Strike action in French universities began in late January. Lecturers started by withholding grades and refusing to work overtime in protest at proposed government reforms that would involve the loss of a thousand posts, along with an increase in teaching hours. On 2 February large numbers of academics, supported by most of the student body, voted to down tools altogether. There were noisy demonstrations, faculty buildings were occupied. More unusually, one of my colleagues decided to hold his class in the bandstand of the local park, and before long extramural classes were taking place in towns all over the country.
As the government began to show signs of nervousness, the strikers’ national co-ordinating body called for the action to be intensified in the hope of forcing a rapid climbdown. The response – or one response – was an entirely new form of action. Armed with microphones and tannoys, students and profs took to the streets to read their way through La Princesse de Clèves, a 17th-century novel of love and duty set in the court of Henri II. This may not sound like a sure-fire way to wrest a climbdown from a government still contending with a general strike in one of its overseas possessions, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and with the fallout from a day of action that had seen up to three million citizens suffering in the current crise take to the streets – hospital workers, postal staff, even a few bankers. Yet there it was: Paris, Poitiers, Tours, Montpellier, Besançon – all hosted their lecture-marathon, gown haranguing town with volleys of 17th-century prose.
The Princesse de Clèves wasn’t chosen at random but in response to a series of disparaging remarks made by the French president. Nicolas Sarkozy’s lack of regard for culture has marked a sea change in the French establishment. Dominique de Villepin, Chirac’s last prime minister, wrote and published poetry in his spare time, and as recently as 1981 François Mitterrand posed for his official photograph glancing up from a copy of Montaigne’s Essays. Seen from France in 2009, this image might as well be the Arnolfinis’ wedding portrait. Sarkozy, who admits to finding the Comédie-Française ‘emmerdant’, has a taste for Rolexes and Ray-Bans, celebrated his election on a yacht provided by a media magnate, and is married to a former supermodel. The term bling-bling seems to have entered the French language just to describe the country’s head of state. As far as the business of government is concerned, the Fifth Republic’s unwritten motto, ‘Le président préside, le premier ministre gouverne,’ has been unceremoniously jettisoned. The prime minister (François Fillon; he races sports cars in his spare time) has at times looked like a coach gesticulating from the touchline as the president takes control of any government project he thinks is being mismanaged. As for presidentiality, Sarko’s YouTubed reply to a farmer at the Salon de l’Agriculture who declined a handshake, ‘Casse-toi, pauvre con’ (‘Fuck off then, you sad git’), rapidly put paid to that.