French back "Princess" under attack by Sarkozy

Wed Mar 18, 2009 11:25am EDT
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By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) - The French have found a new and original way of protesting against President Nicolas Sarkozy: reading a 17th century tale of thwarted love.

Ever since school, Sarkozy says, he has hated "La Princesse de Cleves" ("The Princess of Cleves"), a classic novel by Madame de La Fayette which was published in 1678 and is taught in most French classrooms.

Now, as Sarkozy's popularity falls, sales of the book are rising. At the Paris book fair this week, publishers reported selling all available copies of the novel, while badges emblazoned with the slogan "I am reading La Princesse de Cleves" were a must-have item that sold out within hours.

"It's a book that people ask for regularly, but at the moment there's something of a rush," said a saleswoman at a large bookshop in central Paris, checking computer records that showed increased sales in February and March.

Sarkozy's views on the novel are hardly new. As far back as 2006, before he became president, he made a comment that left no doubt that his school memories of it were not happy ones.

"A sadist or an idiot, up to you, included questions about 'La Princesse de Cleves' in an exam for people applying for public sector jobs," he said, adding that it would be "a spectacle" to see low-level staff speak on the challenging work.

Since then, Sarkozy has repeatedly criticized the tale of duty versus love at the 16th century court of King Henri II, suggesting that knowledge of it was not useful.

Over time, his attacks have bolstered the book's popularity, and even given it a new role as a symbol of dissent at a time when public anger over Sarkozy's economic policies is high.   Continued...

<p>France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech at a regional Gendarmerie station in Orleans in this file photo from January 14, 2009. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer</p>