Literary Leaders; How Do French Politicians Prove They've Got What It Takes to Hold Public Office? They Write Lots of Books

By Pape, Eric | Newsweek International, October 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

Literary Leaders; How Do French Politicians Prove They've Got What It Takes to Hold Public Office? They Write Lots of Books


Pape, Eric, Newsweek International


Byline: Eric Pape (With Jenny Barchfield in Paris)

Americans running for office tend to head to the local bar; image makers suggest U.S. voters favor the candidate they can envision sharing a beer with. But in France, the pen has long been mightier than the brew. Though the 2007 French presidential election remains a long way off, early political jockeying is already taking place--in bookstores. Mixed in with nearly 700 new autumn releases are more than a half-dozen books by France's most popular or powerful politicians, known as presidentiables . In bookstore windows you can find the works of--among others--the current Finance minister, the Interior minister, a former prime minister, a past minister of Culture and the mayor of Paris.

These are not the wonkish diatribes of politicians from less passionately literary countries. They include biographies, memoirs, novels and critiques. Former minister of Education Jack Lang has even co-written a children's book, "Ana at the Natural History Museum." Some of these works actually sell; Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin's political treatise, "The Shark and the Seagull," and Bertrand Delanoe's "Life, Passionately" make IPSOS's top 12 best nonfiction sellers. But sales are beside the point. The real goal is to garner attention for fresh ideas and an incisive intellect. A book guarantees hours of prime-time exposure on France's abundant intellectual debate shows. "This is something truly French; that you only exist if you have written a book," says Josyane Savigneau, Le Monde's literary editor in chief. "Helmut Schmidt did a piano concert for Germans, who love music so. Here politicians want to be recognized as writers."

The nexus of writing and power reaches deep into French history, and even the national mythology. Richelieu, Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo were respected writers. Francois Mitterrand used the written word to seduce the French people throughout his political career, authoring, contributing to or collaborating on more than 20 books before and during his 14 years in office. "We are in a country that glorifies novels, and that invented the stature of the intellectual," says Socialist politician and journalist Olivier Duhamel. "Our politicians believe that we still love writing, and that the French want leaders who are able to write."

Few subjects are more irresistible to author-politicians than acclaimed historical figures. Lang is set to publish his third biography, about Nelson Mandela, in October. He has also written about the 15th-century Florentine leader Laurent le Magnifique , and the horseman-king, Francois I. Villepin has a forthcoming biography of Charles de Gaulle. This "vogue of amateur biographers," writer and critic Philippe-Jean Catinchi has written, allows authors to identify themselves with the "herofied image" they are writing about.

Many others skip the projection and go straight to autobiography. Delanoe, the Socialist mayor of Paris, who is gay, published his second book in September, a conversational semi-memoir entitled, "Life, Passionately," that touches on his adolescence in North Africa and protecting Paris in the age of terror. Not surprisingly, media attention has focused primarily on the "gay" parts, like Delanoe's belief that the French could elect a homosexual president, if the candidate was both honest and discreet--like Delanoe himself.

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