University of Iowa

Inscrutability at the Élysée Palace

January 20th, 2011

By Downing Thomas

Last week, with my still fresh New Year’s resolution to read more (more international perspectives in the news, more contemporary literature), I found a fascinating article in Le Monde analyzing the strange fact that the French President has had no spokesperson for over two and a half years.  Most Western democracies put their spokespersons on camera regularly–daily in the U.S., twice per day in Britain, three times each week in Germany).  Yet, France, in its role as the exceptional democracy, has decided to do without.

The article is an intriguing perspective on the exercise of power.  My first reaction was to think this a risky idea, to leave the State without an official voice.  Who is supposed to deny what needs to be denied, or affirm what should be affirmed?  Who will clarify the position of France on the controversies that inevitably crop up on a daily basis?  However, as the author of the article (Natalie Nougayrède) explains, this silence is a deliberate effort to reduce the ability of journalists to ask questions and receive official answers.  By giving full discretion as to the timing of announcements to the President himself, Nicolas Sarkozy has limited the ability of journalists to question the President spontaneously.  Presidential advisers may choose to give statements from time to time.  But this, too, allows for maneuverability by avoiding the singularity of the official spokesperson.  The Presidency has no single, considered, or argued position.

Le Monde remarks what a change this practice is from Jacques Chirac’s time in office, when the spokesperson was always available following regularly scheduled events, such as every interview the President had with a foreign official.

Mittérand was referred to sarcastically as God, in recognition of his strategy of remaining above the fray.  Sarkozy seems to be giving us a new take on this idea through his efforts to ensure the inscrutability of the Élysée Palace.

Downing Thomas
Downing Thomas