France: Does Prestigious Literary Award Entail a “Duty of Restraint” ?

The start of this year's French literary season saw French-Senegalese novelist and playwright Marie N'Diaye awarded a much-awaited Prix Goncourt.  However, N'Diaye and her family move to Berlin to years ago, in large part because of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's politics.  Last year, the panel of this prestigious award created a sensation when it chose Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi, for his French language novel, Syngué Sabour.  Will this be another opportunity to celebrate diversity in a changing French society? Or will the moment be spoiled by controversy?

Explains DW-World :

In an interview with “Inrockuptibles” magazine last summer, N'Diaye said she had decided to leave France and move to Berlin in 2007 “in great part because of Sarkozy.”

The controversy began after Eric Raoult, a lawmaker and member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, wrote to the culture minister last week recommending that NDiaye be reminded of the “duty of restraint” that comes with the Goncourt.

In response, France's cultural establishment has thrown accusations of censorship into the debate. Bernard Pivot, a Goncourt jury member, accused Raoult of knowing nothing about the literary scene.

N'Diaye, born in 1967 to a French mother and a Senegalese father, won the Goncourt prize for her novel, “Trois femmes puissantes” (“Three Powerful Women”), a story about three women caught between France and Senegal and the hellish ordeal of illegal migration from Africa.

“The story of these migrants has been told many times before, but if this can help people understand their fate a bit better, I will be happy,” said NDiaye.

What was it that stirred Eric Raoult's ire? No less than an interview of the woman novelist, when she answered magazine Les Inrocks‘s question : “Do you feel well in Sarkozy's France?” saying [fr]:

« Je trouve cette France-là monstrueuse. Le fait que nous (avec son compagnon l’écrivain Jean-Yves Cendrey, et leurs trois enfants – ndlr) ayons choisi de vivre à Berlin n’est pas étranger à ça. (…) Je trouve détestable cette atmosphère de flicage, de vulgarité… »

“I find that kind of France horrendous. The fact that we (N'Diaye, her partner, writer Jean-Yves Cendrey, and their three children) decided to live in Berlin is not unrelated to this. (…) I find this atmosphere of heavy policing and vulgarity appalling…”

Renowned law blogger Maître Eolas demolishes Mr. Raoult's claim in an ironically well-argued post [Fr], finally awarding him the “Prix Busiris” (“buse” may be translated by “dolt”).

First, he rectifies a grammatical mistake :

Tout d’abord, et le ministre de la culture et de la communication aura rectifié de lui-même, le devoir de réserve ne peut en tout état de cause être dû aux lauréats mais dû par les lauréats : cette erreur de préposition fait du lauréat le créancier alors que dans l’esprit la tête du député, il en serait évidemment le débiteur.

To begin with, and the Minister of Culture and Communications won't forget to correct by himself, the duty of restraint cannot in any case be owed to the prize-winners, but instead is owed by the prize-winners: this mistaken preposition makes the prize-winner a creditor while in the MP's mind head, he would of course be the debtor.

And legally ? Among the texts, the blogger quotes of course the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen along with the European Convention on Human Rights. And the “duty of restraint”, traditionally asked from civil servants ?

Le devoir de réserve est souvent invoqué à tort et à travers par des gens qui n’y ont rien compris comme interdisant à un fonctionnaire de s’exprimer, y compris parfois sur des affaires purement privées.

The duty of restraint is often called upon indiscriminately by people who don't understand a thing about it, as forbidding a civil servant to speak up, sometimes even about quite private matters.

The lawyer concludes on the M.P.'s dishonesty, before dealing the finishing blow :

Ajoutons à cela qu’en 2005, en tant que maire du Raincy, lors des émeutes de l’automne, il fut le premier à proclamer l’état d’urgence dans sa commune pourtant épargnée par les actes de violence afin de griller la politesse au premier ministre, ce qui montre une certaine tendance à la gesticulation inutile pour attirer l’attention sur lui.

Ce qui établit en même temps le mobile d’opportunité politique, et emporte la décision.

Let's add to all this the fact that in 2005, as the mayor of Le Raincy, during the autumn uprisings, he was the first to declare the state of emergency in his town, yet spared by the violence, only to outmanouever the prime minister, which shows some tendency towards useless gestures in order to draw attention.

Which at the same time proves the motive of political opportunism, and carries the decision along.

Other bloggers also had scathing words.

On Art contemporain, la peau de l'ours, Philippe Rillon writes [fr]:

Nous comprenons fort bien que le devoir de réserve s’impose à tout serviteur de l’Etat; mais depuis quand la littérature et les auteurs sont ils assimilés aux fonctionnaires avec leurs droits et devoirs?

Nous avions déjà une “Culture administrée”, nous voici maintenant “artistes fonctionnaires” comme si Paris était Berlin-est d’avant la chute du mur…
Il serait quand même étonnant qu’au lendemain d’une hyper-médiatique commémoration de la chute du mur, ce godillot vienne gâcher le spectacle idylique des dominos qui tombent.

We understand quite well that the duty of restraint is a rule for every servant of the state; but since when are literature and writers put in the same category as the civil servants with their rights and duties?
We already had a “government culture”, now we have become “state artists”, as if Paris was East-Berlin before the wall's collapse…
Wouldn't it be amazing if the day after the hypermedatized celebration of the wall's collapse, this unquestioning supporter could spoil the idyllic view of the falling dominoes.

Meanwhile, Marie Ndiaye, after an attempt at toning down her words in an interview with radio station Europe 1, which in the midst of the turmoil went unnoticed, appealed to French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand. The latter deems the controversy “trivial” and “ridiculous” [fr], and the main players stick to their guns [fr].

1 comment

  • Abdoulaye BAH

    Beau billet. Félicitations. <n'ayant pas suivi, cete histoire depuis le début, je me demandais de quoi ca relevait. C'est de l'intox pub ou veritabel prob ?

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