Is writing to the president a contemporary practice, or has the head of state always received solicitations and interpellations from citizens?
The full history of the courier and courier service remains to be done. It is delicate because when the president changes, 90% of the letters are sent to the pestle. Even though many of the letters look alike, the disappearance of these specific personal stories is a heartbreak for the historian. As for the mail service, it has so far attracted researchers little, and it is sometimes difficult to find the heads of service who, with some exceptions, had a very administrative definition of their post. The presidents, them, had a rather contrasting practice of their relation to the mail. This is first and foremost the responsibility of the President’s private secretariat, which responds as a priority to important letters, for example under General de Gaulle. But the placet (writing addressed to a political authority to obtain a pardon or a favor, Editor’s note), the petition are “usual” modes of acting vis-à-vis the authorities that are seized directly, already under the monarchy, well before the French Revolution. The mail service is expanding under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and takes on a contemporary color from the two seven-year terms of François Mitterrand.
What do these letters tell us about the way the French perceive the president?
It is difficult to speak of the French in general. There is a very wide range socially of people who write to the president or the presidency. And they do it linguistically and socially in very contrasting ways. When we work on this material, we must simultaneously mobilize the sociology of writing, the sociology of institutions and political sociology. The entire chain of mail, from the writer to the reader, to the editor and to the intended recipient or not (the president), is a formidable tool for observing the presidential institution in action and its very varied perceptions.
In an article published on AOC (2), you write that the letter from the Élysée contradicts the sociological theses according to which political mobilization is a privilege reserved for those with cultural or relational resources. Is it not surprising that the Elysee seems accessible to French people who are not used to mobilizing?
Working on mail also requires mobilizing the sociology of adaptive strategies, which asks this question: what means do each of us have to get by? We pointed out in this article that a number of letters made us think of yellow vests. The latter, while being, for many of them, outside the usual channels of activism, far removed from the forms of putting their demands into politics, had been able and knew how to invent a collective irruption – fragile certainly – of protest.
The Elysée counter is one of those available to collect complaints and arrests from citizens and citizens. There are dozens of counters frequented by some of the French. This one is very ambivalent. Distant, mysterious, even repulsive (write to the “President”, a supreme authority and a politician), but which can be tamed (access involves, unlike other counters, fairly low constraints).
The members of the correspondence service ensure that reading the Elysee mail gives an accurate barometer of the state of the country and of public opinion. Does your own reading confirm this?
Some people speak of a thermometer, of a seismograph. The letters are specific echoes of the public opinions of the French. There are written punctuations here, sometimes very precise, of major politico-media events, and the expression of very specific and specific concerns. As for appeals for help, in our book we try to understand what they refer to socially and politically. All this is not “representative” in the statistical sense of the term, but undoubtedly very “significant”.
Does the material constituted by this letter seem to you to be well exploited politically by the executive?
There are two key figures in this device. The president, who may politically want to use this service or who may wish for a very proactive activation in the service of the objectives of his five-year term. The other protagonist is generally in the shadows, he is an executor, a purely administrative person: the head of the mail service. However, like any agent of the State, he can open up his role and try to promote the activity and the importance of his service to the “Palace”. In our investigation over four decades, (mainly Holland but also Mitterrand, Sarkozy and Macron), we found contrasting configurations. At a minimum, empty the barrel of the Danaïdes letters, make numbers and answer all the writers. Or go look in the mail for what you can find there, politically or even sociologically.