Whose Image Is This, Anyway? (NY) TIMES OP-ED) By ROBERT ZARETSKY 06/08/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will
be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the
image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.” Were he
viewing the political scene in France, all that Marshall McLuhan, the
prophet of the irresistible rise of image, would add to this
prescient remark is: “Or she could ever be.”
Marine Le Pen is the latest victim, or beneficiary, in a French
firefight over images. During a recent concert in Tel Aviv, as
Madonna launched into her song “Nobody Knows Me, ” a series of images
flashed across the huge screen behind her, including shots of Hu
Jintao and Sarah Palin.
In this dubious pantheon also appeared a shot of Marine Le Pen — the
far-right French politician — with a swastika adorning her forehead.
The image lingered for just a second, but as images are wont to do,
its impact continues to ripple.
While Le Pen laughed at the episode, dismissing it as a pathetic
effort at publicity by a fading celebrity, her second-in-command (and
partner) Louis Aliot threatened legal action should Madonna repeat
the image in her Paris show on July 14.
If Madonna persists come Bastille Day, Aliot will be cooling his
heels in the French courts for much of the summer. Le Pen’s opponent
in the approaching legislative elections in the drab and depressed
mining town of Hénin-Beaumont, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has just announced
that he also has a court date with the darling of the radical right.
The leader of the radical left movement, Parti de Gauche, and like Le
Pen, a candidate in the recent presidential election, Mélenchon is up
in arms over a pamphlet distributed last week. Accompanying a stock
photo of Mélenchon was a passage from his July 14 speech last
year: “France has no future without the Arabs and Berbers of the
There was no need to call in Hercule Poirot to crack the case. At
first anonymous, the tract’s creators left their fingerprints
everywhere by quoting the remark in Arabic as well as French. For
good measure, they printed it in green, the traditional color of
Islam. When Le Pen’s National Front was discovered to be behind the
stunt, Le Pen, rather than denying the charge, embraced it. After
all, she noted, the quotation is accurate; all her party did was add
a photo, provide an Arabic translation, and stuff it in local
For his part, Mélenchon does not deny he made the statement; instead,
he’s outraged that the pamphlet’s authors did not identify themselves.
It is tempting to dismiss these events as mere vaudeville. The
projection of a swastika over Le Pen’s face suggests, at the very
least, that Madonna understands French politics about as well as she
does the kabbalah. While her political commentary would have applied
to Jean-Marie Le Pen, his daughter has made a series of overtures to
French Jewry, has surprising support among French Jews living in
Israel, and succeeded in meeting the Israeli ambassador to the U.N.
last year. But why not the same photo-shopping of, say, President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While Le Pen’s sincerity in regard to Jews is
questionable, the Iran leader’s is not. After all, Le Pen at least
acknowledges (unlike her father) the reality of the Holocaust, while
Ahmadinejad dismisses it.
But these dueling court cases over politicians’ images take on
surprising gravity when set against yet a third photograph: François
Hollande’s official portrait as president of France. Raymond Depardon
took Hollande’s picture in the garden of the Elysée Palace.
Positioned toward the left half of the frame, he stands somewhat
awkwardly on the lawn, looking vaguely past the right shoulder of the
photographer. The effect is more prosaic than presidential,
resembling less the image one hangs in every city hall than a
Polaroid one discovers in the kitchen drawer.
For a president whose entire campaign was based on normalcy, Hollande
must have chosen this image with great care. In the wake of Sarkozy’s
frantic presidency, which featured broken promises and broken
marriages, much bling and little belief, as well as the spectacular
crash and burn in various hotels of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s public
career, Hollande campaigned as Monsieur Normal. It was a winning
formula. What better than a Polaroid to carry this message into the
It certainly contrasts sharply with the portrait of his Socialist
predecessor François Mitterrand, seated in front of book-lined wall,
an open book in his lap. It also shares little with Sarkozy’s
portrait, which shows him standing in front of a library, staring at
the camera, hair aglow with pomade. Neither of these poses would
allay the anxiety of the French voter today. Mitterrand’s portrait
reminds them of a leader who did seem more at ease with books than
people, while Sarkozy’s makes you wonder about the authenticity of
someone who rarely read books at all.
Yet the chorus of criticism that has greeted Hollande’s official
photo suggests that his aesthetic gamble may not pay off. In fact,
can it do so in an era of ideological extremes? Moderation, another
word for normalcy, demands great exertion and dedication to achieve
and maintain. It is, as Albert Camus noted, a position of great
tension, not calm. This is especially the case in France today.
Does Hollande’s portrait — so expertly presented as inexpert, so
carefully cast as casual — manage to convey these qualities? More
important, despite McLuhan’s skepticism, does Hollande himself,
rather than his portrait, have these crucial traits? We will have an
answer by the time of Madonna’s next world tour.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of
Houston Honors College. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company
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