Vol. 31 No. 7 · 9 April 2009

La Princesse de Clèves at the Barricades

Mat Pires

2454 words

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.

The first hint of a chink in his armour of bluster and swagger came on the campaign trail in February 2006. Midway through a speech to party activists, Sarkozy decided to indulge in a moment of bonhomie. ‘The other day,’ he confided, ‘I was having fun – as you do – looking at the exam paper set for civil service attachés d’administration. A sadist or an imbecile – you choose – had included a question on the Princesse de Clèves. I don’t know if you’ve often had cause to ask the lady at the inquiry desk’ – the guichetière – ‘what she thought of the Princesse de Clèves. Imaginez un peu le spéctacle.’

The remark went unnoticed at the time, but Sarkozy repeated it word for word in an ‘interview’ he gave to a freesheet in April 2007. A year later, in a speech about modernising public policy, the epitome of pointlessness was no longer studying the Princesse de Clèves, but knowing it by heart, a conceit recycled last summer, during a visit to a holiday centre staffed by volunteers. Voluntary work, the president announced, was an activity unjustly overlooked in the civil service exam, and ‘just as important as knowing the Princesse de Clèves by heart’. In contrast to the guffaws which had greeted his bon mot first time round, the hilarity was now muted, prompting the president to add jovially that he had nothing against the novel. He then decided to throw some light on his obsession with the Princesse de Clèves: ‘j’avais beaucoup souffert sur elle,’ he confessed. The reference was to the princess herself rather than the novel, while the choice of preposition gave rise to interpretations ranging from the salacious to the psychoanalytical.

The idea that French public servants are cut off from reality has its origin in the antagonism between the country’s fonctionnaires and its private sector. A fonctionnaire isn’t just a civil servant in the narrow British sense: the category includes anyone employed by the state. Most teachers and lecturers, librarians, police officers and hospital staff are fonctionnaires. They are recruited via competitive examinations, and in theory are guaranteed employment for life. This job security – unheard of in the private sector – is much resented, so that when anyone is faced with administrative delays or incompetence, fonctionnaires as a class generally get it in the neck. This is what makes Sarkozy’s guichetière such a potent symbol; but it also explains why one of his manifesto commitments was not to replace half of all retiring fonctionnaires – a consequential pledge at a time when the careers of the baby-boom generation are coming to an end.

Using a 17th-century woman novelist to drum up resentment against the civil service sounds a lot like populist posturing, with clerical staff, and specifically women (the guichetière), presumed not to be capable of seeing the charms of classical literature. However, two other points were generally missed. First, an attaché d’administration is not an obscure, underpaid clerk but an A-grade public servant: tax inspectors and engineers are in the same category. (Architects are A+ fonctionnaires, ambassadors A++.) Second, no reference to Madame de Lafayette’s novel has yet been found in any of the papers set for the attaché d’administration exams, which suggests that Sarkozy drew on his own ‘suffering’ and made it up. But how might he have suffered?

There aren’t any clues in the plot. The eligible Prince de Clèves falls for a young noblewoman of uncommon beauty, and proposes to her; she accepts, though more out of duty than out of love. The besotted Clèves is swiftly disenchanted; his bride spends little time with him, and becomes broody and temperamental. Her looks, though, haven’t deserted her, and attract the attention of the dashing Prince de Nemours. This time the feelings are reciprocated. But Madame de Clèves’s sense of duty is unswerving. Her husband discovers the identity of the suitor, and dies heartbroken – handily, you might think. But no: his widow continues to abide by her wedding vows, and in a far from happy ending, self-imposed constancy prevails over love.

Where is the biographical resonance? Nicolas Sárközy de Nagy-Bócsa does have a vaguely aristocratic (Hungarian) background, and he did recently marry a woman of reputedly rare beauty. It was, however, wife number three for the French president, while Carla Bruni summed up her love life with the sentence: ‘I am monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.’ It’s hard to see where Madame de Clèves fits in, a woman from whom just about everyone seems to derive nothing but suffering: the not-yielded-to admirer (Nemours), the not-cheated-on husband (Clèves), even the uncomprehending student (Sarkozy).

The first riposte to what was widely seen as the president’s philistinism came in the form of a film adaptation of the Princesse de Clèves entitled La Belle Personne, which was released last September. Its director, Christophe Honoré, ‘hurt and oppressed’, he said, by the ignorance of Sarkozy’s remarks, set out to provide a clear rebuttal. ‘To think that we can learn nothing from a novel written three centuries ago,’ he said, ‘reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of what life is about and of the contribution that art makes to it.’ Honoré transposes the story to a lycée in the 16th arrondissement. Nemours is a young Italian teacher, played by the Byronic Louis Garrel, who falls for Junie, a new pupil who has listlessly paired off with the unexciting Otto, and who remains faithful to him even after he commits suicide. Honoré seeks to show the resonance of the story for young people, and although here and there a little mannered, the result is impressive, with Junie’s impenetrable façade contrasting admirably with the slow but certain descent of Nemours into obsession and illness.

The readings of the Princesse de Clèves staged by universities have not tried to engage with the themes of the book. For Sarkozy, the title exemplified the pointlessness of studying literature; for its defenders it has come to symbolise a university system in which all fields of study, however unlucrative, are offered. Literature in particular has a strong association with the universities, since the grandes écoles, which cream off the brightest students and groom them for top posts in industry or the civil service, are essentially devoted to business and engineering. Two years of ‘classes préparatoires’ are required after the baccalauréat for a student to have a chance of succeeding in the stringent entrance exams for the grandes écoles. Universities, on the other hand, aren’t allowed to select students since passing the baccalauréat, rather disingenuously described as ‘le premier diplôme universitaire’, gives any bachelier the right to enrol in a university course. In practice this simply postpones selection until the end of the first year, when exams typically remove more than half the entrants, wasting huge amounts of public money. Correcting this anomaly is not on the government’s list of priorities, however; the student body’s attachment to the right of free access has more or less made the introduction of selection impossible.

The government’s reforms have been wide-ranging. Over a thousand university posts are to go as a result of the cull of civil servants by natural wastage, entailing ever more recourse to non-fonctionnaires on short-term contracts. A second measure, allowing university presidents to increase lecturers’ teaching hours at the expense of their research (an activity already under pressure), conveniently makes up the shortfall in teaching hours. The third reform concerns the training of secondary school teachers, who enter the profession almost exclusively through the universities – which explains the widespread student support for the lecturers. A year was added to teacher training courses, though it made them no more challenging intellectually, and the année de stage, which gave recruits a first year on full pay divided between training and classroom experience, was abolished. This changes the beginning of a teaching career from being potentially difficult to potentially unmanageable, or even dangerous as anyone who has seen Laurent Cantet’s film The Class will appreciate. ‘Difficult’ schools naturally have a quick turnover of teachers and tend to be where new recruits find their first post.

As far as I can gather, the first public reading from the Princesse de Clèves took place on 12 February at the University of Grenoble. But it was the reading in Paris on the following Monday, outside the Panthéon, where France’s great and good are buried (Voltaire, Zola, Victor Hugo, but not Madame de Lafayette) which set the ball rolling. The readers included Louis Garrel, Nemours in Christophe Honoré’s film, and lecturers and students from the Universities of Paris. Each person read for five minutes, then passed the book to the next in line. Lecturers in Tours were also in action that day, rounding off the extravaganza with extracts read in eight foreign languages, including Yiddish. During the rest of the week the Princesse was in the public squares of Poitiers, Aix-en-Provence and Montpellier; in Avignon, it was read out in the central railway station. By the following week, it was being declaimed all over France: Grenoble had begun a second reading, this time in the main post office, students at Montbéliard were reading on the town’s buses, and, in the spirit of the extramural classes, analyses of the work, or translations from it, were also on offer. By 4 March, according to the Education Ministry, at least 230 public readings had been organised up and down the country.

The university where I teach, in Besançon, held its lecture-marathon midway through the second week of Lafayette-mania. Our original plan had been to read Germinal, but trial-runs suggested it would take anything from 16 to 24 hours to get through its 165,000 words. Who would volunteer for the 3 a.m. slot, alone in the town centre, with only a caver’s headlamp to read by? Happily, the momentum gathering around the Princesse de Clèves – only 60,000 words – came to the rescue. On a cold but sunny Wednesday, a group of students and lecturers gathered outside the town hall, armed with a lectern pinched from a classroom, some posters, and an amplifier lent by a local radio station. Inauspiciously, local police immediately turned up to inform us that advance authorisation was needed for the amp. The reading eventually got under-way at 12 o’clock, with participants raising their voices as the odd bus trundled by. It was difficult to imagine anyone sitting through the whole reading, though some passers-by did seem genuinely touched by hearing the fine prose as they did their shopping or ate their sandwich. The speakers took the reading seriously at first, grappling valiantly with past subjunctives and weirdly placed pronouns. But as the day wore on they started to have fun: suggestive bits were camped up, dialogue parcelled out to pairs or even threesomes, with a narrator providing the requisite he saids with eyebrows and forefinger aloft. Students sat and listened, gave out leaflets or buttonholed passers-by. One German lecturer wandered round the square, seizing members of the public by the shoulders and brandishing the book heavenwards as he read. The last line of the text – ‘sa vie, qui fut assez courte, laissa des exemples de vertu inimitables’ – was yelled into the late afternoon by a trio of students, to rapturous applause. The reading had taken exactly five hours. It works out at about 200 words a minute, if ever you need to organise that sort of thing.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences