How a seventeenth-century novel nearly toppled the President of France – Emily Labram
Prompting public sector strikes in France, Emily Labram investigates Sarkozy’s difficult relationship with La Princess de Cleves.
If Gordon Brown scorned Milton’s Paradise Lost, how indignant would you feel? Would you take to the streets, banners waving, and blockade Heslington Hall? Call it classic French over-reaction if you will, but this was exactly the response of Parisian students when President Sarkozy expressed his dislike of one of France’s earliest novels.
The book in question was La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de la Fayette – a seventeenth-century tale of thwarted love that has featured on French syllabuses since the days of Sarkozy’s boyhood. Evidently, the novel caused the president untold pain, because he now seems to take every opportunity to dismiss it as irrelevant and risible.
It was back in February 2006 when Sarkozy first derided the hapless novel. What “sadist or idiot”, he asked, would include questions on Renaissance literature in an exam for public sector workers? “When was the last time you asked a counter clerk what she thought of The Princess of Cleves?” the president humorously enquired. The comment, although intended as an appeal to common sense, instead smacked of blinkered philistinism. Yes, clearly, neither counter clerks, nor presidents for that matter, draw from the fountain of the classics when performing day-to-day tasks. But surely education has always been more than simply equipping youths with the practical skills for labour. And shouldn’t both presidents and blue-collar workers be taught – or force-fed, in the case of young Nicolas – edifying literature, especially in a country like France which prides herself on “Égalité”?
The French public might have pardoned one disparaging comment from a president who prefers Céline Dion to Chopin. Earlier this year, however, Sarkozy ruffled the feathers of the intellectual elite once again. When discussing on what grounds civil servants should be considered for promotion, he declared that voluntary service should be prioritised. And then, inevitably, he added: “this is just as important as knowing La Princesse de Cleves by heart”. The president then admitted wryly that he had “suffered greatly” at school at the hands of the dreaded novel; one imagines little Nicolas cowering in front of his mother, having presented his latest essay, which is marked with a glaring “ZÉRO”.
The president’s aversion to La Princesse extends to a general disdain for cultural pursuits, in favour of such horrors as physical exercise. Remember the photos of ‘Sporty Sarko’ jogging down the Seine – oh la la! – often clad in his favourite NYPD t-shirt? Such incendiary behaviour caused Alain Finkelkraut, a celebrated philosopher, to beg Mr Sarkozy on television to abandon his “undignified” hobby, and to take up walking instead – the pursuit of Socrates, Arthur Rimbaud, and other great men. While the jogging furore subsided, the Princesse de Cleves scandal sparked nationwide protest. Comparisons were made between the “president of bling” and Lafayette’s depiction of the lavish Henry II. Book sales of the novel escalated, and students orchestrated marathon public readings. Two thousand badges branded with the slogan “I’m reading La Princesse de Cleves” sold out in record time. Protesters demonstrated waving placards that read “Free the Princesse of Cleves!” The novelist Régis Jauffret even urged French citizens to send copies of the novel to Sarkozy as a gesture of defiance against the “glorification of ignorance”.
Clearly, the French ‘élite’ objects to a president who displays the slightest buffoonery. In fact, it is ironic that the politicians France usually elects as president tend to resemble Obama far more than Sarkozy, whose predecessors – Chirac, Giscard d’Estaing, Pompidou, – were typically academic high-fliers, educated at the prestigious ‘Grandes Écoles’. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, who abandoned him in his childhood, Sarkozy is reported to have been an average student, whose style of politics has been described as hyperactive rather than sophisticated. French left-wingers cringe at his enthusiasm for America, which has most recently culminated in bull-in-a-china-shop preparations for D-Day. After snubbing the Queen in the hope of liaising with Obama, Sarkozy’s dinner invitation to the American President has just been answered by an embarrassing refusal.
Thankfully, the French head of state has been saved from the opinion polls by a combination of factors, which must, without a doubt, include his elegant wife, Carla Bruni. Her immaculate presence at state functions, attired in demure shades of plum and navy, cast waves of refinement over her more diminutive husband. France’s emergence (relatively unscathed) from the economic downturn is a factor of more obvious significance. Sarkozy’s tremendous success in the European Parliamentary elections proves that his electorate still respect and support him. French citizens may be prepared to overlook ‘Sporty Sarko’s’ lowbrow taste in music, his jogging, and his NYPD t-shirt, but he’d better watch his step where La Princesse de Cleves is concerned. One more slip of the tongue, and he’ll have a host of counter-clerks racing after him brandishing placards, and his vengeful mother too, I wouldn’t doubt.