Sunday, October 21, 2007
The excellent historian Olivier Ihl, author of La Fête républicaine, has a new book on the history of republican meritocracy, Le Mérite et la République: Essai sur la société des émules. He traces the way in which the Republic has used rewards of various kinds to motivate its servants and mold the ambitions of its citizens. Not everyone was delighted with this system. Some saw the prizes, medals, and other trinkets handed out by the state as manipulative tools to inculcate obedience and foster a culture of self-satisfied dupes (a criticism echoed in some of the complaints about tomorrow's enforced reading of the letter of Guy Môquet, as discussed in previous posts).
The review does not mention the way in which republican rewards were intended as an alternative to the rewards of mere lucre that presumably less selfless zeal might yield. Not having read Ihl's book yet, I can't say whether he takes up this theme, but it strikes me as an interesting one, insofar as criticism of Sarkozy often fastens on signs of his respect for self-interested wealth rather than the ostensibly selfless "honor" that the Republic, in this respect emulating the aristocracy (at least in the aristocracy's self-understanding), sought to encourage. Thus we hear about his Breitling watch (Yasmina Reza portrays him as distracted by advertisements for such arriviste bling-bling) and his wealthy cronies, his expensive vacations, and his post-election celebration at Fouquet's. Temperate republican virtues are thought to have become vieux jeu in the new regime, even if Cécilia, who has never struck me as abstemious, appeared to revert to them in describing herself recently as sick of public display and eager to resume a private life in the shadows and to enjoy no greater luxury than the freedom to run to the corner store for groceries with her child in tow. For that she could receive the Légion d'honneur along with another photo spread in Paris Match.