Could a seventeenth-century novel bring down a twenty-first-century presidency? Nicolas Sarkozy, as the French head of state and even before he ascended to the role, developed an odd habit of publicly bad-mouthing Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 work, “The Princess of Clèves,” one of the first modern French novels, which is obligatory reading in schools across the republic. It tells the story of a young aristocratic woman who struggles between her obligation to a devoted husband she does not love and a dangerous extramarital passion, amid the intrigues and affairs of a royal court that makes contemporary French politics look relatively dull. At a meeting in Lyon in 2006, Sarkozy declared that “either a sadist or an idiot” had included it on the cultural-knowledge exam required to become a public functionary, which applies to lower-level positions, like postal workers “I don’t know if it happens to you often that you ask a counter clerk what she thought of ‘The Princess of Clèves,’ ” he smirked. In another address in 2009, Sarkozy argued that when considering candidates for public positions, community service should trump an ability to recite “The Princess of Clèves.” He reflected for a moment, then added what has become a notorious Sarkozyism: “I’ve suffered greatly by her” (possibly a reference to his alleged difficulties as a schoolboy, though in French the phrasing has an oddly sexual ring). Jump ahead to the recent election, in May, 2012, where Sarkozy’s impertinence toward much of what French culture and tradition hold dear played no small role in his defeat.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/of-presidents-and-princesses-sarkozy-vs-the-princess-of-cleves.html#ixzz2BkRKnjw9