No one could have predicted that a late seventeenth-century noblewoman would become one of the most intensely charged symbols in early twenty-first-century France. Eldest daughter of a minor noble family tied to cardinal Richelieu, lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, married off to the comte de Lafayette in 1651, friends with a constellation of Grand siècle figures that included Madame de Sévigné, Henrietta of England, grammarian Gilles Ménage, cardinal de Retz, and La Rochefoucauld, habitué of the most brilliant Parisian salons and salonnière in her own right, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne (1634-1693) was one of the most admired literary figures of her day. Madame de Lafayette, as she is generally referred to, is best known as the author of The Princess of Cleves, which is held up by literary historians as the first modern novel for its psychological and historical realism, and is today a pillar of the French literary canon. In the period since he launched his 2007 campaign for president, Nicolas Sarkozy made the curious choice to single out Madame de Lafayette’s novel for attack not once, but repeatedly. At a campaign event in February 2006, the then-candidate declared:
The other day, for fun – we take whatever fun we can get – I looked through the syllabus for the civil service examination to become an administrative assistant. A sadist or an imbecile – I leave the choice to you – had put on the syllabus that candidates would be tested on The Princesse of Clèves. I don’t know if you have often found yourself asking the woman at the counter window what she thought of The Princesse of Clèves. Just imagine the spectacle!
In July 2008, now-president Sarkozy brought up the princess again – proof that his first potshot was no accident – in a speech in which he once again criticized France’s civil service examinations for testing knowledge of literary culture. “That said, I don’t have anything against it,” continued Sarkozy, though he interjected an autobiographical detail that screams for psychoanalytical explanation, noting that he disliked the work “because I suffered a lot over her.” Sarkozy’s sharp attack on The Princess of Cleves can be analyzed on many levels: as a dismissal of literature as irrelevant; as a reductive vision of the study of literature, consisting in his view of the mindless memorization of literary texts rather than the effort to understand them; as a kind of know-nothing critique of deeply ingrained features of the French educational system; as a populist posture aimed at connecting with all those who did not enjoy school; as a patronizing dismissal of civil servants as paper-processing automatons with whom it would be unthinkable to strike up a conversation about literature; and as a revealing glimpse at the president’s gendered vision of the lower civil service in his evocation of a woman rather than a man at the teller window. Sarkozy’s dismissive view of The Princess of Cleves reflects a broader contempt of literature, and echoes a remark he made in 2007 concerning his plans for university reform. “You have the right to study Classics, but the taxpayer shouldn’t necessarily be obliged to finance your studies” if they lead nowhere in the workplace. State-funded education should be utilitarian and serve economic growth: “The pleasure of knowledge is wonderful but the state needs to focus first and foremost on young peoples’ professional success.” No idle talk, Sarkozy’s assault on Madame de Lafayette was aimed at preparing a shift in state policy. In late 2008, his government reduced the number of questions on literary culture in the entrance examinations for the two lowest categories of civil servants (the weighting of literary culture for high civil servants remained unchanged). André Santini, the secretary of state in charge of the civil service, justified the reform by arguing that candidates were being questioned with “overly academic and ridiculously difficult questions which reveal nothing about their real aptitudes to fill a position.” “[C]ommon-sense questions” would take their place. After all, “What use is it to give a history test to firefighters, or to have university-educated policeman. We have reached the limits of a sterile elitism. I would prefer instead to find candidates whose skills are tailored to the position, rather than overqualified people who are not necessarily at their place.” Shrewdly mobilizing Pierre Bourdieu’s arguments in the service of a cause which, one suspects, would have horrified the sociologist, Santini criticized the exams because they “eliminate all those who do not possess the codes, often inherited from the family environment. It’s a form of invisible discrimination. But the civil service should contribute to upward social mobility, integration and should reflect the population as a whole.” Santini claimed that Sarkozy had become aware of the absurdity of the system upon learning that his own secretary had failed an administrative exam because she couldn’t name the author of The Princess of Cleves. Whatever social and ethnic inequalities plagued the French civil service, c’est la faute à Madame de Lafayette. Sarkozy’s remarks provoked a firestorm of controversy, whose embers still glow red-hot today. That writers, intellectuals and university humanities departments cried foul is no surprise. But Sarkozy had hit a sensitive nerve, and the debate spilled well beyond the academy. The president’s literary cheap shot sparked a veritable “Princess of Cleves Affair.” A (Socialist) senator sought clarification in a written question to Sarkozy in Parliament. A group of jurists, writers and actors organized a mock trial of the novel to judge its allege irrelevance. A parade of talking-heads, intellectuals, filmmakers and actors voiced their outrage on television talk shows. Isabelle Adjani voiced her “consternation.” Philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut invited professors of literarature Hélène Merlin-Kajman and Claude Habib onto his France Culture radio show to discuss the question “And what if we read The Princess of Cleves?” At the 2009 Salon du Livre, buttons labeled “I read The Princess of Cleves” rapidly sold out. A songwriting duo put out an ironic alt-rock ode to the affair. The novelist Régis Jauffret declared that “to spit on The Princess of Cleves is to spit on France,” and called on his compatriots to mail copies of the novel to the Élysée palace. A journalist called the novel “Anti-Sarkozyism’s real breviary”. A faculty member in French literature lectured an audience at the University of Grenoble-3 on “Sarkozy and the Princess: To What Is The Princesse of Cleves the NO?” During the strikes which shut down university campuses across France for much of the 2008-9 academic year, public readings of the novel became staples of the protests against the government’s university autonomy reform law. The novel has become a running joke in France, an emblem for the traditional forms of culture and education which Sarkozy’s opponents believe to be under attack, a trope in the now well-stocked arsenal of symbolic weapons aimed at the president. Ironically, Sarkozy’s populist diatribes were the best thing that could have happened to Madame de Lafayette’s current literary fortunes. Publishers have noted a marked increase in sales of the novel since Sarkozy made his remarks: Livre de Poche reported that sales of the novel doubled in 2008, and Folio enjoyed a comparable increase in 2009. In what is hard to interpret as anything but a grande école thumbing its nose at Sarkozy, the École Normale Supérieure put the novel on the program for its 2009-10 entrance examination. Thanks to Sarko, the novel is no longer a faded monument of the French literary canon, but has been transformed into a living, incandescent political symbol and cultural icon. The “Princess of Cleves Affair” thus offers a rich subject for the study of contemporary France. It would make an eminently teachable moment in courses on modern France or classical French literature. Its contours, intensity and longevity not only lay bare important features of French culture, but point to crucial points of tension in contemporary French society. A number of important broader debates have crystallized around the novel. Can educational systems bring societies together around a common literary culture (as many of Sarkozy’s critics argue) or does the teaching of literature instead divide by excluding those who have not been provided the tools with which to master elitist culture by their families (Santini is not along in arguing this – the president of the CRAN, the Representative Council of Black Associations, applauded the suppression of literary culture from civil service exams for precisely these reasons)? Is French national identity founded on a literary tradition? Explicitly linking the Princess of Cleves affair and the debate over “national identity” which Sarkozy recently initiated, Finkielkraut proclaimed that “France has long been a literary people, who knew its classics. But it will be necessary for it to remain so.” Not all of Sarkozy’s critics agree with this vision, instead contesting a narrowly literary conception of French national identity. Sarkozy’s own manifestly vexed relationship with the humanities is in and of itself significant: not only is he the only president of the Fifth Republic not to have been steeped in literary culture during studies at a grande école, he is also the first to openly distance himself from it. This perhaps constitutes one of the reasons for his vertiginous drop in popularity. His recent public efforts to let it be known that Louis-Ferdinand Céline is his favorite author suggests that he has recognized his political mistake. It’s hard to imagine such an affair taking place elsewhere than France. Try picturing Silvio Berlusconi attacking Dante, David Cameron taking Jane Austen to task, or George Bush belittling Henry James. Despite all this fuss, Tavernier sharply denies that Sarkozy’s remarks inspired his film:
No relation at all. Sarkozy’s remarks on The Princess of Clèves were bullshit which he is moreover trying to make us all forget by talking about everything he is reading … Pretty soon, he will have read too many books … But one doesn’t launch a project that will take two years out of one’s life because of statements like that, which are nothing more than an epiphenomenon.
Tavernier’s protestations notwithstanding, the force with which he contests Sarkozy suggests the contrary. “I didn’t make the movie to respond to that,” he repeats in another interview – and yet what follows seems once again to indicate otherwise:
This phrase did however make it possible for the novel to become a bestseller again. … It’s condescending to talk the way Nicolas Sarkozy did. He doesn’t seem to understand that all levels of the population can be inspired by culture. … Even when they came from modest backgrounds, scholars, teachers, writers became what they are thanks to primary school teachers who transmitted the pleasure of learning to them. Sarkozy has no idea what great dreams culture can inspire.
Alas, it will be a long time before it again becomes possible in France to read Madame de Lafayette’s work on the page, or watch adaptations on the screen, without reference to Sarkozy.