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Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Salman Toor, Thanksgiving (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
An Exchange of History Lessons

On day one of the Interregnum, President Elect Sarkozy raised his arms in triumph and proudly announced the end of history. “The French people,” he declared, “have expressed themselves. They have chosen to break away from the ideas, the routine and the ways of the past. I want to rehabilitate work, authority, morals, respect, and merit. I want to reinstate the nation and national identity. I want to give back to the French the pride of being French. I want to put an end to repentance, which is a form of self-hatred, and to competing visions of the past, which nourish hatred of others.” Then he disappeared.

He reappeared on day four. It was heart-warming to see Jacques Chirac, still president for nearly one more day, towering above his freshly elected and freshly suntanned successor, both men pushing their way through the crowds, side by side, pressing the flesh, kissing babies, grabbing each other by the arm as if they had always been on best-buddy terms. Jacques Chirac fished a black lady out of the crowd and guided her toward Nicolas. “Here,” he said, his voice booming loud and clear into the journalist’s microphone, “you should be kissing the new president, not me.” Nicolas complied. Chirac’s moment of revenge? On record for us all to hear?

After the ceremony, Nicolas shook hands with Lilian Thuram, the French soccer defense from Guadalupe, one of the rare French players with a university background. He rose to fame when he surprised even himself by twice charging the length of the pitch and scoring the two goals that saved France from defeat in the World Cup semifinal in 1998. He had harsh words for Minister of the Interior Sarkozy during the November 2005 riots. This led to a much publicized tête-à-tête, since which Thuram has been sittting on the nation’s High Council for Racial Integration. So this was a polite greeting, each man visibly on his wait-and-see guard.

And what was this jolly ceremony all about? The only one in which the outgoing president and the president-elect were to appear in public before the final chassé-croisé on the Elysée red carpet a week later, with “Sarko” slapping and clapping Chirac off stage, as at the end of a three-minute slot on a talent-spotting show… Not the solemn May 8 military parade down the Champs-Elysées that François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac had elegantly and politely acted out together twelve years previously. Nicolas Sarkozy had preferred his “retreat” on a millionaire yacht, ploughing the waves between Malta and Sicily, to remembering the end of World War II. No, this was a brand new commemoration, instigated by Jacques Chirac himself, for a long overdue date: the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

This looked suspiciously like a parting history lesson from Chirac for the man who in 2005 had backed a law saying colonialism had not been totally negative. Chirac’s prime minister, and Sarkozy’s arch-rival, Dominique de Villepin, had already delivered one over the same colonisation bill, warning deputies not to let themselves be pulled down the dangerous path of “official history.” Not that Sarkozy listened. While Chirac was opening the Musée des Arts Premiers, a nod at the value of pre-colonial art, and having a private Elysée Palace showing of Les Indigènes (Days of Glory)—thus acknowledging the role of North African troops in World War II—Nicolas Sarkozy was quietly courting the extreme right, many of whom are descendants of the “pied noirs,” whites ousted from France’s former colony, Algeria. Treading unashamedly on their platform in the final run up, he announced during a live TV interview the creation of a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.

Now he has done a volte-face and named Rachida Dati, a “beurette”—the term for a second generation North African woman—minister for justice, a huge symbol for the disgruntled banlieues. I say named, because no one believes any more, two weeks into the new presidency, in the fantasy of his new prime minister actually naming anyone. There is one, of course, and his name is François Fillon, but he is careful not to overtake the president even on their morning jog. If there were any presidential posters left hanging around, we’d be seeing Bonaparte hats sprouting above those little blacked-in moustaches. And while on the subject of ministry naming, Culture has been removed from the Education ministry and placed, along with Communication, in the hands of the official Elysée Palace spokesperson. Orwell, are you listening up above?

It’s now exactly a year since Jacques Chirac proudly opened his “baby,” the Musée des Arts Premiers on the Quai Branly. It will be to former President Jacques Chirac what La Défense, the Louvre Pyramid and the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand are to his predecessor, and the Centre Beaubourg to President Pompidou—his legacy. Chirac planned it during his first term of office. French presidents, unlike monarchs, have to rush to leave a cultural imprint. They get going and write large. The museum has stirred impassioned debate: for its prestigious site bang next to the Eiffel Tower, for Jean Nouvel’s building, but above all for its purpose, its name, and the death blow it has dealt to other museums, in particular the Musée de l’Homme at Trocadero. Jacques Chirac is on record as saying he would be honoured to have it named after him…but he may have to wait. As of June 19 the ex-president can be summoned to answer charges in a court of law, and lawyers are itching to get at him for embezzlement. Hardly good publicity for a museum. Also, despite the all-smiles performance during the Interregnum, Nicolas Sarkozy had not even mentioned the name of his unloved predecessor in any of his public acceptance speeches; Jacques Chirac only grudgingly paid lip service to the new right-wing candidate at the very end of the electoral campaign. So at least one “quinquennat,” if not two, will have to elapse. But either “Musée Branly” or “Musée Chirac” would gracefully help us forget the original designation: “Le Musée des Arts Premiers,” the one that had everyone writing petitions and holding forth on the definition of art and of “primal.”

I had stopped dead in my tracks during a recent visit to the new museum when I heard a voice saying, “Voilà les casse-tête!” “Casse-tête” in the plural? And looked a second time at the case of exhibits from the Marquesas Islands before me with a very different eye. Beside me stood an elderly couple, she in a yellow hat and beige suit, he, holding her arm and staring ahead, owl-like. “Excuse me,” I said, “When you say “casse-tête,” you mean that literally?” “Oui, Madame,” replied the husband, stretching out the second “m” and making it hum. She produced the sort of smile you’d expect from that Roald Dahl landlady who enjoyed poisoning her lodgers with arsenic-laced tea. Speaking very fast and sotto voce, she hissed, “The last case of anthropophagy on the Marquesas Islands took place in 1925.”

Once home, I opened Alain Rey’s Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française to check on “casse-tête”—an expression that now simply means “a puzzle.” Alain Rey—a French institution, as beloved over here as were the lamented Art Buchwald or Alistair Cook—lost, with no explanations given, his popular five-minute “words in the news” slot on state-run radio station France Inter (while Nicolas Sarkozy was still Minister for the Interior). This effectively silenced the one voice that dared to trace the history of “racaille” (riffraff/rabble) and “nettoyer la cité au kärcher” (flush out the housing estates with high-pressure hoses)—two expressions picked by the then-probable presidential candidate for the Right to describe last year’s suburban rioters and his proposed method of dealing with them. Those same words drove Lilian Thuram to protest vehemently that as he had been brought up in the “cité,” he too felt personally targeted by the remarks.

Alain Rey always has the philological answers. Starting out as an epithet for heady wine in 1690—a head-splitter—by 1756 “casse-tête” had developed a parallel and far more literal sense, synonymous with “club,” but oh, so much more visual! The ones in front of me were as owl-eyed as the man who had just spoken. Their slim, highly-polished handles widened at one end. Their intricate faces curved forward, like hooded cobras. I expected them to sway. They stared at me from their glass case, but divulged no secrets. How many heads had they crushed? “It was far better that way,” the lady said, seeing dismay on my face. “Put them out of their misery quickly.” The description on the side of the case was more evasive. It explained that ‘u ‘u clubs were “carried by warriors in a society based not on heredity but on warmongering and prestige. They were kept in fields and coated with coconut oil to prevent the wood from cracking.”

The clubs are only two out of several thousand artifacts transferred from France’s ancient collections that date back to the early voyages of discovery, nineteenth-century expeditions, and the colonial era. Most of them come from the now-emptied Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) and from the Musée des Arts Africains et d’Océanie, where only the fish are left swimming in the aquarium. Yet President Chirac, inaugurating the museum on June 20, 2006, disregarded ethnography and science as much as his successor does history, and spoke with passion only of this necessary “counterweight to globalization.” In addition to its being “an incomparable aesthetic experience,” he said, “it was also a lesson in humanity. There is no such thing as a hierarchy of cultures, anymore than there is one of peoples.” The museum therefore fulfilled a political and moral need; it righted wrongs. A repentance museum?

I bumped into the smart elderly couple again as I was leaving the museum. I wanted to know more.

“We lived there for eleven years,” she said, delighted to talk.

“How do you feel about finding all these artifacts here, then?” I asked.

“Far better off here,” she assured me. “They have no conception of art,” she said. “An artist will spend a year carving one of those magnificent clubs. After the ceremony it’ll be thrown into the marshes.”

On his inauguration day, immediately after the traditional lighting of the flame to the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, Nicolas Sarkozy added a ceremony of his own invention. With one of France’s most esteemed historians, Max Gallo, at his side, he made his way to a memorial in the Bois de Boulogne dedicted to a group of Parisian youths murdered by the Nazis in 1943. Nicolas Sarkozy, in an impassioned speech, said the sacrifice these young people made for their country was not part of history, it was a lesson for France’s youth today. A high school pupil read a very moving letter written by young résistant Guy Moquet to his parents on the night before his execution. The new President announced that the letter is to be read every year in every high school in the land. Then he rushed off to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel.

The cultural future of France was not mentioned during the campaign, though we all saw tax-haven exile Johnny Halliday on stage alongside Nicolas on election night, so there’s hope for rock ‘n’ roll. But one thing is certain. The new president, whose access to power was most definitely, as in the Marquesas, the result of prestige-seeking and warmongering, has already cracked a fair number of skulls. Who then would expect him, as part of his vaunted “rassemblement”—literally “gathering together,” the president’s new buzzword and a euphemism for head-hunting among the sorely beaten center and left parties—to grease his casse-tête and plant them in the palace gardens?

Jacqueline Karp is a poet and freelance journalist. (updated 6/2010)

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