When lions pass

Philippe Séguin passed away this morning at 6am at his home in Paris. He was one of the very few true French statesmen of this era.

As a politician, his achievements were many. He was a key government minister and later the President of the National Assembly, where he modernized the rules of parliamentary debate. He died as President of the Cour des comptes, our sort-of super-CBO, a perch wherefrom he was a relentless watchdog of the Sarkozy government, despite his party affiliation. He was also one of the key architects of Jacques Chirac’s come from behind victory in the 1995 presidential elections, the great political epic of the era.

He was, first and foremost, a person of great character. A bon vivant, there was no pleasure of life he met he didn’t like, especially cigarettes and food, which may explain his sudden heart attack at 66. His deep, gravelly baritone made him that rare politician: equally captivating in person, behind a pulpit and in front of a TV camera. He had the instinctive fondness for fellow human beings without which there is no natural born politician, reflected by his sparkling eyes and Cheshire cat grin. He was a tremendously well-read soccer fan, an intellectual with the common touch, a savvy operator and a man of principle.

He broke with the party line on several occasions. When the newly elected Socialist majority abolished the death penalty he voted for the abolition and defended it with a tremendous speech on the floor of the National Assembly. His most famous dissent was probably his decision to campaign against the Maastricht Treaty in the French referendum of 1992 against Jacques Chirac’s instructions, a decision that almost certainly cost him the prime ministership. In 1994 he was one of a ragtag band that never wavered in their commitment to Chirac’s presidential ambitions and the only one who was not richly rewarded for it.

Chirac appointed Alain Juppé as prime minister, a highly intelligent technocrat who went on to stupendously bungle a set of free-market reforms that led to paralyzing strikes and the return of a Socialist majority in the 1997 parliamentary elections. It’s not unfair to say that France might be a quite different place had Chirac chosen to appoint Philippe Séguin to that post.

He was hardly a perfect man. Although incredibly charming most days, he had a notoriously stormy temper, and his ire could shake walls. His campaign for the mayorship of Paris in 2001 was ill-thought out from start to finish. But there is no one in the Gaullist right over the age of 30 who doesn’t have a funny or heart-warming anecdote about Séguin (many of which revolve around his gargantuan appetite), and when prime minister François Fillon spoke this morning about Séguin’s death he was choking back tears.

He was one of the last heirs (the last?) of the great Gaullist tradition, a tradition that I am uncomfortable with in many ways because of its distrust of markets, but a great, honorable tradition. A tradition that he never abandoned, unlike most of his peers, and one that I would gladly trade for Sarkozy’s crony-capitalist atlanticism.

He was, finally, a thing which is so rare these days in France, a patriot. He was one of those men whose love for their country profoundly inhabits them. He was orphaned at a young age after his father lay his life down for the country in World War II and came up through public generosity and public schools. Throughout his life in public service, he sought to give back to the nation that had already claimed so much from him.

Where are they, today, the men who believe in service, in service to their country, to the greater good? Where are they, those who see politics not as self-aggrandizement but as the aggrandizement of everyone else? Looking at the Government, looking at the Opposition, looking at the silky gray sea of business technocrats and bureaucratic operators and their death grip on every lever of society, I see none.

Some like Poulos have faith in the future of France as a country that leads, the faith I was brought up in, but what is there to see around us but sunset? I hate to be melodramatic, but I grew up believing in the same ideals that Séguin believed in and practiced throughout his public life. There are not many left who believe in the past and the future of this country. Séguin’s death might very well be the death of a certain idea, not just a certain idea of my country, but a certain idea of service in my country.

Charles de Gaulle opened his memoirs by writing of the certain idea of France, and finished by describing himself as an “old man” who is “never tired, in the darkness, of looking for the gleam of hope.” I am young and I am already tired.

Requiescat in pace.