French Schools: is secularism the answer?

The Class

Since the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s indefatigable and impressive Education Minister, is everywhere. Ushered into the limelight by President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, she is now representing the French state’s official response to a trauma that has triggered a real crisis of national identity. “School,” the 37-year-old minister cried out in the National Assembly a week after the attacks. “School is on the frontline. It will stand firm!” Despite the rumble of approval from both sides of the chamber, the febrility of her tone was hard to miss. And she had good reason to be worried: the three jihadists were French, educated in the schools of the Republic.

Ever since the revolution, when its “Committee for Public Instruction” wrestled control of French schools from the grip of the Catholic Church, “l’Education Nationale” has been the state’s main tool for promoting republican values. Unfortunately, more than two centuries later, the French are deeply divided as to what, precisely, those republican values should be. Many feel that concepts like “liberté, egalité, fraternité” are too vague to be of any use in the multi-ethnic, multi-faith France of today, but that doesn’t stop politicians like Vallaud-Belkacem from reciting the tired old triad like a kind of mantra against growing unease.

The purpose of the Education Minister’s speech was to deplore publicly the reported refusal of some French school children from Muslim backgrounds to observe a minute’s silence in homage to the victims of the attacks. Clearly, France has not come to terms with the reality that was brought to light in 2004 by the “Obin report,” assembled by an inspectorate of the Education Ministry, which alerted the political class to the existence of “closed counter-societies” in France’s poorest suburbs in which “a large number of children of North African origin… perceive themselves as foreign to the national community.” According to the authors of the report, French Muslims referred to two categories: “Us and the French.” “Tell them they’re French,” they went on, “and they’ll reply that this is impossible because they’re Muslim.” When the Obin report was published, the official response was to ban the Muslim headscarf (and other “conspicuous religious symbols”) in schools, add the word “laicité” (secularism) to the “liberty, equality, fraternity” mantra and just chant louder.

“There were too many questions from pupils,” Vallaud-Belkacem said in her speech in the Assembly. “‘Yes, I’m Charlie, but what about the double standards?… Why defend freedom of expression for some and not for others?’ These questions are unbearable.” Unbearable, I realised, not because they expressed a legitimate grievance, but because they showed that the French school system, “which is supposed to transmit values,” had failed in its mission. I’m pretty sure that if I were a Muslim child growing up in France today, I too would be asking “unbearable” questions.

What is this mission, exactly, and what are these values? The answer lies in the national mythology surrounding the idea of liberté. Ever since the foundation of the Third Republic in 1870 and Jules Ferry’s laws on free, mandatory and secular public education, the notion of freedom has been equated in France with emancipation—above all from ignorance, obscurantism and religious belief. It became the state’s business to guarantee that every citizen be equipped with a rigorous, rational education that would offer protection against the dark forces operating outside the sanctuary of “l’école Républicaine,” the most dangerous of which was religion. School was and still is the place where the citizen is “shaped” (formé) in rational thought. Irrational belief systems that thrive in the family and the community have no place in school. Significantly, those who defend the legislation banning the Muslim headscarf argue that the hijab represents the patriarchal will to oppress women and that a ban is therefore justified in the name of republican freedom.

The problem is that not everyone is convinced by such arguments. French Muslims believe that behind the law banning the display in schools of conspicuous religious symbols of all kinds lies a desire to target the headscarf alone. This is why Vallaud-Belkacem’s position is so uncomfortable. After all, this is the woman who, five years ago, co-authored an essay entitled “Visible Plurality and Equal Opportunities,” which argued for the symbolic recognition of France’s ethnic minorities. In it, she praised her political opponent Nicolas Sarkozy, then still president, for his “strong and symbolic decision to surround himself with a government that looked more like society.” She also praised his nomination of Rachida Dati, who comes from a North African Muslim background, to the “regal position” of Minister of Justice. “The symbolic effect of such nominations remains powerful,” she said.

But as Hollande’s Education Minister, Vallaud-Belkacem must now toe the line and express the mood of her government, which, if her use of the word “unbearable” is anything to go by, is verging on the hysterical. “We will not take them lightly,” she told the chamber, referring to the hundred or so anti-republican incidents that school heads had reported to her ministry, 40 of which were passed on to the police or Gendarmerie. Indeed, shortly after the attacks, an eight-year-old schoolboy from Nice, who had the misfortune to admit in class that he was not “Charlie,” was reported to the police by his teacher and charged under a new law against vindicating terrorism (“apologie du terrorisme”) that had been passed in November 2014 in order to provide a legal bulwark against online recruiters for jihad. Questioned by the police, the little boy, named Ahmed, admitted that he’d said he was for the terrorists, and against Charlie Hebdo, because of their cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but that he was not, as the headteacher had affirmed, glad the journalists were dead.

The way Vallaud-Belkacem described the questions of children like Ahmed reflects a disturbingly authoritarian tone that has crept into political discourse in France. When I heard her announce her ministry’s plan for a “grand mobilisation of schools for the promotion of the values of the Republic,” I had to remind myself that I was in modern France and not in Maoist China. Between now and July 2015, she promised, “1,000 hardened teacher trainers will be schooled in secularism (laïcité) and moral and civic education, and deployed across the country.” These “reservists,” as they’re being called, will be armed with “effective, appropriate and hard-hitting tools,” including a series of short films about “the historic struggles for the values of the Republic.” What, I wondered, would these films put in and what would they leave out? By trumpeting the “universal values” of the French Republic, does Vallaud-Belkacem hope to mask the fact that the historic majority in this country is being portrayed as more legitimately “republican” than its more recent arrivals?

How, I wondered, has it come to this? An eight-year-old under arrest, teenage boys across France with no criminal records being denounced to the police by their teachers. In the aftermath of the attacks Vallaud-Belkacem sent a circular to state school principals asking them to encourage debate in the classroom. The goal, as she put it, was to free up discussion among the children (“libérer la parole”). With hindsight, and in the light of all the reports and denunciations that subsequently found their way on to her desk, the minister’s invitation to get the children talking takes on sinister overtones. How has this champion of cultural diversity and lesbian and gay rights, who has so often come under attack herself for her own Moroccan roots, become the main apologist for French state assimilationism?

Vallaud-Belkacem was born in the Moroccan Rif, second in a family of seven children, and was raised from the age of five in one of the poorest immigrant suburbs of the northern city of Amiens, where unemployment is over 50 per cent. She excelled at school, earned a degree in law and was accepted by one of France’s most prestigious graduate schools, the Institute of Political Science in Paris (known as “Sciences Po”). For someone like Hollande, she is a walking advert for the integrationist model and a living argument against the “communitarianism” or multiculturalism that the French see being championed in Britain. Ask most French people what “communitarianism” means to them and they’ll say rejecting the host country and living in closed communities.

Vallaud-Belkacem is brave and gifted. Her extraordinary communication skills have made her the Socialist Party’s main mouthpiece for its newest and most unpopular ideas (including same-sex marriage, which became legal in 2013). She’s Hollande’s best card, the embodiment of what he wants modern France to look like. And she is suitably grateful. When she was appointed to her ministerial job, she thanked “l’école de la République” for “making the little immigrant girl that I was into a minister.”

My own experience of the conformism and ideological uniformity of l’Education Nationale over the past 25 years—two of my children have been through the system and two are still in it—makes me a little suspicious of the Education Minister’s unequivocal advocacy of the system. It’s not as if she herself hasn’t suffered in a society which, while pretending to ignore her ethnicity (legally the concept “ethnic minority” doesn’t exist in France), manages to instrumentalise it by holding her up as model of integration, or else throws it back in her face. When she first became a minister in 2012, her supposed champion, Ségolène Royal, said of her appointment: “If she were called Claudine Dupont, she might not be here. She’d better assume her identity and be proud of it.” And then there’s the casual cruelty of her law professor to whom she confided, in the early 1990s, her secret ambition to try for Sciences Po: “Don’t harbour too many illusions, mademoiselle. You’re not up to scratch.”

If the reaction of my eldest son, Jack, to the French school system of the 1990s is anything to go by, revenge can be a powerful driver of ambition. Labelled around the age of eight as “en echec scolaire,” “failing at school,” and endlessly threatened with being made to repeat a year, Jack lived in a state of constant anxiety as a child. One of those little boys who oscillate between the daydreamer and the frenetically energised, he struggled through school until he was 17, when he finally left to study for his baccalaureate by correspondence. He was later accepted by the Sorbonne and earned a masters in philosophy, but he still feels that l’Education Nationale stole his childhood.

“Perhaps we’d like to imagine the killers as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that.”

He describes republican schooling in his day as “violent, in that it was basically a regime of fear and humiliation.” He recalls the punishments (children were regularly forced to write lines, despite the fact that pensums had been formally proscribed by ministerial degree in 1890), the degrading rituals (teachers often chose to read out pupils’ marks in descending order), the quick and brutal pigeonholing (the school psychologist’s evaluation could make or break a child’s reputation) and the competitive divide-and-rule atmosphere that was maintained in the classroom. Apparently this kind of “poisonous pedagogy” can still be found in France’s public schools today. According to the lawyer of eight-year-old Ahmed, after the Charlie Hebdo incident in the classroom he was sent to the headteacher who lost his temper, hit him three times over the head, put him in the corner and then refused to give him his diabetes medicine. By the time the child’s statement was made public, Vallaud-Belkacem had already taken the school’s side.

When he saw the video of Ahmed’s statement, Jack sent me an email: “Gives a good idea of what’s inside the social pressure cooker.” Thinking of that little boy in the police station and the other young Muslims who have been forced to appear handcuffed before magistrates, I find myself wondering who the three killers, Said and Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, were as schoolboys.

Perhaps we’d like to imagine them as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that. A close friend of the Coulibaly family described Amedy as having “always had an enormous need to belong. At the Collège Jean-Vilar [his secondary school], his schooling was a complete mess. He met neither the men nor the books he should have.” The French-born son of Malian parents, he was the only boy in a family of 10 children. He was encouraged at school to follow a vocational training, but harboured illusions of passing the more prestigious bac. He is said to have “changed suddenly aged 17,” when he took up drug dealing and armed robbery. Perhaps by then it had become clear to him that he would never fulfil his ambitions. Amedy was sent to prison, where he was, as we now know, recruited to the jihad. The prison’s psychiatrist spoke of “an immature and psychopathic personality with poor powers of introspection.”

Similarly with the Kouachi brothers, there has been little attempt to understand what might have made them so
vulnerable to radicalisation. There’s the statement given to the press by the Director of the Georges Pompidou Foundation home where social services placed the brothers as children, after the deaths of both their parents: “We’re all shocked because we know these youths. It’s hard to imagine these youths, who were perfectly integrated, could deliberately kill like that… During their time with us they never posed any behavioural problems.” Then there’s the statement from another “youth” who was close to the brothers for the six years that they spent in the centre: “The George Pompidou [home] wasn’t very cool… How can I describe it? It was very violent. We fought a lot among ourselves. Some care workers were scared of us. I heard Patrick Fournier, the Director, saying that everything was fine. Not exactly true!”

Of course, the killers’ “real natures” will forever remain a matter of speculation, but the glaring discrepancy between these two portraits does raise questions. Jack’s perception of the “violence” of the school system is linked to the persistent pressure exerted on him by teachers and psychiatrists to conform. I first became aware of this pressure when Jack was four and his kindergarten teacher tore up his drawing because he was still representing human figures as “hommes têtards” (people with heads, legs and arms but no bodies), a sign, to her, of his “regressive tendencies.” This normative pressure in French society makes its pre-eminent citizens, its experts of all kinds, very quick to judge. So it is with a certain amount of scepticism that I read Coulibalay’s psychiatric report: “A very deficient moral sense… a desire for omnipotence.”

Compare it to the account given by the family friend: “When he got out of prison I found him much more shut off, bitter. But he wasn’t someone who made you scared. For me, he was above all a youth who’d been punished a lot.”

One of the joys of the rousing manifestations of national solidarity in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris was that they seemed to express a very real spirit of tolerance. As I marched with my daughter through the streets of Paris on that cold, crisp January afternoon, I was struck by the messages I heard in the chants—“I am Charlie! I am a Muslim! I am a Jew!”—and on many of the banners: “In mourning; not at war.” The message politicians took away from these demonstrations was that something had to change and so it was that, soon afterwards, Vallaud-Belacem was standing on the podium of the National Assembly calling for that “general mobilisation” to reduce “the fractures” in French society and, as Valls had promised, “draw lessons from what isn’t working.”

The problem is that the old mantras are still being chanted and no lessons are being drawn. While Valls dared to say in public, two weeks after the attacks, that there was “a territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in France, and even used the taboo word “ghetto” to describe the banlieues (deprived suburbs), the President remains in denial. “The Republic recognises all her children,” he said piously. “Wherever they’re born, or wherever they live. It’s her duty to make sure that each of her children can succeed in life without feeling segregated, separated, discriminated against, ignored, because he or she comes from a given estate or quartier.” The crucial question, he went on, is: “Do we have the capacity to live together?”

None of this feels like drawing lessons. Patrick Kanner, Hollande’s Minister for Towns, Youth and Sport, who heads an inter-ministerial project to reduce inequality in the suburbs, told Le Figaro recently that he was “not afraid” of the idea of “positive” (or affirmative) action to combat discrimination, another taboo concept in France. Talking of the “service civique,” a programme to help young job seekers get a foothold on the employment ladder, Kanner said: “There’s five times more demand than there are places available on the programme. We have to make sure that 100 per cent of the applications from the suburbs are honoured. The places must go first to them.” Hollande quickly made it clear that he did not agree with his minister: “I myself don’t recognise any communities. I say that every citizen of the Republic has the rights and the same obligations.”

You may ask why France could bring itself to introduce its highly effective parity laws to boost the number of women in parliament (now, 15 years later, ahead of the United Kingdom) but then displays an allergic reaction every time anyone raises the possibility of positive action to fight racism. The reason given is that the French are so attached to the ideal of equality before the law that they perceive any departure from that principle—including identifying someone as belonging to an ethnic minority—as a form of injustice. Given the culture of privileges and “régimes spéciaux” that pervades the French labour market, this looks either hypocritical or plain delusional.

One proposal has been to make it possible to gather data on France’s ethnic minorities in order better to combat racial inequality. French egalitarianism doesn’t recognise the concept of ethnicity, so it’s still impossible to assemble public statistics on ethnic minorities here. Last month, Hollande rejected the idea of changing that law: “There will be those who are for and those who are against, those who say, it’s discriminating to put certain people on certain lists who will have rights that others won’t have. The French will be considered according to their colour, their origins, their neighbourhood? No. We can see what’s happening according to where people live. No need for statistics on ethnicity. Look at where many of your compatriots live and you’ll see the problems of unemployment, education, success, even the ability to start a business.”

As is often the case in France, there’s a gap here between the ideal and the reality. Despite the official line, there are people gathering statistics with the aim of fighting discrimination. L’Observatoire des inégalités (Inequality Watch), an organisation based in Tours, is an online data-gathering resource. One of the consequences of the state’s refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as a component of identity is that ethnic minorities in France have few platforms on which to express themselves. Today, grassroots movements are working to remedy this. During the riots that erupted in the banlieues in 2005, the Bondy Blog was set up by a group of Swiss journalists who were interested in hearing what the inhabitants of Bondy, one of the burning suburbs northeast of Paris, might have to say about their situation. Today the Bondy Blog is a thriving online magazine that relays news from France’s previously voiceless immigrant suburbs. Behind these initiatives is a new generation of French people who believe, like the Martinican writer and academic Édouard Glissant, that identity in the modern world is “relational” rather than “fixed.”

Despite what Hollande says about the Republic recognising all children as equal, there is a chronic problem of educational inequality in France and it often follows ethnic lines. In its Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD found that France’s education system, while it produces an impressive intellectual elite, leaves a large proportion of its adult population barely able to read: 21.6 per cent of those surveyed in France scored the lowest level of literacy, compared to 15.5 per cent across 24 other countries. In a culture that puts such emphasis on academic achievement, the stigma of failure is, of course, that much greater. The OECD’s final report said of France: “The scores for French people [in literacy and numeracy] vary considerably according to training levels and social background, and this is to a far greater degree than the average across participating countries. The differences in literacy standards between individuals born in France and those who were born abroad are much greater than the average across participating countries.”

Last month I went to our local primary school in Paris to meet my 10-year-old son’s new teacher. Joseph had just joined her class of 27, having moved from a tiny village school in the Cevennes mountains, one of the wildest and least populated areas of France, where he had, for the past seven years, been taught in classes of 10. One of the appeals of this rural school was that most of the time it seemed to elude the reach of “l’Education Nationale.”

When I asked the new teacher if she ever praised the children, she pulled out four little stamps from a drawer and set them in a line on her desk. “I got them from Canada,” she said, with a guilty smile. “They’re smileys. One for good work, one for hard work, one for tidy work. And this one, this is their favourite, the smiley kitty, for big improvement!” Today, it seems that pressure is growing in France to place the individual needs of the child at the heart of the school system. For the past two years there has been considerable debate surrounding the wisdom of the “out of 20” marking system in primary schools, which many feel works for “good” students, but discourages or even “breaks” children who are struggling.

On the ground, more and more primary school teachers are refusing to give marks despite the President’s known attachment to them: “Marks are important as a means of keeping families informed,” he said recently. “Of course Hollande likes the marking system,” says Christian Chevalier, Secretary General of the teacher’s union, UNSA. “Hollande is himself a pure product of the marking system and selective sorting.” As for poor, beleaguered Vallaud-Belkacen—who last November said of an experimental secondary school in the Gers which had abandoned all marks: “I vigorously support the pedagogic innovations that come from the field”—she has now chosen her camp. Eager, perhaps, to hold on to her job as head of a ministry with a notoriously revolving door, she recently came out against any reform to the existing system.

The old guard in France, for whom l’Ecole de la République is still an extremely useful social tool, continues to resist grassroots movements that press for a more tolerant, accepting model. I think of the French state’s continuing refusal to accept the diversity—psychological, religious and cultural—of its citizens; I recall my own child’s indignation and the sense of injustice felt by those French Muslim girls being forced to leave their headscarves at home; the mute rage of all those teenage Muslim boys being told that they won’t succeed but they must conform—and I wonder how long the edifice will hold.

This piece was published in Prospect in March, 2015

‘Parfaite,’ a one-act play about a less-than-perfect mother-son relationship…

Pierre Francois Garel

Pierre Francois Garel (Jack)

Fanny Cottencon

Fanny Cottencon (Claire)

Parfaite (Perfect) is my first play, written in French for Le Paris des Femmes, a festival created by three women – Michele Fitoussi, Veronique Olmi et Anne Rotenberg  – to promote women’s writing in French theatre. (Apparently 85% or French plays are still written by men).

Stéphane Engelberg, director of the Theatre des Mathurins in Paris, offers up his theatre for three nights in a row every January for a performed reading of the nine, new plays that have been selected.

Designed to be a short, sharp shock, Parfaite, tackles the cruel mechanism that the family can be.

Michele Fitoussi, Veronique Olmi, Anne Rotenberg

I had an enormous amount of help and encouragement for these three wonderful women, each gifted artists in their own right. Next year in January 2016, Le Paris de Femmes will, with Director open the doors of the Theatre des Mathurins to 9 more female authors, some established, some untried, in order to promote women writers in an industry that is still 85% male.

To see my words read out, felt and experienced by three actors of the calibre of the people who were chosen for Parfaite, was a powerful experience as well as a lesson in detachment.

Gaite Montparnasse 1

Below is an interview (in French) with Jean-François Bensahel, director of DSO-Interactive, one of the two companies (with Durance) that sponsored Le Paris des Femmes this year.

Jean-François Bensahel, PDG du groupe DSO-Interactive à Lucy Wadham, auteure et lauréate du prix Theatre, DSO.

Lucy, pouvez-vous vous présenter brièvement ?
Romancière avant tout, je travaille aussi comme journaliste en France pour la presse britannique depuis 28 ans. Je suis la quatrième enfant d’une fratrie de 6 personnalités fortes. L’écriture m’a donc servie, depuis mon enfance, d’armure ou de refuge. Même lorsque j’écris un polar qui demande une trame haletante, ce sont les liens familiaux qui m’intéressent avant tout.

Quelle est la vision d’une British sur la France d’aujourd’hui ou sur la culture en France ?
Ce qui me frappe sur la France d’aujourd’hui, c’est la peur. La peur surtout, je pense, de la mondialisation et de ce qui la caractérise (révolution numérique, immigration, brassage ethnique et culturel). Il y a en revanche beaucoup de Français qui accueillent cette évolution à bras ouverts, comme une délivrance de la stagnation culturelle. J’ai remarqué que cette crispation identitaire se trouve surtout chez les gens de mon âge et au-dessus – les baby-boomers et les soixante-huitards qui ont du mal à passer la main. Pourtant cette ‘génération Erasmus’ qui vient derrière nous est beaucoup mieux équipée pour trouver des solutions intelligentes et imaginatives à nos problèmes.

Vous avez écrit So French, l’amour vache d’une Anglaise pour la France. Avez-vous une anecdote à nous raconter sur une différence culturelle majeure qui vous a marquée en arrivant en France ?
Ce qui m’a marqué le plus au début était le coté ‘old school’ des relations hommes-femmes, mais surtout le manque de solidarité féminine. Les femmes françaises me paraissaient à cette époque enfermées dans une compétition sexuelle très fatigante. Pas intéressées par l’amitié, elles me snobaient dans les soirées et quand j’essayais d’engager la conversation, elles jetaient constamment un oeil par-dessus mon épaule, regardant les hommes défiler derrière moi comme on regarde s’écrouler une montagne d’espoirs érotiques. Souvent le soir en rentrant je pleurais dans les bras de mon mari. Tout ça est fini – ou bien parce que les Parisiennes ont changé ou bien parce que je ne représente plus de menace pour elles.

Interview croisée JF Bensahel/Lucy Wadham

Parfaite est votre première pièce de théâtre. Dans quelle mesure cela diffère de l’écriture de romans ?
Ca prend moins longtemps ! Et puis son immédiateté demande une grande rigueur et une économie d’expression que j’ai trouvées très excitantes. J’avais hâte de recommencer, alors je suis en train d’en
écrire une autre.

A votre avis, que peut apporter un Festival comme le Paris des Femmes ?
Personnellement, je crois beaucoup à ce genre d’initiative. Dans un contexte aussi désastreux pour les femmes écrivains que le milieu théâtral français, j’estime que l’on peut justifier un petit coup de pouce.
La crispation dont j’ai parlé plus haut autour de l’identité française s’applique également au modèle patriarcal qui est encore bien ancré en France.

Comment s’est passée la rencontre avec Michèle Fitoussi ?
Très bien, dès le départ. (Michèle n’a jamais fait partie de ces Parisiennes qui m’ont fait pleurer.) En dehors de son intelligence pétillante, Michèle a une énorme générosité d’esprit. En m’offrant cette chance d’essayer le théâtre pour la première fois, alors qu’elle savait que je n’avais jamais écrit en langue française, elle a pris un gros risque.

Parlez-nous de votre pièce en quelques mots.
Parfaite est une pièce dont le thème, la relation mère-fils, me trottait dans la tète depuis des années sans trouver d’issu, ni dans un roman, ni dans une nouvelle. Quand Michèle, Anne et Véronique m’ont
proposé cette aventure, j’ai su que mon moment était venu. Claire est une mère ‘parfaite’ – intelligente, sensible et cultivée. Son fils Ulysse est ‘un enfant à problèmes’ qui perd pied à l’adolescence et tombe dans la drogue. Suite à une bouffée délirante, il est hospitalisé et mis sous médicaments. Un jour il disparaît, rompant avec sa famille. La pièce commence au moment où il se réunit avec sa mère après 7 ans de rupture. Retrouvailles tendres qui se transforment en règlements de comptes affectifs.

Comment votre pièce s’inscrit-elle dans le thème « le Meilleur des Mondes » ?
Le Meilleur des Mondes m’a donné l’idée de situer la pièce en Lozère dans une communauté Ecoresponsable.
Loin de l’univers bourgeois parisien de son enfance, Ulysse – aujourd’hui appelé Jack – vit avec sa copine écossaise très proche de la nature. Il espère non seulement se reconstruire mais se réinventer à travers cette nouvelle vie ; spectacle insupportable pour Claire qui estime que son fils est dans le fantasme et le déni.

Que représente pour vous l’entreprise citoyenne ?
Je dois avouer que j’étais obligée de regarder la définition d’entreprise citoyenne sur Wikipédia. S’il s’agit de la prise en compte par la direction d’une entreprise de « l’intérêt de la société (au sens large) et de l’humanité au même niveau que son intérêt propre », je suis entièrement d’accord. J’ai remarqué, en passant, que la traduction anglaise pour entreprise citoyenne est « corporatif social responsabilité » ce qui relève d’un défi beaucoup moins ambitieux et moins glorieux.

Que représente pour vous l’attribution du Prix DSO Interactive ?
Ce prix représente une chance immense pour des écrivains comme moi parce qu’il donne confiance. C’est quand j’ai appris l’avoir gagnée que je me suis mise à écrire une autre pièce, qui s’appelle Départs. Sans quoi, ce n’est pas sûr que j’aurais osé.

En quoi l’entreprise peut-elle faire le lien avec l’art et la culture ? Est-ce vraiment utile ?
Je pense que c’est aux employés de DSO de répondre à cette question à l’issu de cette expérience DSO
– Paris des Femmes, qui pour moi a été merveilleuse.

Le Roi est mort

Hollande sans dents

We tend to believe that most aspects of political life are uniform across western societies – except, that is, when France hits the headlines. Just think of the leap of the imagination required to conceive of a British PM with one lover at No. 10 threatening to harm herself and another installed in a love nest round the corner and waiting to move in. The bedroom farce that has been carrying on at the head of the French state since the beginning of Francois Hollande’s presidency is all the more entertaining to British readers for being utterly incogitable.

But perhaps even more unimaginable is the public reaction to the account of the president’s baroque love life, written by his former lover, Valerie Trierweiler and published this week under the bitter-sweet title, ‘Merci Pour Ce Moment’ (Thanks for this moment). Not bothered most French people, by the details themselves, by president’s bodyguard delivering warm croissants to him and his actress lover, by the thwarted Valerie’s pathological jealousy, by her ‘suicidal gesturing’ or by Hollande’s (appalling) treatment of her. After all, seems to be the general view here, break-ups are invariably messy. As Socialist Speaker of the House, Claude Bartolone, said on TV when extracts of Trierweiler’s book were published Paris Match, “Do you know of any break-ups that go well? Everyone has their own suffering and their little story…”

So what are the French bothered about? Not presidential infidelity. They’ve come to expect a certain faithlessness in their heads of state. There were Giscard’s nocturnal sorties – made public by his post-coital, dawn run-in with a milk float, Chirac’s innumerable mistresses and Mitterrand’s secret love child, but none of these shenanigans inflicted any damage to the presidential aura. On the contrary, whenever a president of the Fifth Republic has been caught with his pants down, his approval ratings have improved. That’s why President Hollande believed, when his affair with the actress Julie Gayet was made public, that he could get away with his single, laconic and somewhat regal statement to the press: “I am making it known that I have put an end to my relationship with Valerie Trierweiller.”

Why, then, does the imperious Hollande continue to plummet in the polls? His voters aren’t bothered by what he might choose to do in private. What they’re bothered by, if you can believe this, is the deterioration of the dignity of the office he represents, occasioned by the playing out of his private persona in public.

French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls in reaction to Trierweiller’s book said this: “When you lower the public debate with outrageous attacks, or mix public and private lives, you debase the debate.” He then added, “I believe that the public debate, our public life needs respect. I would add another word: dignity. We need dignity.” Valls’ use of the word ‘dignity’ here is purposefully ambiguous. He means dignity as in ‘courtliness’ (when it comes to the president) and ‘seemliness’ (when it comes to anyone else).

This explains why the purveyor of all this smut, Valérie Trierweiler, is perhaps even more unpopular than the president. She’s being attacked on all sides by those – left and right, male and female – who are accusing her of lowering the tone. President of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen called her book ‘indecent’ and ‘a dishonour to France” and Philippe Bilger, public prosecutor and writer for Le Figaro, called it ‘vulgar’ and ‘exhibitionist.’ Female Le Monde columnists, Françoise Fressoz and Pascale Robert-Diard, were no less punishing: “Valerie Trierweiler is trying with this book to repair her image…as the hysteric, the husband thief, the vengeful woman. In defending herself, however, she merely records a presidency sunk by the private and personal.”

How to explain the vehemence and uniformity of these attacks? Valerie Trierweiler has broken a fundamental principal of French political life, an unwritten law inherited from the Ancien Regime and perpetuated by France’s revolutionary nomenklatura, that the private life – and by that I mean sex life – of a public figure must remain inviolable. Because she has broken this rule she is loathed. Not so much for her explosive personality – which had it stayed out of the papers, would have been whispered abroad in the corridors of power as fiery and passionate as opposed to hysterical and vindictive – but for having broken one of her nation’s most sacred taboos. And the violation of the omerta surrounding the sex lives of France’s politicians is all the more painful because it strikes at the very heart of a moral code that makes France so gloriously different from other western societies.

The French presidency must float far above the rabble, embodied in modern society by the media. But as political columnist with the left-leaning ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, Bruno Roger-Petit pointed out this week, with Trierweiler’s book “…the president has been stripped naked. Naked as no president has been before him. The king’s body has been profaned. The king’s body vulgarised. The king’s body cheapened. The king’s body divested of grandeur. But above all, the King’s body ridiculed.”

There’s “neither bomb, nor scandal” in Trierweiller’s book, said Le Monde’s review, so why haven’t all these outraged commentators rallied round their ‘desacralised’ president? And why have his approval ratings, already catastrophic, dropped even further since the publication of the book?

Because embedded in this otherwise innocuous kiss-and-tell is a tiny revelation about Hollande that makes ‘Merci Pour Ce Moment’, not a bomb, but a political fire ship: “He presented himself,” writes Trierweiler. “As the man who doesn’t like the rich. In reality, the president doesn’t like the poor. This man, this man of the left, says in private, ‘the toothless,’ proud of his joke.” More than any revelation about his philandering, this aspersion cast on his left-wing moral credentials could bring down the President. Because until this moment, Hollande’s ideological copybook has, as Figaro columnist Vincent Tremolet de Villers pointed out this week, been impeccable: “There’s been not a word out of place. Full marks all round. A friend to the meek and lowly, the enemy of finance…”

In France, money and the desire to make it are perceived as much dirtier than sex. In a culture still steeped in its catholic heritage – a heritage that when it came to the matter of profit and commerce, merged perfectly with the revolutionary agenda – egalitarianism is the prevailing religion. That’s why no one blanched when Hollande, back in 2006, said on TV, “Yes, I don’t like the rich. I admit it.” Then again, in a speech in January 2012 that certainly helped carry him into power, “I like people while others are fascinated by money.”

In private then, according to his ex, the president mocks the poor and – echoing the 16th century French proverb, A man without money is like a wolf without teeth – calls them ‘the toothless.’ No one here cared much about his trysts with Julie Gayet or his bad behaviour towards Valerie Trierweiller but people do care about this. Within minutes of the revelation about Hollande’s ‘toothless’ remark, the social networks were ablaze. On Twitter the hashtag #SansDents soared to the top. Two new Facebook groups emerged, the left wing ‘Nous les Sans Dents’ (We the toothless) and the right wing, La Revolution des Sans Dents, (The Revolution of the Toothless), the tagline of which is, ‘better no teeth than no balls’.

Realising that this thing could bring their president down, his supporters scrambled to discredit Trierweiler’s remark and reaffirm his egalitarian faith: “I don’t believe in the phrase ‘the toothless,’” said Socialist MP, Jérôme Guedj. “Not coming from a socialist militant who has equality stamped into his body.” (There it is again, the king’s body.)

Meanwhile the long march of history continues and in spite of all this indignation, the ‘toothless’ of France, who unlike their ruling elite has left the eighteenth century for the twenty first – all rush out to buy Trierweiller’s memoir, pushing it to the top of Amazon France and, in one day, ousting the nation’s highest-selling book of the last five years: E.L. James’ international blockbuster, “Fifty Shades of Grey.’

A version of this post appeared in The Observer

Last Lady

In the aftermath of the Hollande-Gayet-Trierweiller sex scandal, or love vortex – depending on which side of the Channel you’re viewing things from – Le Nouvel Observateur asked me to comment on the following: Is the notion of ‘Premiere Dame’ (First Lady) an intrinsically sexist concept? Once I’d overcome my surprise that this should be a question (I was hard pushed to answer anything other than, ‘Er. Yeah?’) I began to wonder why it is that France is ahead of Britain and America in so many ways when it comes to gender equality (for the number of women in the cabinet, in parliament and in the boardroom) and yet far behind us in so many other ways – decades, possibly even half a century behind.

A vestige of the Ancien Regime like so many other features of the political and cultural life of this country, I was amused by the fact that the role of Premiere Dame is only now being called into question. In the grubby wake of the revelations about the President’s love life, his immediate entourage started wondering out loud on French radio whether the role of Premiere Dame shouldn’t be abolished altogether. After all, pointed out François Rebsamen, it was pretty undemocratic when you thought about it. I got the distinct impression, listening to this new debate that people felt things might have gone more smoothly for the President had Valerie Trierweiller not had her own desk at the Elysees. They’re wrong of course. Whether a Premiere Dame, or a premiere femme, a premiere concubine, or a premier reporter, Valerie Trierweiller could never have slipped discretely from public life, even if she’d wanted to. France is no longer an island, a national jardin secret safe from the prying eyes of the global media and both Francois Hollande and the French presidency itself seem to be having some difficulty in waking up to this horrific truth.

This reluctance to face reality is reflected in the sparse and laconic communiqués that have been offered to foreign journalists by the Elysees ever since the story broke. “It’s hilarious,” one British correspondent told me. “The message from the beginning has been, This doesn’t concern you. What are they thinking?!” The assumptions embedded in the palace’s statements, that the French presidency is somehow inviolable and that journalists should toe the line are indeed quite funny, particularly when set against the cold realities of the outside world, a world in which newspapers must do battle with the Internet without the benefit of state subsidies (in 2010 France spent about 1.8 billion euros in direct aid to the press) and where most commissioning editors, living in a state of constant fear for their jobs, start frothing at the mouth when a story like this breaks. Far from applauding the realities of the outside world, next time something like this hits the headlines, I would invite the Elysees Palace at least to face up to them.

In fact, the Premiere Dame has been a defunct notion ever since Cecilia Sarkozy chucked her husband while he was in office and marched off the stage. And it was only because Carla Bruni was such a consummate actress (remember her sudden change of wardrobe, her demure, Jackie Kennedy-like demeanour?) that the French were beguiled into thinking the role might still be plausible. Trierweiller, however, knew better. “I won’t be a potiche,” (trophy wife) she warned. This, despite her best efforts, was exactly what she became.

I suspect that the inner tension Valerie Trierweiller clearly felt in playing this archaic role, as well as the confusion that seems to be characterising French public’s view of her so-called ‘repudiation’ are indicative of another and far more entrenched French paradox: that of a patriarchy in denial. One of the last European countries to give women the vote, France has been playing catch up all through the Fifth Republic. Acutely aware of how she looks to her European partners, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity has managed, where the number of women MPs in parliament is concerned, to race past Britain and America in a very short space of time. Thanks largely to her bold and controversial parity legislation of 2000, 27% of France’s MPs are now women, while Britain is stagnating around 22% and America around 18%. With 50% women in his cabinet, Hollande is doing far better than Cameron, who has only 5 out of 23 female cabinet members. So back off, my French friends often tell me. Stop lecturing us about sexism when we have a proper political consensus surrounding gender equality.

The problem, though, is the glass ceiling, a reality that despite it not existing in the French language is there nonetheless. This invisible barrier is most keenly felt by members of what the French call ‘the parity generation,’ (young people who have benefited directly from parity laws of 2000). Indeed Nataf Vallaud Belkacem, Hollande’s Women’s Rights Minister and his government spokesperson, has clearly elaborated France’s latest battery of gender legislation (which focuses on the ‘private’ spheres of abortion and paternity leave in particular) to try to break through this glass ceiling for the benefit, if not of herself, then of future generations. Frequently vilified for her ambition, the 37 year-old Belkacem has had to develop nerves of steel to rise above the steady tide of sexism that laps around her ankles. Laurent Telo’s article in last week’s Le Monde, published under the title “Dents Longues et Langue de Bois”, a reference to the Minister’s perceived ‘long teeth’ (rapacious ambition) and ‘wooden tongue’ (tendency to stonewall) is a good example of this. In his piece Telo compares Belkacem to a child ballerina in a tutu balancing between the President’s views and those of the Prime Minister and calls her, in a particularly clumsy attempt, perhaps, to compliment her on her beauty, “the Natalie Portman of Moroccans” (Belkacem is of Moroccan origin).

For me, the clearest manifestation of the enduring sexism that still clings to France despite the best intentions of her political leaders was the spectacle of Segolene Royal’s campaign for the presidency. I realised watching that campaign that France was simply not as ready for a female president as she thought she was. Remember the sabotage, first from Royal’s male colleagues within the Socialist party? Remember Melanchon’s ‘The Presidency of the Republic is not a beauty contest,’ and Fabius’ ‘Who will look after the children?’ But perhaps more alarmingly there was a survey conducted by the Nouvel Observateur in which 100 famous women were questioned on their feelings about the socialist candidate. The vast majority disliked Royal and their principle objection seemed to have something to do with her being a mother of four. Former porn star, Brigitte Lahaie said, “For her [Royal], the image of the mother overrides the image of the woman.’ And Alina Reyes, a feminist author of erotic fiction, said, “Ségolène Royal is an archaic female figure who calls upon that part of France which falls back onto family values. With her it’s regressus in utero.”

It was particularly, I felt, that the porn star and the feminist both invoked the predominantly male fantasy of the castrating mother. Even Catherine Millet, author of ‘The Sexual Life of Catherine M.’ seemed to be relaying the deepest fears of the male psyche ‘For me, she’s a Robespierrette. This country doesn’t need a “Mummy” to give it moral lectures.’

But perhaps this is the crucial point: the pillars of the French patriarchy appear to be resting solidly upon the myths, inherited from Catholicism and broadly accepted by both men and women in this country, which perpetuate those old but entrenched ideas surrounding a woman’s mystique and the sex appeal that goes with it. There is unquestionably a consensus, particularly among French women of my generation and above, that it’s important to be first and foremost attractive to men. Motherhood with its attendant mess of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding (to which, significantly, Simone de Beauvoir had an almost pathological repugnance) must never be allowed to interfere with a French woman’s sexiness. Indeed this, I’m sure, explains why so many of my French girlfriends find it so difficult to describe themselves as feminist. It’s simply not sexy.

This patriarchal climate will, I suspect, continue to hamper equality in France, despite all the well-intentioned gender legislation. Until, that is, the next generation of French women – women like my own daughter – decides it has had enough of the collusion. It also explains why poor, defiant, ill-equipped Valerie Trierweiller could never have won in the eyes of the French public. And why, even when the role of Premiere Dame no longer really exists, she’s still expected to behave with dignity.

Dark Horse.

Why has Hollande’s affair with Julie Gayet led to a poll boost among French women?


An opinion poll this week’s Nouvel Observateur shows a three-point jump in approval for Francois Hollande among women aged 25-34 and 50-64. Why has the French president’s popularity suddenly increased among certain French women? The obvious answer, depressing though it may be, is that since his affair with Julie Gayet hit the headlines Hollande’s image as a potent male has caught their attention. There’s a tendency here in France, and this is a long tradition, to link sexual potency with power. Generally speaking, the more popular male political leaders are those known to have the busiest sex lives. Since the founding of the Fifth Republic, De Gaulle was the first notable exception (exceptional circumstances oblige) and Francois Hollande the second. Hollande, as anyone will tell you, got into power simply because he wasn’t Nicolas Sarkozy. For France, in 2012, was suffering from a serious case of Sarko fatigue. The diminutive but ubiquitous Sarkozy, with his rages, his appetites, his sweeping reforms and his somewhat exhausting, priapic demeanour, had worn people down and the podgy, upstanding Hollande seemed like a welcome antidote. Voting for him, however, was a break with tradition. For the French tend to vote for the sexier candidate.

During those terrifying Presidential elections of 2002, for instance, in which extreme right leader Le Pen managed to get into the second round against Jacques Chirac, I would hear undecided Parisian voters saying – and this was men and women – that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin because he just wasn’t sexy enough. (They meant both literally and figuratively).  Jospin was ahead in the polls until voters unaccountably turned their backs on him, the result of which was that Le Pen slipped through to the second round. Barmy but true. Since news of his affair with Gayet became public, Hollande, in the eyes of the women in this poll, is suddenly a dark horse, or rather a ‘chaud lapin,’ i.e a hot rabbit. Which means someone who likes sex and has a lot of it.

Behind this opinion poll lies another reality, which is that Hollande has split the female vote. The percentage of women who disapprove of him has also gone up three points. Why they disapprove, however, will probably surprise most British and American women. The French women who have turned their backs on him do so, not because they judge him for his infidelities, but out of compassion for the thwarted Valerie Trierweiller. (Hollande’s approval ratings, you will notice, have not improved among women in the same age bracket as Trierweiller). Most of the online comments posted by women in response to articles on this subject in the French press, attest to their new sympathy for the hitherto fiery and unpredictable Trierweiller, who as far as they’re concerned, fled to hospital to seek refuge from the public shame resulting from her ‘trampled dignity’ (dignité piétinée). The suggestion lying behind these comments is that she who once held the rank of triumphant courtesan has been brutally demoted to that of abandoned mistress and these women’s hearts are bleeding for her loss of status. If Hollande had been able to keep his affair secret (ie out of the press) – just as Giscard, Mitterrand, and Chirac did for years – no one would have judged him for it and Trierweiller would not now be worthy of pity. But those days are over because France is no longer a safe haven from intrusive media and when Hollande in a post coital flash of inspiration gets his driver to pick up croissants for himself and Julie Gayet, the whole world knows about it.

French women’s views of Hollande (positive and negative) don’t appear to be driven by the same set of post-feminist values that ours might be. Nowhere will you see Hollande castigated as a randy, duplicitous bastard. He’s ‘ridiculous’ or ‘indiscreet’ or ‘lacking in presidential stature’. It’s even probable that in the eyes of the women who approved of him in that poll, Hollande has clawed back some presidential stature thanks to this affair.

I do think that what this story reveals more than anything is the agony the French are experiencing in the face of this (media) intrusion into a moral code that has served them perfectly well for centuries. It’s a code of honour that champions appearances over reality and values discretion over truth. Most of the Parisians I talk to about this story simply don’t want to know. Or rather they don’t mind knowing (a lot of them have known for over a year) but they don’t want to read about it in the paper. They find it distasteful. Why? Because they value their own privacy and dread the day when the Anglo-American obsession with transparency ruins their own love lives.

New and (hopefully) improved…

SLoF Revised cover

An extract from the first of the new chapters for the revised edition of The Secret Life of France, just out…

Everything in its Place

When this book was first published in 2009, the two most valid criticisms were offered by both English and French readers. The first was that Paris isn’t France and the second was that the bourgeoisie isn’t everybody. Both remarks reveal the limits of my own experience. In leaving Paris for the Cévennes where I have been for the past four years, I hope that I have broadened my horizons at least a little.

Few of my Parisian friends have ventured to the far-flung wilderness that is the Cévennes. Most prefer to see me when I come to Paris for work or to see Ella and Jack, but those who have paid me a visit bring back a simple verdict:

‘Elle est completement folle.’ (She has completely lost it).

We’re so secluded here that I’m always amazed – even if we’re expecting a visitor – when someone knocks on our front door. ‘Why?’ is the question which often greets me as they step over the threshold. Not sure, is the answer to that.

Seven years after the end of my marriage to Laurent, I found myself for the second time around with two children under five. I was now forty-three, however, and not twenty-three. Perhaps the aging process was luring me to the bosom of nature. Perhaps I did not feel I had the stamina to relive Paris’s dusty, joyless playgrounds or usher the poor blighters through the gates of yet another of her overcrowded, competitive schools. I was also aware that Joe, the English father of our two little boys, Joshua and Gabriel, had not really taken to the bourgeois dinner party circuit I had inherited from my marriage to Laurent.

On the surface, this new life of mine bears no resemblance whatsoever to my life in Paris. There is here a deep love for and identification with the land. The French word ‘terroir’ – a charmed word, used increasingly as a brand to appeal to Parisian tastes – can mean the local or the regional, but also ground, terrain, land, soil, earth. It has no equivalent in English. The word induces a dewy- eyed yearning in most Parisians, many of whom like to picture rural life as it appears on TV advertisements here, sanitised and idealised, with rugged but handsome peas- ants in red neckerchiefs sharpening their pocket knives, or olive-skinned beauties serving at long trestle tables piled high with ‘les bonnes choses’. I’m always amazed by the gulf between Paris and the countryside and by how little Paris knows, or cares to know, of peasant life.

A year after we had settled into our house, Laurent lent us a DVD of a documentary about rural life called La Vie Moderne (Modern Life, 2008). Some of this critically acclaimed trilogy is set in the Cévennes, not far from us. Laurent loved this film directed by Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon, a farm boy who, like many of his generation, ran away in the sixties to seek a better life in the bosom of Paris’s left-wing intelligentsia. The film was selected at Cannes and for a while le tout-Paris rhapsodised about this haunting portrayal of the harsh realities facing ‘La France Profonde’. At last they had a window on what peasant life was really like.

When I saw it, I was appalled. Contrary to what I had read in both the English and French reviews, I found Depardon’s narrative strategy and interview techniques to be brutal and condescending. I felt no ‘richness of fellow feeling’* as he leveled his alienating, wide-angle lens at the men and women whose lives he had decided to scrutinise. No Paris-born director would have got away with this disdainful study of rural life, in which the ‘paysan’ subjects all come across as mute, depressed or simple-minded. One interview in particular, which featured a farm labourer on a tractor, epitomised to me the cruelty of Depardon’s gaze. The young man had no wish to talk to the camera, yet it remained pitilessly trained on him for many long minutes. Too polite to move away, he squirmed like an insect pinioned by an entomologist.

How is it, I asked myself, that only a few kilometres down the road from the lives and locations in this film, my farming neighbours are expansive, funny and broad- minded? Perhaps Depardon has simply learned over the years to give his adopted class what it wants: proof of its own superiority.

I do not feel that the gulf is as wide as both sides believe. As a foreigner I can’t help seeing in this austere and little known corner of France, even among people who eke out a living from the land, many of the traits that I love about my Parisian friends: a passion for ideas, a belief in politics, a partiality to abstract discourse and a marked lack of interest in money as a goal in life. I found the same belief in the collectivist ideal put more readily into practice here in this isolated community, through the thriving collective lives of both the ‘commune’ and of the local school, where Joshua and Gabriel are learning, in their own some- what contrary fashion, to be soldiers of the Republic.

People here are attached to their history and to the outsider status that goes with it. The well-wishing grand-son of a previous owner of this house dropped by shortly after we had moved in with documents and tales relating to its past. He gave us a much faded and folded letter addressed to a Monsieur Andre who had once lived here. It was dated according to the revolutionary calendar, ‘le 13 Fructidor, An 2,’, which would have been the late summer of 1794, a month after the fall of Robespierre and his ‘Terreur’ (Reign of Terror) with its mass denunciations, its popular tribunals, its revolutionary committees, and all the attendant horrors of the totalitarian state. The local mayor, trusting in our predecessor’s ‘civisme’, was requesting his presence for jury duty.

The old man then went on to tell us about his beloved grandfather, Abel, who cherished our house, spent every day of his retirement walking its terraces, and planted many of its finest chestnut trees. He was, for his sins, mar- ried to a woman who preferred living in the valley to the high ground where this house is set. She managed to play for time and Abel died at the end of the Second World War still struggling to salvage the place from ruin. During the war Abel had employed a Jewish man from Poland whose family was being hidden by a friend in a nearby hamlet. The man had worked with him restoring some of the dry stone walls that sustain our terraces, which down here are called faïsses or bancels. I often picture the refugee walking this precipitous landscape with its carefully tended chestnut orchards and its rushing streams and wonder how he felt here among these reserved people with their quiet generosity, and what became of him and his family after the war. I’m told they left and never returned.

The Occupation feels close to many of my neighbours and it seems to have moved closer to us too. On the wall of our sitting room, written in red paint by the Italian migrant workers who stopped here in Abel’s house in their flight from Mussolini, are the words:

Ogni cosa a suo posto

(Everything in its place)

The words are written on a patch of flaking lime render but there’s no question, for either of us, of re-plastering that wall. The message reads as a kind of sampler from a vanished past, a warning against the modern world and its insatiable appetites


* Guardian, film review by Peter Bradshaw, Friday 3 April 2009.

SLoR Revised cover 2

Belle et Boring

DSK's eyes

Belle et bête
Marcela Iacub
Stock, 128pp, €13.50

There are moments when I feel that as long as I live and as hard as I try, France will remain forever a mystery to me. Reading Marcela Iacub’s book Belle et bête, a fictionalised account of her six-month-long love affair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was one such moment. Hailed as it was by Le Nouvel Observateur for its “literary power of stupefying proportions” and described by Libération as a piece of “experimental literature as violent as that which she experiences, inspired by a spirit of risk”, I was prepared for something remarkable. This is how the book opens:

You were old, you were fat, you were short and you were ugly. You were macho, you were vulgar, you were insensitive and you were mean-spirited. You were egotistical, you were brutish and you had no culture. And I was mad about you.

That, more or less, is how it goes on, for 120 pages or so. It’s an unrepentantly verbose and embittered apostrophe to a man already disgraced, which leaves you feeling a mixture of distaste, exasperation and boredom – the kind of boredom, as I realised when I’d got about halfway through, that you might feel listening to a particularly long closing speech by an overweening barrister.

Iacub was indeed a barrister, back in her native Argentina, before she moved to France in her early twenties and became a brilliant jurist specialising in bioethics. More recently, she has made a name for herself as a clever, provocative columnist for Libération, where she writes mostly about sexual politics, often lamenting what she sees as the widespread erotic impoverishment of contemporary society.

When DSK was arrested in New York, she leapt to his defence, publishing a book entitled Une société des violeurs? (“A Society of Rapists?”), in which she offers a fierce criticism of the feminist witch-hunt that followed. He now rues the day that she ever became his champion.

As you can probably guess, Belle et Bête is not an apology for Strauss-Kahn – any doubts about this are swept away by the presence of an insert at the front of the book attesting to his libel suit against the author – nor is it, despite Iacub’s frequent assertions to the contrary, a love story. I, at least, could not detect any love in it. Perhaps that is because her approach is scientific and theoretical. “I wanted to create a theory of love from my situation,” she writes. “[A] nun who falls in love with a pig. A nun who turns away from the grandeur of divine love to wallow in filth.”

At this point, I should explain that there are two metaphors running through Iacub’s book – one of her lover as a pig and the other of herself as a saint or nun. And that they recur on every page. The other motif – that of Iacub’s saintliness – is built around the following assertion: “I was in love with the most despised being on the planet.”

From this point, we realise that, apart from his piggishness, we are not going to learn much about Strauss-Kahn. The book, rather, is about Iacub; her decision to defend an underdog and then submit to his (inevitable) advances. Above all, it is an ode to her writing life, which she likens to a form of auto-eroticism: “My writing. That operation, which consists in the transformation of my self into the object of my own passion.”

Although the text is littered with the most potent abstract nouns – truth, desire, happiness, love – the effect was to leave me cold. I could not believe – as I waded through all that unbridled narcissism (Iacub likens herself to Voltaire and Victor Hugo) – in her so-called passion. The account felt throughout not like a novel but like a very dry, very calculating exercise: “The only thing left to me in order to forget the pig and to have no further dealings with you was not to kill you but to write a book.”

In the penultimate chapter, the author describes a scene in which her lover tears off her left ear and eats it, then faints, in a spasm of ecstasy, into a pool of his own semen:

Thinking about it, I realised that my love  for the pig had died at the very moment he had mutilated me. As if my left ear had been the repository of my feelings and that without it I could no longer feel anything for him.

This scene, like all the erotica in the book, is, of course, purely symbolic. The problem is that the material never rises above this emblematic register, nor does it stoop to anything resembling experience. By the time I had dragged myself through the final chapter, I was, just as Le Nouvel Observateur had predicted, utterly stupefied, both by the book and by the praise it had received.

A version of this review appeared in The New Statesman