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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’affaire "Sarkozy, je te vois!": un storytelling citoyen

by Patrick Levieux

« I See You, Sarkozy ! »: The Citizen’s Use of Storytelling

Translated Friday 17 July 2009, by Isabelle Métral

I am that anonymous guy who twice shouted “I see you, Sarkozy” in Saint-Charles’ station in Marseille. How come such a minor incident flooded TV screens - to such a degree that the big wigs at the top had to put their foot down? What if the whole affair had been an instance of storytelling, a narrative, a story told to denounce the dangerous security-first drift of our President’s policies?

The major capitalist groups’ spin doctors use storytelling to sell coffee or financial products. Storytelling can also be used to promote a presidential candidate. Christian Salmon describes it as an “incredible hold-up of people’s imagination, with a view to formatting consumers and citizens’ minds.” Storytelling is described as a “narrating machine” that is substituted for rational argumentation, with far greater efficiency than all the Orwellian imagery for a totalitarian society. Now the “I-see-you-Sarkozy” affair shows how storytelling can be subverted and made to serve the civic ethos.

When confronted with an event, the question for us, beyond the ambition to be true to the facts, is to know what kind of story we want to tell.

As everyone knows it all started on a Wednesday – on February 28, 2008 - when a chap who was just back from Avignon happened to be a witness to an identity check. The sequel was first narrated in the policemen’s report: “Our attention was called to an individual who pointed a finger at us as he walked by, while shouting vociferously ‘I see you, Sarkozy, I see you!’ several times, which drew the attention of the people around and made things more difficult for us as a consequence.

Against that version, the anonymous guy offered his own version of the story to Rue89 (an alternative news website): his version confirmed all of the facts related by the police, but from a wider angle: “Saint-Charles station is continually patrolled by policemen reinforced by soldiers armed with submachine guns in conformity with the French rail company’s anti-terrorist plan.” He then confesses how he felt: “Confronted with that umpteenth identity check I somewhat felt ill at ease: why so little kindness? What could I do to bring in a soft touch?" and opted for an external view of the scene. So taking a theatrical posture I pointed at the policemen and declared: ’I see you, Sarkozy, I see you!’ Which immediately drew a laugh from the spectators around. I was wearing a suit and tie and carrying a leather case. I probably looked ridiculous but never mind: the laughter did ease the tension.

So the two narratives are opposed but not contradictory since the facts are the same. In one case, an individual perturbs an identity check; in the other an educationalist improvises a humorous sketch to defuse the law-and-order obsession and ease the highly charged atmosphere. Now the question is which of the two versions are the media going to take up? Much depends on the answer to that question. Will that story spread on the internet, in the press, on the radio, without appearing on TV screens where it is sure to be diverted to its own purposes by the entertainment business? But before we come to that, let us see first how the story took shape and even found its way to the court.

In order to build a narrative it is sometimes necessary to resort to wiles and small lies. As a matter of fact, the individual in question was a reporter for l’Age de faire, a radical monthly. When the police asked him about his profession, he pretended to be on welfare. Now a forty-six-year-old man on welfare is bound to be a poor devil with no connections - in short, a nameless, anonymous loser. Experience had taught the anonymous fellow in question what magic power the word “journalist” wielded. He especially remembered a remark a police superintendent in Dijon had once made: “To us here a journalist is more to be feared than the Minister of the Interior.” He had since made a rule of “invisibly watching the world go round”. That petty lie was necessary for the process to follow on its course, even if at the time I did not really know how far things would get….

Several months later the anonymous fellow was summoned by the district superintendent who wished to interrogate him again about that incident. In the mean time, he had gone back to teaching. But there again, as in the first cross-examination, he said he was on welfare. In our public educational system trade unions are powerful, and the media always in touch. Besides, it is a well-known fact that people on welfare will rather lie low than spark off public disputes on the functioning of the judicial system. I wanted to remain that kind of nameless anonymous, and by all appearances, basically precarious figure …..Throughout this story I wanted to be the most anonymous citizen, and let the administrative machine take hold of the story and tell what it had to tell.

Then one year after the incident in Saint Charles’ station, on April 20, 2009, a bailiff brought me a summons to the court for daytime disturbance of the peace and proffering of insults. I then faced a dilemma. Either I choose to pass myself off as one in the crowd of individuals that ordinary justice deals with every day, to be either convicted or discharged and there it would end: there’d be no story, it would all get lost among that day’s myriad anonymous cases settled by local magistrates. Or I seize the opportunity to venture a public civil gesture by attempting to denounce the present government’s law and order drift. That entails priming a narrative that reporters, bloggers, and “disputers” of the internet sphere would write out. To seize the opportunity to write the story of a nameless, faceless fellow, using the familiar form of address as a way to challenge the master signifier “Sarkozy” in a sclerosed society whose obsession with security has set into a deathly grin.

As everyone will know, the main agent in a story, in any narrative scheme, never remains alone. Another figure must help him carry on with the narrative. An anonymous figure on his own is nothing. Even if he took the summons and the police report through all the newspaper offices, the story would not get written, for an anonymous fellow lacks the credentials to carry such a story. He would, in the best case, end up seeing one or two articles in the local news column of the local papers, and there the story would end.

So that other character in this story would preferably be a barrister, a brilliant orator capable of filling a prominent position in the media, and sufficiently aware of the excesses of the entertainment society not to allow them to exploit him. A friend of his, a reporter on the daily la Marseillaise, would have informed the anonymous guy of the ideal connection: Philippe Vouland, a human rights specialist. The barrister would be a reliable source, who enjoyed full credit with the institution and the media. They would listen to him, when the anonymous fellow would have been beneath their notice. To carry on with the narrative, it was essential to choose an emblematic barrister. For then it would be enough to call the AFT and send a mail with the barrister’s name and address to set the media machine running.

From that moment, the question of anonymity arises. Any pupil, from the first form upwards,, will know that the author is not to be confused with the narrator. The anonymous fellow is a character in the narrative. He has his own identity. Now, how can one possibly protect the coherence of the narrative
from the revelation of the author’s real identity, a breaking-in of reality?
It is absolutely necessary to keep up the anonymity for the narrative to proceed. To reveal the fellow’s identity would dissolve the coherence of the narrative and even make it incomprehensible. For once the story focalized on the fellow’s personality, it would fall into as many narratives as there were journalists. Could he be a journalist? Or a political activist? Or a victim that had been overtaken by events? There is one possible narrative for each of these questions, and the theme - our society’s increasing obsession with law and order - would be lost.

So the problem was to avoid exploitation by the entertainment business. That was why anonymity had to be preserved. The one to be entrusted with that mission would be Philippe Vouland. He would confront the media, speak into the microphones and before the cameras. As to the anonymous fellow, he would obstinately refuse to appear before cameras or to be interviewed: even if it were blurred, the image would still say something, even if only the shamefaced presence of someone that had something to conceal.

Naturally, the smartest journalists would discover the anonymous fellow’s identity fairly soon. Then I was in a position to speak to them as a colleague. I most humbly appealed to their professional ethics and their moral conscience. I called the France 3 Méditerranée TV channel’s editor in chief in the middle of the night and confessed to being distressed and in a panic: ”if you reveal my identity, I am lost. You’ll make my life hell. You’re under no binding legal obligation of course, but I am asking you not to feed my name to the journalists!” Now that’s probably one of the most extraordinary things about this case: despite the build-up in the media, the anonymity was scrupulously preserved both by the journalists and by the bloggers. The information sphere is composed of responsible people. Neither the press nor the internet are jungles that fear neither God nor man, as gross caricature sometimes claims.

And yet how was the narrative to be allowed to proceed without losing any of its coherence despite the flood it occasioned in the media, and while preserving the anonymity? How was the risk of cacophony to be obviated? Bearing this in mind I dropped a hint about my profession to the journalists - not my real profession at the time of the incident, but the one that was mine when the affair broke out: philosophy teacher. That detail made it possible to inscribe the narrative in a mythological archetype about the enigmatic relations between the philosopher and the powerful masters of this world. Collective imagination is full of those stories about Diogenes, Protagoras, Epictetus…Then I justified this act as “a pedagogic gesture, a streak of humour to relax the atmosphere”. Laughter belongs neither to the Left nor to the Right. It addresses all kinds of publics by touching that universal part in us.

So that is how it all happened. It will be noted that once the narrative was set on a track, it was all but impossible to shunt it on to another. When an affair is taken up in the media’s hot and fiery blaze, then no one has his hand on the halter. The story seems to be writing itself. To the RTL reporter who had asked him to justify himself, the anonymous fellow wryly answered that it was to express his satisfaction at seeing the hand of the State everywhere, even in Saint Charles’ station. That narrative was never taken up by the reporter who prudently abided by the “official version”, namely a philosopher’s pedagogic gesture meant to relax the atmosphere.

What interpretation shall we put upon it now? That storytelling was meant to question the limits of indecency (in a society where individual freedom is seriously threatened by the president of the Republic’s policies). In that respect, might not his “Sarkozy I see you!” be regarded as a happening, an artistic gesture, which Joseph Kossuth proclaims “one of the most responsible arts in our time”, before adding that “a work of art presents the artist’s intention; if the artist pronounces that such work is art, that means that this is a definition of art.” Or if the anonymous fellow pronounces his “Sarkozy I see you” to be a work of art, then who would dare deny it this status, in view of the considerable efforts he put into leading the story to exist? It would be a committed work of art, and a collective one, that belonged to all those anonymous fellows that suffer in silence from the nefarious climate that Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy imposes on the country.

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