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Apr 14 2009

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No Escaping La Princesse de Clèves

When I was diligently poring over the canonical 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves last year during my French literature class in Melbourne, the last thing I would have imagined was La Princesse becoming a symbol of resistance to President Sarkozy.

Sarkozy seems to have borne a grudge against La Princesse for quite some time. The first sign of it, according to Liberation, was in February 2006, in a speech the president made in Lyon. He said that he’d been amusing himself by reading the exam papers for entry into public service administrative positions. According to him, either a sadist or an imbecile had put on the program questions on La Princesse de Clèves. ‘I don’t know whether you’ve often had cause to ask a clerk what they think of La Princesse de Clèves. Imagine what a spectacle that would be!’

Now, I’m no expert in French literature, but I have a hunch that La Princesse occupies in France a position a little like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) does in English, although a hundred years earlier. Both authors took their respective fictional traditions and made such innovations to the form, and especially to the rendering of human thought and feelings, that these books represented a distinct shift which gave birth to the form of the modern novel.

And that is probably why La Princesse is staple fare in French secondary schools. I wish I could say the same for Sense and Sensibility in the Anglophone world, but alas it is not so, except for students taking specialized literature subjects.

The topic must have continued to weigh heavily on Sarkozy’s mind, though, as he brought it up again in July last year at a teaching seminar, implying what a waste of time it was to have to devote any time to La Princesse, and telling how he himself had ‘suffered under her’. From the video, it appears he got a few laughs, although that may have been due to the stand-up comic quality of his delivery.

You don’t have to be French to know that to make fun of what a public service clerk may or may not think of a French classic is rather at odds with notions of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In any case, this performance was one too many for the university lecturers who are already opposing Sarkozy’s efforts to ‘reform’ higher education (read: make it more like Anglophone higher education). On February 16th this year, lecturers and others opposed to Sarkozy staged several marathon public reading of La Princesse, one of which was outside the Pantheon. Readers took turns, one of them being the wonderful young actor Louis Garel, who starred in the 2008 remake of the story, titled La Belle Personne, set in a Parisian lycée (the film having been made in protest at Sarkozy’s dismissive comments).

I had to quit my literature class last year before finishing La Princesse unfortunately, but I shall persevere with her, encouraged by feeling I am—if only vicariously—part of the movement that seems to be gathering momentum in France.

There are even multiple Facebook sites in support of the movement, and the book is reportedly sold out in many bookshops. And according to an article in the UK Guardian on March 31, award-winning French writer Régis Jauffret is expressing his protest by encouraging every French citizen to mail Sarkozy a copy of La Princesse.

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