undertake certain reforms – commented “If one no longer has the right to joke in France, then what’s to become of us?” Another UMP Assembly delegate, Pierre Lequiller, dismissed Raffarin’s remarks as “a stroke of humor, nothing at all like blasphemy.” Besides, Lequiller noted, “the last prime minister [that would be the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin] had much harder words for us [i.e. the then right-wing opposition], and lumped us together with slave-owners and anti-Dreyfusards.” (That last epithet, “anti-Dreyfusards,” readers-not-in-the-know will simply have to leave to the students of French history for proper appreciation; it’s a nasty one, though.) In all, it was clear that, rather than being mortified, Raffarin’s fellow UMP members felt even a sort of relief that the time had finally come to strike back for the political invective that had been hurled at them for so long when they had had to form the opposition to Jospin’s Socialist government.

And what about that motion of no-confidence? According to further reporting by Libération, entitled Raffarin, saint-Nitouche (“Raffarin, Saint Untouchable”), in the end it drastically under-fulfilled expectations. Yes, the Left (i.e. the Socialist and Communist parties, joined by the Greens) introduced the motion of no-confidence by allusion to this latest fuss. The First Secretary of the Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, claimed that “Your methods suffice in themselves to justify this motion of censure. An end has come to the good atmosphere, to the bonhomie, to good sense, today you offer us nothing but asperities.” And Jean-Pierre Raffarin appeared in person at the podium of the Assemblée Nationale to plead his government’s case for being allowed to continue. But, in so doing, he didn’t mention his previous remarks about “purgatory” and the Socialists, or the ensuing controversy they had caused, even once – and in the end he won, handily, as the motion of no confidence received only 176 votes from the 577-member Assembly.

In the wake of this controversial week, it was a good time to get an interview with the French premier, and Le Figaro managed to do just that for its weekend edition (perhaps aided by the editorial supporting Raffarin’s side in the controversy that it published last Thursday). Naturally, the question came up about leftist charges that, with his “insult,” Raffarin was trying to inject tension into the current French political scene. Raffarin insisted that he was a man of dialogue, and went on to further describe himself in almost Berlusconi-like terms: “I have no complexes about my natural ability for openness, but I also am a man of character, with direct language, not technocratic, and I must take up my mission with determination.” About the Socialist Party, he remarked that it “has a certain agility in forgetting the culture of government and choosing instead the culture of agitation.”

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