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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La Princesse et le pauv’ con

by François Taillandier

The Princess And the Bloody Idiot

An uncouth French President who ought to mind his language.

Translated Tuesday 31 March 2009, by Isabelle Métral

When all’s been said and done, two great symbols in the field of language and expression mark out this presidency. One is the lamentable “Get lost, you bloody idiot!”, which Nicolas Sarkozy himself blurted out at a chap - who as far as I know had been none too polite himself... If we complain that the president has a foul-mouth, the best we can do is not to imitate him, not even ironically...
Maybe that was the message delivered by those protesters at the Paris Book Fair who wore the slogan “I’ ve read ’The Princess of Clèves” [1] on a badge, in reference to Sarkozy’s notorious quip during his presidential campaign...

When all’s been said and done, two great symbols in the field of language and expression mark out this presidency. One is the lamentable “Get lost, you bloody idiot!,” which Nicolas Sarkozy himself blurted out at a chap - who as far as I know had been none too polite himself. [1]

The president has been blamed for this, as is only fair. But the problem is that the very people who screamed their heads off in protest keep using that expression themselves. A militant has just been sentenced (to a very small, symbolic fine) on the charge that he had spread it across a banner that he held up in front of the president’s car. And I saw it again the other day on a poster with the name of I don’t know what political movement.

To me, anyone taking up that “Get lost, you bloody bastard” can only sully themselves: one should always avoid wallowing complacently in the same public vulgarity. If we complain that the president has a foul-mouth, the best we can do is not to imitate him - not even ironically.

Maybe that was the message delivered by those protesters at the Paris Book Fair who wore the slogan “I’ ve read The Princess of Clèves” [1] on a badge, in reference to Sarkozy’s notorious quip during his presidential campaign: it was ridiculous, he declared, that this masterpiece should be one of the set-books for candidates to local government offices. (If one could be sure that all those that bore the badge had actually read the novel, it would be great! But that’s beside the point.)

To me, those two facts, by confronting the music of the French language at its most exquisite with the gross language of a trashy republic, are in fact connected by a strong, though invisible thread. An age-old idea of language and literature has so far constituted one of the pillars of French identity. Our schools and universities recognized this, so did our presidents, down to and including François Mitterrand. One could no doubt find this reverence rather conventional. But still, it was respected. It was not always clear exactly why reading the classics, or minding one’s language, was a must; but at least no one blamed you for trying.

It’s all happened very fast. Our politicians’ French is getting worse and worse. Advertisers continue to abuse our language with each new billboard. The school system does what little it can, even though readers of Entre les Murs [2] might doubt it. That’s how low we have sunk - and all things considered, no one really gives a damn. One cuts straight to the point these days, and we simply follow suit while everything around us is falling asunder, seemingly unconscious of the downhill slope that leads from the Princess to the bloody idiot.

I find it difficult to see any progress in that.


Translator’s notes:

[1] One of the earliest novels in the French language, remarkable for its fine psychological analysis. The story is set at the refined court of Henri II in 1558. Its four parts relate the story of the passionate, un-consummated love between the eponymous character and M. de Nemours, from its sudden inception (love at first sight) to the final renunciation following the prince’s death. The novel was published in 1678 under a (male) pseudonym; its architect and main author was Madame de Lafayette, a close friend of the moralist writer La Rochefoucault.
Demonstrations have been staged lately in different places, in Aix en Provence first, and recently at the Paris Sorbonne, where people took it in turns to read the whole novel in public. This form of protest against the government’s contempt for fundamental research, disinterested knowledge and culture has met with great public approval.

[2] A novel by François Bégaudeau (The Class) published in 2006, which was made into a film by Laurent Cantet. The film won the golden palm at the 2008 Cannes festival (see l’Humanité’s review (http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/ecrire/?exec=articles&id_article=949).

"François Bégaudeau’s award-winning Entre les murs . . . trains the reader to look anew at the republican school and study the republican legacy with fresh eyes."—Yale Review
François Bégaudeau’s autobiographical novel of trying to teach the French language to a rowdy classroom of African teenagers on the outskirts of Paris is a tour de force. Winner of the Prix France Culture/Télérama prize, The Class explores timely issues of race, class, identity, and colonial history against the backdrop of a turbulent French society grappling with a controversial immigration policy and its social consequences. The novel’s eponymous film version (translated into English) is directed by Laurent Cantet, stars Bégaudeau himself, and received the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
François Bégaudeau is a movie critic and the author of two novels: Jouer juste (2003) and Dans la diagonale (2005). In 2005, he published a fictional biography of the Rolling Stones, titled Rolling Stones: Un démocrate Mick Jagger 1960–1969.
Linda Asher, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker, has translated into English Victor Hugo, Georges Simenon, and Milan Kundera. Her translations for Seven Stories Press include Martin Winckler’s The Case of Dr. Sachs (La maladie de Sachs), which won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize in 2000; Memoirs of a Breton Peasant; and, most recently, Evolution.

About the Author
This is François Bégaudeau’s third novel, after Jouer juste (2003) and Dans la diagonale (2005), as well as a fictional biography of the Rolling Stones: Un démocrate Mick Jagger 1960-1969. In the Palme D’Or winning movie (Sony Classics 2009) by Laurent Cartet, Mr. Begaudeau plays himself.

Editor’s note:

[1French political circles also fear that Sarkozy’s uncouth style and lack of decorum threaten to discredit the presidency. In a widely reported incident at the February 23 Agriculture Exposition in Paris, a man refused to shake hands with Sarkozy, telling him that it would “make me dirty.” Sarkozy responded with crude slang and an obscenity, prompting widespread condemnation in the press. (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/mar2008/sark-m10.shtml).


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