The other day I bemoaned yet again modernity’s ravenous appetite for vulgar vandalism. I doubt that Manny and his foster mother Brigitte read my scribbles, but their take on interior decoration justifies my lament with room to spare.
Far be it from me to aver that Manny has no taste or, for that matter, no brain or no morality. He may be richly endowed with all or some of those. Then again, he may not. One way or the other, that’s irrelevant.
For all such faculties are in him – as in most modern politicians – subjugated to, and therefore negated by, political Darwinism, a struggle for supremacy or at least survival. Therefore, what to you or me would be a barbarous lapse of taste is, to Manny, a political statement.
On purely aesthetic grounds, one may prefer modern art to the ornate excess flaunted by the Elysée Palace. In fact, my own taste can’t accommodate the French proclivity for over-ornamentation, which was especially manifest during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Neither Baroque nor Empire style is, to me, sacrosanct. Nor does my knee jerk in an a priori rejection of any modernism, although I do find much of it to be solipsistic, nihilistic and undisciplined. Yet I realise that the language of modern art may be as intelligible and eloquent to some people as Byzantine iconography or early Renaissance art is to me.
However, it’s inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of aesthetic discernment would be blind to the bracing vulgarity of lurid cubist paintings, electric-blue carpets and Miró lithographs punctuating the traditional décor of the Elysée Palace.
I happen to dislike both styles on offer, for different reasons. But even someone who’s passionate about them must be sensitive to the nihilistic clash of the two mixed together. This just isn’t an aesthetic statement that even a marginally civilised person could make.
But Manny wasn’t sending aesthetic messages by taking down Gobelin tapestries. He wished to communicate urbi et orbi that traditional certitudes, political, economic or aesthetic, have no place in a youthful and thrusting France ushered into modernity by her youthful and thrusting president.
If a different political message required a different aesthetic expression, Manny would oblige with alacrity. If the fortune cookie baked by France’s fickle electorate yielded a preference for communism, the Elysée Palace would be adorned with Che Guevara silkscreens. If Nazism offered a clearer path to political ascendancy, we’d be regaled with depictions of muscular lads brandishing swastikas.
This is a caricature, but that’s what caricatures do: they overemphasise reality, but they don’t create it. In any case, I sense that redecoration may be on its way.
Recent polls show that Manny’s support is shifting from left to right, which, in the French context, means from the extreme-left to centre-left. The shift is caused by Manny’s reformist zeal, as reflected in his aesthetics.
In general, his reforms make sense. However, politics lives or dies by particulars, not generalities – and by emotions, not reason.
The current labour unrest in France is caused by Manny’s attempt to reform the pension system in the direction of more fairness and sustainability. He isn’t proposing to go all the way to those destinations, but even a few tentative steps have caused an outburst of public rage, especially in the public sector.
The state-owned SNCF rail network has been on strike since early December, the longest such period ever. This has paralysed much of France, especially the gridlocked Paris area forced to operate without surface and underground trains.
Manny realised the insanity of a system wherein 500,000 SNCF employees have to support more than a million retirees, many of whom spend more time in retirement than they ever did in employment. Yet even his timid attempts at reform ran headlong into the stonewall of human nature.
Yesterday’s aspirations become today’s privileges and tomorrow’s entitlements. Once so entrenched, they can’t be displaced by gentle reformism. To communicate to the rail workers that retiring at 52 at others’ expense is morally shabby and economically ruinous, Manny would have to smash union power first.
Such Thatcherite activism would require Thatcherite convictions and Thatcherite willpower, neither of which Manny possesses. That’s why he has already stepped back from his original intentions, although not yet far enough back to mollify the unions.
Nevertheless, he has been largely abandoned by left-wing voters, with centrist ones moving in to fill the lacuna thus formed. More concessions on Manny’s part may disappoint his new fans enough to drive them away, but at least they are detecting – rightly or wrongly – some emotional kinship to Manny.
Hence he’d be well-advised to start putting those Gobelin tapestries back into the spaces currently occupied by Miró et al. New politics may demand old aesthetics, and Manny is lucky that the demand for communist or fascist institutional symbols seems to be tepid at the moment.