Last week President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed the wish that Lycée instructors read the celebrated letter of Guy Môquet on October 21 to commemorate the anniversary of that young student’s death in WWII. At 17 years, Moquet was the youngest of 27 hostages executed by a German firing squad on October 22, 1941 in reprisal for the assassination of a German officer. A collaborationist French official chose the hostages because they were Communists and their selection would spare the lives of "good Frenchman".
Moquet’s famous letter from the prison camp at Châteaubriant was addressed to his mother, brother, and father, and expressed his willingness to die with his companions, having "done his best to follow the way that you have laid out for me"concluding " [I] kiss you with all this child’s heart of mine. Be brave!"
He was shot along with Charles Michels, the Communist Deputy of Paris.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so, there was a wave of protest by teachers against the reading of this letter. In the end some read it, and others ignored the wish of the President. What are notable are the terms of opposition. Letters to the newspapers ranted against his ‘heart of a child’, term used by Môquet to his parents, as ‘pitiable immaturity’. His stoicism in facing a firing squad seems to count little with the current public. And others wrote: ‘What purpose does it serve to inculcate the young with values contradicting reality. Let him, seriously, rest in peace, 6 feet under the earth, bones in a coffin, and stop this two-bit sentimentalism. ‘
Marie Lavin, former prison colleague of Moquet’s saw its inclusion each fall at the return to school as part of the reunion of pals, souvenirs of the summer at the beach, and ‘oh yes, the letter of Guy Moquet’s is coming”. She characterized this as ‘the second death of Guy Môquet’.
Lavin’s letter inspired more responses.
One wrote: ‘I will not read the letter out of respect for his memory and respect for my students.’
And another suggested: ‘To read a text detached from a context is stupidity and a good means of dehumanizing [students].’
And of course several accused Sarkozy of calculation.
What does this mean? Is there such disillusionment with the Left that even a young wartime victim cannot be mentioned? Even de Gaulle had called Môquet ‘a martyr’.
Astute President Sarkozy probably thought that there was no risk in celebrating a martyr from the safely dead Communist Party of France. This, in contrast to the fertile field of the Socialist Party, where he has poached Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the International Monetary Fund, the elfin Attali of micro-economics for a commission on growth, the febrile Bernard Kouchner for Foreign Minister, and others. The PS Chair François Holland has not yet been summoned, but now that Cecilia Sarkozy is divorcing Sarkozy, as Sêgolène Royal shed Holland, the agile Sarkozy might see something in a How It Feels to be Dumped study, but nothing yet.
After WWII the French Communist Party (PCF) was the strongest in France, gaining 26 percent of the vote in the first post-war election. It continued to be an influence, regularly drawing over 20 percent. But its decline, attributed by some to the Stalinist allegiance of the party and its chief, Robert Hue, brought it only 3.4 percent of the presidential vote by 2002, In this year’s contest, centered on Ségolène Royal as the PS candidate and Nicolas Sarkozy as the UMP choice, the Communist candidate Marie-George Buffet received 1.93% of the vote. The long decline of the French Communist party seems to have culminated in rejection of its candidates and in dismissal of its former heroes.
Except for artist-heroes, apparently. The long lines I joined winding from the Grand Palais to the Seine are testament to the admiration for the great artist, ego and Communist, Gustave Courbet. In the early days of the Second Republic and the Second Empire (1848 to 1870) Courbet enjoyed fame and even notoriety (because of his near-pornographic female studies), but his political actions during the Paris Commune of the 1870s condemned him to a grim end. For his role in tearing down the Vendôme column, Courbet was judged guilty, banished, and fined 300,000 francs, payable at a rate of 10,000 per year to begin in January 1, 1878, a penalty he avoided by closing his eyes permanently on December 31, 1877.
Courbet’s trial was not helped by his refusal of the Legion of Honor in 1870, or by his open letter to the German army advising them to retreat before the resistance of Parisians rallied by the Commune, to which he had been elected. They could not prevail against such Parisians, he thought. How wrong he was. The Versailles men, allying with the Germans, occupied Paris, and slaughtered 20,000 Parisian resisters. The documentation of this carnage is shown in contemporary paintings and photographs of stark realism, mirroring Courbet’s savage and prescient images of the 1860s: dead foxes hanging from trees, a slaughtered stag likewise upended while dogs lick its dripping blood, or later, the couched symbols of the bizarre canvases of gutted fish, Les Truites, which he painted after his conviction,
The exhibition at the Grand Palais covers Courbet’s work from beginning to end, starting with a room full of self-portraits, either as madman or handsome artist, from the time he came to Paris in 1839 to his exile in Switzerland in 1874. The Burial at Ornans of 1849, with its open grave in the center and its motley crowd of black-coated locals, ugly faces, lost dogs and ominous skies, established him as a new kind of painter as well as a subject of popular cartoons, as did his voluptuous canvases of sleepy-eyed prostitutes, intertwined nude female lovers, and the scandalous full-color study of female genitalia called L’ Origine du Monde, secretly owned by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, but now publicly exhibited.
The French public views both politics and pornography with equal interest. The fire of Courbet and his comrades, as the passion of Moquet and his companions, flickers faintly now.
V G Smith is a Professor of Art from CUNY who publishes Art Criticism and Design History. Her latest book is Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set, was published by Watson-Guptill in 2004