March 18, 2009 / 3:29 PM / 10 years ago

French back "Princess" under attack by Sarkozy

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.

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

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.

Public readings of the work have proliferated at universities like the Sorbonne in Paris, hit by protests over government reform plans, and at theatres.

Jean Fabbri, head of the Snesup union of university lecturers, said reading the book was “a form of resistance.”

“It’s as if the state was telling us what is good or bad to study. One dimension of the battle of the universities is a defense of our freedom of thought,” Fabbri told Reuters.

The cultural weekly Telerama this week published results of a survey asking 100 French writers to list their 10 favorite books. “La Princesse de Cleves” came third in the overall rankings, after masterpieces by Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Telerama commented that it was unlikely Madame de La Fayette would have done so well before Sarkozy’s jibes.

The president’s office declined to comment.

Writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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