Beyond Politics and Prose: French Leaders Caught Between Fiction and Finance

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who fervently penned “Petite Jaune Lettres,” has recently precipitated a significant tumult.

In Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Saint-Étienne, and Montpellier, a surge of dissent against the Macron administration’s policy of retirement postponement has been tumultuously echoing since the onset of this year. The proposed pension reform scheme, spearheaded by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Bornet, aims to elevate France’s retirement age from 62 to 64.
Yet, why did the protesters single out the finance minister?
The novelist stands in solidarity.

French Prime Minister Bornet elucidated the implementation of the retirement reform initiative, asserting: “If left unaddressed, the fiscal deficit will burgeon, inexorably leading to a diminution in pensioners’ purchasing power or a surge in taxes.” The overhaul of the pension system aims to avert this scenario, with a pressing need identified for extending working hours to salvage a system imperiled by structural deficits.

However, this reform galvanized a vast procession and a nationwide strike throughout France. Opinion polls underscore that 68% of French citizens oppose this pension reform, while 32% endorse it.

So, what nexus exists between the aforementioned protests and French Finance Minister Le Maire?

Amidst the “May Day Strike” of the French populace, a multitude of “peculiar slogans” began to surface near the Place de la Nation in Paris, encompassing placards bearing the phrase “Stuff the retirement bill into the posterior” and conspicuous banners brandishing “Brown Anus.” The term “brown anus” derives from a literary work titled “Fugue America,” authored by French Finance Minister Le Maire and published towards the end of April, featuring scenes delineating amorous encounters. Stripped of its contextual moorings amidst the ongoing popular dissent against retirement policies in France, it would merely amount to a lackluster novel penned by a politician.

The day following the official release of Le Maire’s novel, Fitch International downgraded France’s sovereign credit rating from “AA” to “AA-“.

Nevertheless, the timing of Le Maire’s novel publication proved most inopportune, coinciding as it did with the tinderbox of resentment ignited in France due to governmental policies. Coupled with his unique role as Minister of Finance, he became the focal point of censure from French denizens, earning him the ignominious title of a typical exemplar of “triggering controversy and publishing books.” It’s hardly surprising that the French populace directed their ire towards Le Maire, perceiving that amidst soaring inflation, deferred retirements, and nationwide strikes, their country’s finance minister had diverted attention towards frivolous pursuits, including publishing literature that reflects unconventional sexual predilections. Unless he is subjected to rebuke and reproach, the French populace is unlikely to relent.

One piece of evidence buttressing the outcry against the intricacies and content of Le Maire’s novel is the downgrade of France’s sovereign credit rating by Fitch International from “AA” to “AA-” immediately following the book’s official release.

“The Treasurer of Literature” and “The President of the Novel”


Le Maire’s response: “While engaged in governmental duties, I devote 100% of my energy; during leisure hours, I equally commit 100% of my energy. My pursuits encompass indulgence in cinema, sporting activities, and notably, a significant portion of my time is dedicated to writing. I derive pleasure from articulating my interests and chronicling aspects of my life.”

Le Maire’s assertion holds merit. In 2004, during his tenure in the French Ministry of the Interior, he authored a political novel titled “The Minister,” and over the ensuing two decades, Le Maire produced over a dozen novels, essays, and essay collections spanning politics, music, ecology, and more. He stands as one of the most steadfast figures in French politics, consistently churning out new literary works, maintaining an approximate annual publication rate, occasionally even releasing multiple works across different genres within a single year.

At that juncture, the liaison between Sagan and Mitterrand appeared to transcend the bounds of conventional romantic entanglements.

French politics boasts numerous “literary luminaries” akin to Le Maire. A quintessential exemplar is former French President Giscard d’Estaing. d’Estaing served as France’s President from 1974 to 1981, and within the political arena of the French Fifth Republic, he emerged as an exceptionally unconventional figure: leading a storied existence, born in 1926 and departing in 2020, his presidency constituted a solitary term, and he predominantly remained active in politics as a former head of state for four decades spanning from the 1980s to the early 21st century.

Throughout his lifetime, he remained perpetually dubbed by the French press as “ex (ex)”; he exuded an aura of enigma, being the sole French president who eschewed residency in the Élysée Palace post-inauguration; endowed with a distinctly romantic aura, despite fathering four children with his spouse, his personal life remained incessantly scrutinized and pursued by the media, with his romantic entanglements often making headlines in French media outlets.

During his presidency, he emerged as a veritable “headline magnet” in political and economic discourse, and post-retirement, d’Estaing continued to captivate headlines with ostensibly non-existent scandals. In October 2009, at the age of 83, d’Estaing unveiled a new literary work titled “The Princess and the President.” Unexpectedly, prior to its release, the book ignited a storm of controversy, with a pivotal plotline detailing a romantic dalliance between former French President Lambert and British Princess Patricia, capturing the imagination of the public.

In the novel that subsequently ignited controversy, d’Estaing depicts the protagonist, French President Lambert, encountering Princess Patricia of the United Kingdom at Buckingham Palace following a G7 summit. Lambert finds himself drawn to Patricia’s intellect and wit, observing her deft handling of reporters’ inquiries, perceiving her as a princess remarkably amiable towards the media.

This narrative arc inevitably prompts the French media to speculate whether the fictional Patricia in the novel serves as a portrayal of Princess Diana of England, given d’Estaing’s rumored liaison with Diana. Le Figaro, France’s premier daily newspaper, ran a feature titled “The Romantic Love of the Princess and the President,” wherein the introduction pondered: Have we delved into D’Estaing’s forthcoming novel, only to uncover a fictional romance of the former president, or does it echo his real-life experiences? The truth, perhaps, lies solely within his grasp.

A mere few months following the novel’s release, d’Estaing, long removed from office, granted an exclusive interview to the French weekly Viewpoint. “This novel is purely a product of my imagination, devoid of any real-life character prototypes,” affirmed d’Estaing.

“I hold great admiration for Princess Diana; at times, she sought someone to confide in, and we engaged in numerous conversations. However, concerning this novel, it remains solely a work of fiction.”

A spiritual dalliance with a writer.

In addition to the romantic tome “The Princess and the President,” d’Estaing’s literary repertoire encompasses poetry, essays, personal reflections, and more, elevating him to a literary stature surpassing that of Le Maire, the incumbent French finance minister.

However, in stark contrast to d’Estaing, another French president’s affection for literature veered away from the realms of “scribbling on paper,” opting instead for a more tangible form of literary engagement—a direct dalliance with a French female writer.

This particular former French head of state’s literary liaison commenced amidst the presidential race where he triumphed over d’Estaing’s erstwhile rival, former French President François Mitterrand.

In 1954, Françoise Sagan, fresh from her disappointment in the French college entrance examination, penned a novel. Crafted over several months in a Parisian café, this literary endeavor birthed “Bonjour Tristesse,” swiftly captivating France and becoming a seminal work in the eyes of the French petit bourgeoisie and literary youth.

Sagan’s acquaintance with former French President François Mitterrand materialized at an airport in the 1970s. At the time, Mitterrand, in his early fifties and yet to ascend to the presidency, captured the attention of the discerning young woman with his affable demeanor. Admiring Sagan’s literary acumen, Mitterrand found the title of her book, “Bonjour Tristesse,” particularly striking, interpreting it as a poignant encapsulation of the anguish, melancholy, and quest for self-discovery pervasive among French youth in the 1950s and 1960s.

Subsequently, Mitterrand began visiting Sagan’s residence weekly, partaking in private lunches bereft of external company. Their discussions spanned literature, art, and exchanged viewpoints on cultural works, interweaving reflections on personal backgrounds and experiences, as well as societal happenings.

This dynamic spurred French media to speculate on the enigmatic rapport between the two. Even in hindsight, the true nature of Mitterrand and Sagan’s relationship remains elusive, prompting conjecture on whether their interactions merely revolved around shared interests or harbored genuine literary infatuation. However, one thing remains unequivocal—the bond between Sagan and Mitterrand transcended conventional romantic boundaries, evolving into a mutual admiration steeped in fondness and esteem.

Mitterrand emerged as the most privately intriguing president in the annals of the French Fifth Republic—his dalliance with Sagan endured for over a year. Despite occasional labeling by the French press as “Sagan’s foremost paramour,” Mitterrand maintained a veil of secrecy around his personal life, epitomizing the epitome of discretion in French presidential history.

For Sagan, Mitterrand constituted a fleeting presence in her labyrinthine tapestry of love affairs. Dubbed a “kindred spirit” to Sartre and heralded for her enduring friendship, Sagan later earned the epithet from Le Monde as “the woman most adept at capturing the president’s (Mitterrand’s) sentiments.”

“Who can discern if our president was truly captivated by this ingenue?”

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