Magnificence and Gallantry Elude Sarkozy, Energize France


This is not exactly new news, but The New Yorker‘s nerd-dreamy “Page Turner” blog just posted an essay by Elisabeth Zerofskyabout a minor-but-telling culture war event that has been agitating France for the past several years. Spoiler alert: conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy ends up looking like an anti-intellectual, soulless clown.

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The cover image from my copy of the book
Ball at the Valois Court
Anonymous 16th-century painting,
representing the era in which the novel is set

This controversy concerns the charming and elegant 17th-century novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette; the plot centers on the Princess’s moral education, finding her way in the world and her struggle over love versus duty and honor. The French educational system is somewhat different from the American system, and throughout France there is the expectation that all students will have learned a certain number of touchstones drawn with pride from that country’s literary patrimony. Among those books is La Princesse de Clèves, one of the earliest examples of the psychologically complex historical novel, replete with proto-feminist resonance. My headline comes from the famous first sentence of the novel: “Magnificence and gallantry had never appeared in France with such brilliance as during the last years of the reign of Henri II.” Mme de Lafayette set the novel a little more than a century before her own time.

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France has considered the book a monument so relevant to the national sense of cultural identity that it is not only required reading for the country’s high school students, but familiarity with Mme de Lafayette’s novel is part of the national bureaucratic civil service exam. But in 2006, Sarkozy opined that “either a sadist or an idiot” had included La Princesse de Clèves on the exam, continuing, “I don’t know if it happens to you often that you ask a counter clerk what she thought of The Princesse de Clèves. Just imagine!”

That’s a condescending point from Sarkozy, and it represents a short-sighted and over-literal concept of the value of literature. He implies that counter clerks—and he chose female counter clerk as his abstract example—have no need for classic literature, and, moreover, that no one in such a low-status position could possibly care about art and culture. It’s not hard to imagine him chuckling, Romney-like, at the idea of talking to the help—the help!—about books, of all things.

No less a figure than Hélène Cixous weighed in last year in The Guardian out of the UK. Her vicious, righteous, performatively snobby take down of Sarkozy plays on the snobbery implicit in Sarkozy’s scoff at the idea of a counter clerk having anything interesting to say about, or any interest in, a classic novel. Cixous also highlights some of the basic feminist issues connected to Sarkozy’s attack on this book, as well as his more concrete public policy failures, ignored as he takes time for dubious literary criticism.

This brand of calculated barbarity should remain in the annals of French history. Just imagine an English potentate breaking the good news to the people: a ban on bloody tedious Robinson Crusoe, cluttering the mind. And Shakespeare, what a drag! Old stuff. We’ve got the telly now.

[…] The Princess of Cleves is the first novel in literature. Worse, it’s written by a woman (Madame de La Fayette). Worse, it immortalises a woman. And now all these complex characters, politically and intellectually refined, fall in the 21st century under the blows of a bad boy driven by an absurd urge that is beyond him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.

When it comes to suffering in the workplace, the anxiety of unemployment, the stranglehold on teachers, widespread injustice in the health sector … for all this, Sarkozy has no ear.

Some of the public responses to Sarkozy’s dismissal of La Princesse de Clèves have been creative and even revelatory. During student strikes in 2008 and 2009 against detrimental education “reforms”, one way the protesters presented their case was through staging public readings of the novel, calling out the government’s poor record in grasping the value of the humanities.

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LPC button

Reading the novel became something of an anti-Sarko symbol. Baptiste Marsollat, writing in French Slate, characterized the sentiment as “From now on, from the housing projects to the lecture halls of the Sorbonne, the watchword is: When I hear the name Sarkozy, I take out my Princesse de Clèves.” Copies of the novel have sold briskly, and visitors to a 2009 book expo snatched up buttons announcing “I read La Princesse de Clèves” (that’s “read” in the present tense).

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In 2008, spurred by irritation with the president, Christophe Honoré adapted Mme de Lafayette’s novel into the movie The Beautiful Person (La belle personne), moving the action from the 16th-century court into a 21st-century high school—it is to La Princesse de Clèves what Cruel Intentions is to Dangerous Liaisons.

The most complex and provocative response to the new high political profile of the novel was Régis Sauder’s 2010 documentary Children of the Princess of Cleves (Nous, princesses de Clèves) (Some video clips-in French-are available here.) Sauder filmed a group of high school students from a mostly-minority housing project outside of Marseille. The film investigates whether disadvantaged, minority kids, some from immigrant families, can find relevance to their own lives in the 300-year-old book. The students act out passages from the novel, talk about details of the story and even describe their own lives in the style of Mme de Lafayette’s accounts of 16th-century aristocrats. It’s a fantastic argument for the power of literature.

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While it remains awe-inspiring to an American that political protest can center on a work of classic literature, there is another side to this story. One of Sarkozy’s explanations for his desire to remove La Princesse de Clèves from the civil service exam is that forcing lower-level bureaucrats to know their classics is a form of elitism.

The basic argument (and it’s a reasonable argument) goes like this: immigrants educated in their native countries, without the standard French secondary education, as well as generally those, for whatever reason, who struggle with humanities subjects or who grew up in situations where literature was not emphasized or valued, would have trouble with the exam. Thus, people perfectly able to perform the work of, say, counter clerk, but whose lives have not led them to have a comfortable facility with La Princesse de Clèves, would be excluded from those government jobs. And those people come disproportionally from minority and poor communities.

A student in Children of the Princess of Cleves
Written on the book’s cover: “Classics for everyone”

The question of elitism surrounding this issue remains valid and important, but it’s mightily hard to take coming from Sarkozy, who, as Cixous pointed out, doesn’t seem to care overmuch for the plight of the disadvantaged otherwise. (Imagine Mitt Romney disparaging the arts but explaining his position as a concern for minority access. There might, indeed, be grave problems with minority access to the arts, but someone like Romney is hardly a credible advocate for addressing the problem.) Sarkozy sees elitism in requiring people from diverse backgrounds to learn about classic literature, but the idea of “elitism” works both ways. This happens in American politics, too. Conservatives dismiss the very concept of a liberal arts education as an elitist institution, calling its proponents “out of touch” and concerned with things that don’t matter to most people. Liberals, on the other hand, want access to this education for everyone, not just the elites, and see conservatives as elitist for declaring that literature, for example, simply is not for whole races, classes or categories of people. Sarkozy should ask the disadvantaged high school students in Children of the Princess of Cleves if they think literature is elitist.

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Marsollat courageously suggests that Sarkozy might not be entirely wrong about the novel on the exam (though he doesn’t especially defend Sarkozy). He cites the discriminatory argument as I’ve outlined it, but he also acknowledges that as society gets more diverse, “atomized” and specialized, the concept of “general culture” loses its usefulness and relevance. He analogizes that bureaucrats no longer need to know La Princesse de Clèves just as mathematicians no longer need to know Greek, but no one is suggesting an outcry over that. Some might feel a sense of loss over the waning of a “general culture,” but those historically excluded from or ignored by the “general culture” are probably not mired in nostalgia.

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Marina Vlady & Jean Marais in the 1961 film version of La Princesse de Clèves

Paul Cohen has an excellent analysis of the many sides of the “Princess of Clèves Affair,” as he calls it. Cohen quotes André Santini, who ran the civil service under Sarkozy, making the president’s point, but with more clarity and somewhat less condescension. Santini calls the exam questions on cultural topics like La Princesse de Clèves “overly academic and ridiculously difficult questions which reveal nothing about [applicants’] real aptitudes to fill a position.” A significantly more credible source of concern over these exam questions is the Representative Council of Black Associations, which was pleased with the plan to take literature out of the government exam, setting aside the conservatives’ ideological motivations.

However complex the debate over La Princesse de Clèves and the government service exam has been, the one thing the French general public and the press seem to agree on is that Sarkozy acted like an anti-intellectual blowhard. He might have stumbled upon an idea that happens to align with the legitimate concerns of some minority advocates, but no one would consider him a sincere proponent of those concerns in the larger context.

Perhaps Sarkozy should have kept his literary criticism to himself. In the end, he was voted out of office, but phenomenal sales of the novel continue apace. He did significantly more for the popularity of La Princesse de Clèves than anyone else in the past 300 years; he picked a fight with a novel and the book won.

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