Fall I 2023

New York, the Little Prince's Other Planet

By Clément Thiery - France-Amérique

With his tousled hair and scarf tied around his neck, the little bronze-skinned boy is instantly recognizable. The statue will soon be crossing the Atlantic to take its place on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Perched on a low wall next to the Payne Whitney House, the Renaissance-style building home to the French Embassy’s cultural services, he will look up to the sky and the stars. As if in a dream, he will invite passers-by to stop awhile. Before regaling them with tales of a rose, two active volcanoes, and three baobabs, he might ask them: “If you please – draw me a sheep.”

“It will be as though the character had stepped out of the book,” says the artist. Jean-Marc de Pas, who has created a sculpture garden in Normandy and has produced a dozen works on the theme of The Little Prince, including a bust displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Le Bourget, was commissioned by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français. “Our mission is to honor the 2,000 or so French soldiers buried on American soil, but also to celebrate the achievements of the French in the United States,” says Thierry Chaunu, the society’s president. “With The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is clearly part of this latter category.”

A Hero in the Making

The man who disembarked from the Siboney on December 31, 1940, was already a legend whose reputation preceded him in America. “This ace, this soldier, this paladin, this adventurer, this knight-errant, this broad-shouldered tendre, the most taciturn man in [Aéropostale] but also its enfant terrible,” wrote his American biographer Stacy Schiff, was welcomed to New York City like “the [Joseph] Conrad of the skies.” Two weeks later, before 1,500 people at the Hotel Astor, he received the National Book Award for Wind, Sand and Stars. Published in the United States in 1939, the novel went on to spend nine months on the best-seller list.

This was not Saint-Exupéry’s first experience in America. In January 1938, he arrived in New York City aboard the Ile-de-France for what was billed as a speed flight and publicity stunt for French aviation: a 9,000-mile journey across the continent to Patagonia. Since the English translation of his novel Night Flight in 1932, praised by the Book of the Month Club and adapted as a movie starring John Barrymore and Clark Gable the following year, the writer and the pilot had become indistinguishable. Each new airborne feat contributed to his literary success.

After stopovers in Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Brownsville, Texas, and Veracruz in Mexico, his Caudron Simoun C635 landed in Guatemala City to refuel on February 16. But due to a miscalculation, the aircraft was too heavy and crashed at the end of the runway just as it was about to take off again. His mechanic André Prévot escaped with a broken leg, while Saint-Exupéry suffered eight fractures and narrowly avoided having his left arm amputated. He spent over a month at the hospital before continuing his recovery in New York.

On the Pan Am DC-3 that flew him back to Manhattan, the wounded author was excited to discover the aircraft’s comfortable interior and its radio guidance system, which enabled blind flights – technology that had not reached France at the time. After landing, he also developed a passion for the gadgets sold in department stores, including an electric razor, a Parker pen, a portable phonograph, and a Dictaphone. This trip was the first of half a dozen that Saint-Exupéry would take, and inspired an unwavering admiration for the United States.

A Giant with Feet of Clay

Captain de Saint-Exupéry was discharged on July 31, 1940. After several reconnaissance missions and France’s painful armistice with Germany, the 40-year-old pilot found himself at a dead end. He struggled to return to civilian life, his marriage was on the rocks, and his financial affairs were in disarray. To make things worse, Gallimard, which had published his books since 1929, was taken over by the Nazis. “There is nothing left to be done here,” he said to a friend. “I’m off.” In December, he set out once again for America, “the answer to France’s humiliation.”

Upon arriving in New York City, Saint-Exupéry moved into an apartment at 240 Central Park South. The painter Bernard Lamotte, a former classmate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, introduced him to the small community of French refugees. The pilot delighted his new acquaintances with his exotic adventures and card tricks, but found exile unbearable. Manhattan and its skyscrapers were little more than “hordes of men in their stone pyramids” and the United States was a world power more concerned with manufacturing washing machines than producing weapons to help France. “In this consumerist country, which fascinated and repulsed him in equal measure,” says Olivier d’Agay, his grandnephew, “Saint-Exupéry was unhappy.”

The war of opinion dividing the French diaspora only distressed him further. Supporters of de Gaulle, Pétain, and Vichy all tried to recruit the famous Frenchman, but Saint-Exupéry stubbornly refused to engage with them. This was followed by a long period in the wilderness, punctuated by insults, defamation – he was even accused of being a royalist after The Little Prince was published – and several long stays at the hospital as a result of his accident in Guatemala. In 1941, wrote Stacy Schiff, “he felt more vulnerable physically in America […] than he had when flying through enemy fire in 1940.”

Under pressure from his publishing house, Reynal & Hitchcock, an exhausted Saint-Exupéry completed his fourth novel. Flight to Arras was finished between New York and Los Angeles, where the pilot lived with his friend Jean Renoir and spent his nights writing while suffering from terrible bouts of fever. Published in February 1942, the book was banned by the Vichy government but lauded by American critics, which helped to restore the author to something of his former glory. To cheer him up, his publisher’s wife, Elizabeth Reynal, suggested that he write a children’s book – the adventures of the petit bonhomme who had been floating around in his imagination for years.

The Birth of the Little Prince

The little boy stands on a cloud. Often depicted with wings, he floats above people, chases butterflies, and is threatened by an imp representing a German Messerschmitt plane. This child is none other than Saint-Exupéry’s fictional alter ego. He first appeared in 1939 before regularly featuring in the pilot’s letters, the pages of his diary, the manuscript of Flight to Arras, books gifted to friends, and even on restaurant tablecloths. It was a way for this former daydreaming schoolboy, who only excelled in poetry and drawing, and who distrusted “grown-ups,” to escape the Earth, “this odd planet.” He started writing in June 1942.

“Saint-Exupéry wrote and drew The Little Prince that summer and fall in his usual distracted manner, in long, late-night bursts of energy fueled by coffee, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes,” wrote Stacy Schiff. The original manuscript, kept at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, bears the marks of this turmoil. The pages are stained, torn, and even burnt in places, covered in thin, erratic handwriting, sometimes in pen, sometimes in pencil. Whole paragraphs are crossed out. The margins are filled with scribbled notes and, in sections written in the dead of night, the lines of text slant sharply like mountains.

This was his most personal book. “The writer put his heart and soul into his work,” writes archivist and historian Alban Cerisier in the introduction to the 75th anniversary edition. But it also drew on major events in his life. Whether the narrator’s plane crash, inspired by an accident in the Libyan desert in 1935, the Little Prince’s relationship with his rose, a reflection of the tensions within the Saint-Exupéry couple, the baobabs of Senegal, or the snowy peaks of the Andes, every page tells a story from the adventurer’s career. Even Long Island, where he spent the summer of 1942 to escape the stifling Manhattan heat, made an appearance in the manuscript. Another New York landmark, Rockefeller Center, was also included, although it was replaced by “a small Pacific islet” in the final draft.

Late into the night, Saint-Exupéry would call close friends to read them yet another version. He wrote and rewrote, throwing away countless pages. For the chapter about the businessman counting the stars in the sky, he asked for help from the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He worked on the watercolors in the same obsessive manner, using a set bought at a drugstore on Eighth Avenue. He used Charles Lindbergh’s son, Land, and a blonde doll as models for the Little Prince. His boxer dog Hannibal, given to him by his mistress Sylvia Hamilton, inspired the tiger, while her black poodle Mocha lent his likeness to the sheep! The young woman also motivated the fox’s tirade: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

The Legend Begins

The manuscript was finally ready in October 1942. The writer put the finishing touches to the illustrations, but the pilot in Saint-Exupéry had already moved on. In November, the United States landed in Morocco and Algeria, and the French forces in North Africa defected to the Allied side. Eager to get back into the fight, he urged his compatriots to reconcile – a message relayed in The New York Times Magazine, in Le Canada and on NBC – and left New York for Algiers on April 2, 1943. The Little Prince arrived in American bookstores four days later (it would not be published in France until 1946). The author was compared to Montesquieu and Hans Christian Andersen, but at the height of the war, this interplanetary fable hit a false note with the public. By the fall, 30,000 copies had been sold in English, and 7,000 in French. Walt Disney even rejected an adaptation by Orson Welles.

Saint-Exupéry would never know the fate of his book, which went on to become an international success. On July 31, 1944, his plane disappeared after taking off from Borgo in Corsica for a reconnaissance mission over occupied France. We now know that his aircraft, an American P-38 Lightning, crashed in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1998, a fisherman from Marseille found his silver bracelet caught in his nets. The salt-blackened metal bore an engraving with the author’s New York contact information: “C/o Reynal and Hitchcock Inc., 386 4th Ave., N.Y.C., U.S.A.”

“It’s a symbol,” says Olivier d’Agay, who is also delegate general for the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Youth Foundation, which is supporting the installation of the statue opposite Central Park. “These two years in the United States were the most important in my granduncle’s life. He felt at home in New York.” The Souvenir Français project was approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 23 this year, and its members unanimously voted oui to give the Little Prince a permanent throne on Fifth Avenue.

Summer I 2023

Nous aurons toujours la passion

By Guy Sormon - France-Amérique

France-Amérique célèbre ce mois-ci les 80 ans de sa fondation. Une continuité miraculeuse dans la presse écrite contemporaine. Avec une seule explication : la passion historique des Américains pour la France et l’omniprésence de l’Amérique au cœur des controverses françaises.

Vous avez vu Casablanca, le film tourné par Michael Curtiz en 1942 ? Oui, forcément : qui ne l’a pas vu? Pour mémoire, les Français d’Afrique du Nord s’y déchirent, pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, entre partisans du régime de Vichy et ceux de la Résistance. Eh bien, France-Amérique est né dans ces mêmes circonstances, à cette même époque, mais à New York. La communauté française locale accueillait alors quelques-uns des plus éminents artistes et intellectuels du moment, fuyant le régime de Vichy : Nadia Boulanger, André Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry…

Cette communauté était divisée, comme à Casablanca, en au moins trois clans : les pétainistes favorables au Maréchal, les partisans du général de Gaulle, soutenu par Winston Churchill, et ceux du général Giraud, le préféré de Franklin Roosevelt. De Gaulle, le meilleur propagandiste de lui-même, joua la carte de l’indépendance de la France éternelle, y compris contre les Etats-Unis. Il savait mobiliser les passions, et l’indépendance nationale en est une. A son instigation, ses partisans new-yorkais fonderont France-Amérique, un journal riche en symboles de cette France immuable : une ode à Jeanne d’Arc figure en une du premier numéro, publié le 23 mai 1943.

Paraphrasant Humphrey Bogart (Rick dans Casablanca), la création de France-Amérique fut the beginning of a beautiful friendship entre lecteurs français et gaullistes américains. De Gaulle savait que, gagnant la bataille de New York, il emporterait les Etats-Unis – la ville, à cette époque déjà, façonnait l’opinion publique. Et rien de ce qui est français n’a jamais laissé les Américains indifférents. L’inverse est tout aussi exact : les Américains ont une passion de la France et les Français une passion des Etats-Unis. Les passions déforment, par nature : aux faits, elles substituent les mythes, mais c’est avec les mythes que l’on crée des œuvres.

Si j’en reviens au film, rappelons que les personnages d’Humphrey Bogart et d’Ingrid Bergman ont rencontré le grand amour à Paris, évidemment. Il n’est d’amour que de Paris : F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gene Kelly, Woody Allen et Emily in Paris ne cesseront de le confirmer. Les Américains ont une passion pour Paris que tous les Parisiens ne partagent pas : mais allez savoir, peut-être les Américains ont-ils raison ? Paris, peut-être, est la plus belle ville du monde, celle où l’on tombe amoureux sur une chanson d’Edith Piaf. We’ll always have Paris, rappelle Humphrey Bogart à Ingrid Bergman au moment de leur séparation forcée, sur l’aérodrome de Casablanca.

A l’inverse, les Français aiment passionnément New York. Lorsque j’étais étudiant à Paris, en 1962, avec mes camarades, nous économisions toute l’année sous à sous pour nous offrir, en charter puis en Greyhound, la découverte de New York et de l’Amérique toute entière, coast to coast pour 99 dollars. Les vols charters s’appellent désormais low cost, mais la passion est inchangée. Cette passion réciproque, qui relie le sublime au populaire, de La Fayette à Emily in Paris, éclaire la longévité spectaculaire de notre journal, initialement francophone, devenu magazine bilingue.

Que nous célébrions notre 80e anniversaire est en soi stupéfiant, voire anachronique à l’heure où le Web ravage la presse écrite. Alors pourquoi sommes-nous encore là et bien décidés à poursuivre ? La passion, une fois encore : celle de directeurs qui, depuis 1943, se sont relayés pour faire vivre et évoluer France-Amérique : Henry Torrès pendant la guerre, le sénateur Jacques Habert puis Jean-Louis Turlin avec le soutien du Figaro, Louis Kyle, Guy Sorman et enfin Guénola Pellen, avec le soutien du groupe Chargeurs et de son président Michaël Fribourg. Tous, nous étions et restons persuadés que le Web ne remplacera jamais la sensualité, l’élégance et l’intelligence du papier. Des directeurs passionnés, il n’en manque pas, et des lecteurs non plus, francophiles et francophones. Sans eux, sans vous, pas de France-Amérique.

La France seule, me semble-t-il, inspire aux Etats-Unis une telle passion, pour une France idéalisée sans doute, imaginaire partiellement : mais toute civilisation n’est-elle pas une communauté imaginaire ? L’historien Ernest Renan a écrit cela il y a plus d’un siècle : pas de nation sans mythe ni passion. Ce qui à l’intérieur de France-Amérique nous oblige parfois à nous faire funambules. Chaque mois, nous guettons le juste équilibre entre la France rêvée des Américains – luxe, gastronomie, mode, châteaux – et la France qui change, plus âpre, plus avant-gardiste, plus métissée et aussi plus américanisée.

Un mot, enfin, sur notre époque douloureuse, car nous ne vivons pas dans un ailleurs. Dans le conflit qui ensanglante l’Europe de l’Est, la France et les Etats-Unis, encore une fois, sans jamais y déroger depuis près de 250 ans, sont dans le même camp, unis par une même passion : celle de l’individu libre de ses choix. De la démocratie en France et en Amérique, toujours recommencée.

GUY SORMON - Ecrivain prolifique, essayiste pour de nombreux journaux français et internationaux, Guy Sorman est editor-at-large de France-Amérique Il vit entre la France et les Etats-Unis, où il a enseigné l’économie. Il a consacré de nombreux ouvrages aux Etats-Unis dont Made in USA : Regards sur la civilisation américaineLa Révolution conservatrice américaine et Le Cœur américain : Eloge du don.

Spring I 2023

Transatlantic Freight Companies Have the Wind in Their Sails

By Benoît Georges - France-Amérique

On a cold December morning, the piers of the Elizabeth Marine Terminal in New Jersey are covered in a fine layer of frost. The sun is barely up and a team of dockers are already hard at work unloading palettes of wine, craft beer, and chocolate bars. In the midst of the container ships and oil tankers in the Port of New York, the 72-foot vessel carrying this delicious cargo seems miniscule. And yet, Grain de Sail I is heralding a freight and environmental revolution through the return of transatlantic cargo sailboats. A century after the last merchant sailboats crossed the oceans, initiatives to reboot this means of transport are booming. Since it launched in late 2020, Grain de Sail I has made two round trips between Saint-Malo, New York City, and the Dominican Republic, carrying up to 50 tons of cargo in its hold. Its successor, Grain de Sail II, which is currently under construction, will be twice as long and capable of carrying 350 tons.

Other companies have even bigger ideas. Le Havre-based TOWT (TransOceanic Wind Transport) has commissioned two 266-foot cargo sailboats with a loading capacity of 1,100 tons, the first of which will be delivered in late 2023. Neoline, located in Nantes, is supported by French maritime transport giant CMA CGM. In early January, it launched the construction of Neoliner, a 289-foot ship with rigid sails capable of carrying 265 containers, 400 vehicles, or 5,000 tons of cargo. Another Nantes-based company, Zéphyr & Borée, is working on several projects including Canopée, a 397-foot cargo sailboat which is set to transport the next Ariane rocket from Europe to French Guiana.

These pioneers from France’s Atlantic coast have a shared goal to decarbonize sea transport. This sector currently generates 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but this figure could grow to 17% by 2050 according to the International Maritime Organization. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, leading shipping companies are already turning to solutions such as replacing polluting heavy fuel oil with natural gas, biofuel, or hydrogen produced using renewable energy. Those promoting cargo sailboats want to go even further and achieve “carbon-free” freight by drawing on the cleanest and most tried-and-tested energy source there is. “There is so much wind offshore. We can now predict its patterns, and sails offer the best way to harness it while transporting heavy cargo across long distances,” says Guillaume Le Grand, cofounder and CEO of TOWT.

“There are two major differences with the sailboats from the last century,” says Jacques Barreau, CEO of Grain de Sail, which he founded in Morlaix, Brittany, in 2010 with his twin brother Olivier. “The first is technology, with better equipment design and more efficient, resilient materials. The second is the fact that navigation is now assisted by satellites and weather forecasts, which enables us to strike a better compromise between speed and safety.” This is why it is so important to build modern ships, backed by French know-how in offshore sailboat racing, but adapted to the freight sector. “Today, each vessel is a prototype because no one knows how to create modern sailboats for transporting cargo,” he adds. “This means we have to reinvent everything.”

Increasingly Large and Innovative Sailboats

To finance its first ship and acquire enough cargo to fill it, Grain de Sail (a pun on grain de sel, “grain of salt,” referencing Brittany’s iconic salt industry) started roasting coffee, making chocolate, and distributing its beans and bars in grocery stores in Western France. Construction of Grain de Sail I only began in 2018, and the ship made its transatlantic maiden voyage in November 2020. Since then, the same loop has been completed twice a year in the spring and early winter. The ship leaves Saint-Malo loaded with organic wine and Champagne, which is then sold in New York City. (The journey takes an average of 27 days, compared to less than ten by traditional freighters.) After a few days docked in Brooklyn to promote the brand and meet customers, it sets sail for the Dominican Republic carrying medical supplies from the humanitarian Afya Foundation. For the final leg of its voyage, it sails back to France with a hold full of cocoa beans.

Despite these innovations, less than half the chocolate produced by Grain de Sail is currently transported in this way. “The second ship, set for launch in early 2024, will enable us to achieve our final goal of transporting all our own coffee and chocolate,” says Jacques Barreau. The company will also be able to add olive oil and rum to its product line, ship more French wine to the United States, and start working with external clients looking to reduce their carbon footprint. “We want to continue with our Saint-Malo-New York route and, eventually, make weekly trips, which will require four or five ships.”

TOWT, which launched in 2011, says it has transported 1,500 tons of cargo using some 20 traditional vessels – often old sailing ships chartered for each journey. This has enabled the company to generate its first revenue and experiment with different means of sail-based transport. “We have shipped alcohol, coffee, cocoa, and salt, either to sell ourselves or on behalf of other importers,” says Guillaume Le Grand. His two cargo sailboats, the first of which is set for delivery in late 2023, will be docked in Le Havre. As for Neoline, their vessel – the first sail-equipped roll-on/roll-off ship capable of carrying vehicles, trucks, and freight cars – will be sailing from Saint-Nazaire to Baltimore in two years’ time, with stops in Saint Pierre and Miquelon and Halifax. Its shareholders include transporter CMA CGM, and the company has already signed agreements for shipping products from Renault, Michelin, Hennessy, and Longchamp. “We want to offer freight services on an industrial scale while remaining competitive,” says Jean Zanuttini, CEO of Neoline.

However, none of the trailblazers behind these cargo sailboats is planning on competing with the prices offered by giant container ships, which currently make up the majority of global sea traffic. “Costs will be higher because we will never be as efficient as the 1,000- or 1,300-foot freighters running on fuel oil,” says Jacques Barreau. “We can’t hide the fact that we will have to pay more for eco-friendly transportation. There’s no such thing as miracles – you can’t be cheaper and better for the planet at the same time.”


Benoît Georges has lived in New York with his family for the last two years, and is a longstanding contributor to French newspaper Les Echos, where he used to direct the Ideas and Debates section. For France-Amérique, his specialist subjects include the tech sector and French business.

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

Winter II 2023

French Film Director Alice Diop on her film Saint Omer

By Nina Verneret - France-Amérique

On November 19, 2013, as the tide was rising, Fabienne Kabou abandonned her 15-month-old daughter on a beach in Northern France. This Senegalese mother and former philosophy student, who claimed she had been manipulated by a “marabout,” an Islamic healer, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. This case is the starting point for Alice Diop’s film, Saint Omer, named after the town where the trial was held. The director met with France-Amérique to talk about her first fictional, feature-length work, which is set for release in U.S. theaters on January 13 and has been shortlisted to represent France at the Oscars in March. A study of motherhood, systemic racism, and the place of women in society.

France-Amérique: In 2016, you attended Fabienne Kabou’s trial in the Pas-de-Calais département. What particularly struck you during the hearing?

Alice Diop: Everything that happened during the trial was resolutely rich, deep, mysterious, and inexpressible. In the movie, I tried to recreate these multiple interpretations through the ways in which it was filmed, with long takes, discussions, and by placing this woman at the center of the collective gaze. The lawyer, the presiding judge, the examining magistrate, and finally, the accused, all had a chance to speak. And everything we hear has a different meaning for a Black woman, a white woman, or a white man. The ambivalence of Fabienne Kabou is what moved me. She is a victim in one way, but not in another. She pretended to have started a doctoral dissertation on Ludwig Wittgenstein – not Aimé Césaire. This is a very touching choice, because it says so much about everything she wanted to be, and everything she wanted to escape from. She wanted to escape from being a Black woman in the collective imagination

The taboo of infanticide enabled you to address different social issues in France, including post-colonialism, racism, and the position of women. These questions also resonate in the United States, where the right to abortion is being undermined. What challenges are revealed by these attacks on women’s bodies?

The sub-conscious, tangled thoughts that led me to make this film are the taboo of mixed-race children and the invisibilization of Black women, which interested me more than the figure of Medea [who kills her two children in the eponymous tragedy by Euripides]. But the movie also opens on archive footage of the victimized bodies of women who had their heads shaved after the Liberation of France, set to a text from Hiroshima, My Love by Marguerite Duras. It is an examination of the judgment of women’s bodies, and the film features both confidence and defiance in the act of judging motherhood. It is complicated to isolate an issue specific to the film, as it encompasses different themes. All I can say is that my film is an ensemble of 25-minute long shots about an extremely complex woman whom I invite audiences to listen to. However, I am unable to list the things that people should hear, as certain things are conscious while others are anything but. If I am asked if the film is trying to fight racism, I prefer not to take a stance because this would impose that interpretation on others. My film seeks out commentary, but I am the last person to be able to offer an interpretation of it.

The American poet Adrienne Rich said that “we know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” What is the mystery of maternity that tried to be resolved during the trial?

At one point in the film, there is a scene about chimeras, which symbolizes the exchange of cells between the mother’s body and the fetus during pregnancy. This moment draws on something primitive within us. A breaking point in which our minds turn to metaphysical questions within scientific theory. This unfathomable, organic, inexplicable connection between a mother and a child is contained within the metaphor of chimeras. An unfailing bond that ties us to our mothers and resists both loss and distance.

Do you agree that there is a tension between the particular and the universal within your work?

I think that I have focused on the universal since the start – the one referred to by Edouard Glissant, a universal that holds all particularities. This idea of living together without removing differences is something I have actually noticed in the United States. Personally, I am driven by a hybrid culture – from Baldwin to Duras to Nietzsche, and, in cinematic terms, Clouzot, Sembène, and Bresson. I am shaped by mainstream European culture, but also by minority cultures. I have a relational mindset.

How do you deal with being in the media spotlight in the run-up to the Oscars, and the fact that you are becoming the Black female director in French cinema?

I struggle with the media frenzy around me. When I say “I don’t want to be the symbol of a successful Black director” – it becomes a slogan that makes it seem that I am wary of being a Black woman. In fact, it is at the core of my work, but in the same way that James Baldwin said “I am not your Negro,” I am not the Black woman you think I am, the one you project. I am far more complex. What’s more, I don’t like the position of solitude within the idea of a symbol. Not that I don’t want to seize the opportunity, but I want many of us to seize it together. I have a very ambivalent relationship to representation, as it can’t be used to invisibilize others. It must be a call for deep structural societal change for granting access to other Black women on every level.

You refuse to be labeled a “director from the projects” and you use your films, most of which are documentaries, to visit spaces such as the theater (La mort de Danton, 2011), bars and betting parlors (Towards Tenderness, 2015), the Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny (On Call, 2016), the RER B commuter line (We, 2021), and the courthouse in Saint Omer. In what way are places important to you?

I don’t film institutions but, in a similar way to an ethnologist, I focus on symbolic spaces that house the contradictions and ambivalence of society. Closed spaces that present something that is hard to describe, such as racist violence or hidden colonial histories. But there are also places of humanity, such as the doctor’s clinic in On Call, which treats people in difficulty. It is both a place of pain and of care, a refuge. In La mort de Danton, I used a theater as the setting for something that cannot be shown: how racist violence tries to mold the other to its own image.

In Saint Omer, you pay tribute to Nina Simone. How important is American culture to your work?

Discovering jazz was crucial. I need to draw inspiration from these very harsh forms – the dissonance of Alice Coltrane, the impurity and disharmony of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. I first heard Davis on the radio when I used to listen to the news non-stop, and came across a track from Kind of Blue. As for Nina Simone, there is not a single second in my life that has not been embodied by one of her songs. It’s my bible, as if I were living certain passages of the Gospel that enabled me to understand my life. In terms of painting, the bodies of Black women by New York artist Jennifer Packer also have a major impact on me. When I see a Black body at the center of a painting, I wonder where all the others are. This is the materialization of all the other bodies that have not been seen or filmed. It is moving to see something new appear, but also sad to realize that it has never happened before.

Interview published in the January 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

Winter I 2023

Frédéric Jousset, the Businessman Bringing Culture to the People

By Jean-Gabriel Fredet - Editor-at-large, France-Amérique

Entrepreneur, businessman, adventurer, philanthropist. At 52, the administrator of the Louvre and owner of Beaux Arts magazine has taken on yet another challenge: to entice new demographics into museums and bridge the cultural divide in France. To achieve his objectives, he has created the Art Explora foundation and a fleet of mobile museums.

“Sixty years after André Malraux created the French ministry of culture, we find ourselves trapped beneath the same glass ceiling. The percentage of working-class people visiting museums is still as low as ever,” says Frédéric Jousset, who made his fortune in call centers and now lives in the U.K. However, he believes that “the problem is not financial,” pointing to the fact that discounted prices have no effect, and those who do not go to museums or theaters can spend ten times more on tickets to a soccer game. The problem is deeper. The French businessman claims that it is a lack of interest. “The propensity to consume culture depends on where you are born and where you live. If people are not going to museums, it is up to us to go to them.”

This is the role of Art Explora, the foundation Frédéric Jousset launched in 2019. Its objective is to create new ways of accessing culture by making it mobile. The MuMo museum-truck, loaded with works of modern and contemporary art from the Centre Pompidou, is already driving along the roads of rural France. It will be joined in the fall of 2023 by the giant catamaran ArtExplorer, which will sail across the Mediterranean Sea from Marseille to Beirut and from Malta to Tunisia. The boat features a modular, on-board exhibition space designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and is large enough to welcome 2,000 people while docked. It will offer a traveling exhibition curated by the Louvre focused on the representation of women in the Mediterranean region, from the Venus de Milo to Mona Lisa, and also showcase local artists at each port of call.

Frédéric Jousset isn’t stopping there. Other initiatives include awards for innovative European museums – such as the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, which will be using electric buses to bring young people from underprivileged neighborhoods to its site – artistic residencies at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Montmartre, and partnerships with Villa Albertine in the United States. The entrepreneur wants to rejuvenate culture in all its forms. “Culture occurs whenever there is dialogue in a public space through a unique, original action.” Does this definition even extend to Star Wars? “Why not, if young people start going to movie theaters instead of watching series on their computers.” Another demographic “held back” from culture are the elderly residents of some 7,300 assisted living facilities in France. In an effort to combat loneliness, the businessman is developing visits by artists, “30 minutes of attention providing a doorway into living culture.”

American-Inspired French Philanthropy

As well as being a globetrotter, Frédéric Jousset is a keen observer of heritage conservation policies and systems, initiatives which also strive to close the cultural divide. He praises American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a pioneer in engaging with disadvantaged demographics and young people, and dreams of establishing the U.S. tradition of philanthropy in France. As the son of a director of the Ecole Normale de Musique and a curator at the Centre Pompidou, he is fighting tooth and nail for the creation of a ministry of philanthropy in France. Even if that means being called a bureaucrat. “Our country is creative without the government’s help,” he says. “But when culture, the cement of the nation, generates 3% of GDP, employs 600,000 people – more than the automobile sector – and helps to make France the most visited country in the world, perhaps we should consider a ministry for managing cultural operators and championing such a major national ambition.”

The Culture Pass is another of Frédéric Jousset’s achievements. Four years ago, his desire to promote the French cultural sector led minister Françoise Nyssen to ask him to pilot this project to help those between 15 and 18 to “get out of their comfort zones and attend performances or exhibitions they would not otherwise have considered.” The operation, which launched nationally in May 2021, is only getting started. However, it is already showing results, with some 2.3 million users and a mobile app listing cultural offers from thousands of public, private, and community partners.

A French Largo Winch

The millionaire is an intriguing and singular figure in the French art world. Le Monde described him as an adventurer with countless feats to his name, including “climbing Shishapangma in Tibet, horseback riding through the wilderness, hunting in Tajikistan, skiing in the Caucasus, and speeding around the track at Le Mans in his 1964 AC Cobra.” This has seen him nicknamed “the French Largo Winch” by the financial press. He currently lives in a modern home in Notting Hill, a chic enclave in London, and collects contemporary art by figures such as Anish Kapoor, Richard Prince, and Damien Hirst. However, his “eclectic” tastes do not rule out classical pieces such as African masks and Greek vases. When asked how he compares himself to other French philanthropists such as François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, he replies: “They are leading entrepreneurs and I respect them, but the path I am on is not inspired by anyone else. As I am not tied to a certain period or region – my field of action is all of Europe, where my foundation promotes traveling projects. I am contributing something different to the philanthropy sector.”

Frédéric Jousset is certainly attempting, in his own way, to reconcile business with heritage and culture conservation. As a friend of Emmanuel Macron, a former president of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the owner of the only hotel on the grounds of the Château de Chambord (a similar project at Chantilly failed to materialize), he was previously rumored to be a potential candidate for the position of culture minister. But when asked if he even wants to get involved in politics, he avoids the question: “Serving one’s country is something noble, but directing my foundation, which is a form of public service, is enough for me.” When discussing whether a successful life is the only real aesthetic venture, he pauses for thought. “We must first distinguish between succeeding in life and having a successful life.” He then changes his mind: “There is something important missing from what I just said: the other. Art is my second family, and the solitary plea- sure of owning beautiful things is not my idea of aesthetic pleasure.” Much like wine, it seems, art therefore has “the taste of those with whom we share it.”

Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

Holiday 2022

Napoleon III, Haussmann and the Invention of Paris

By Guy Sorman - Editor-at-large, France-Amérique

France-Amérique: Paris as it is known to tourists and celebrated by American movies does not correspond to the actual city. Is the French capital divided into a metropolis invented during the Second Empire and a working-class city?

Esther da Costa Meyer: There was certainly a huge gap between the almost operatic splendor of Second Empire Paris and that other Paris inhabited by the majority of the population which was poor. But the Paris of myth was also the work of the city’s great writers, painters, and later film directors. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s dramatic imagination forever changed our views of le vieux Paris before Haussmann destroyed part of the historic center. And in 1989, when there was an attempt to demolish the decrepit Hôtel du Nord, in the grimy area of the Canal Saint-Martin, cinephiles protested because it recalled Marcel Carné’s famous film starring Arletty and Louis Jouvet. The film had in fact been shot in studio, where the hotel was reconstructed, but the protesters had the actual façade landmarked.

The sumptuous side of Paris is thought to have been mainly developed by the prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann at the request of Napoleon III. Was their aim to create an exceptional, modern city?

Paris had been planned by a group of advisors gathered by Napoleon III. They consulted dozens of specialists in different branches, and outlined the main changes required to transform the city into a modern metropolis. Among other topics, they studied new streets and squares, markets, churches, synagogues, fountains and reservoirs, working-class housing, greenery, mortality rates, cemeteries, bread, and special railway prices for the ouvriers. “Haussmann’s Paris” was thus the work of innumerable Parisians of different groups and professions, including, of course, Haussmann himself, who managed to put an extraordinary infrastructure in place, aided by the municipality’s first-class civil engineers.

The destruction of the old town was designed to make the neighborhoods cleaner and safer. But was this interest in hygiene also spurred by political objectives, such as separating the bourgeoisie from the proletariat?

Ever since cholera struck Paris in 1832, killing some 20,000 people, the city’s epidemiologists had called for urban renewal and the destruction of the slums in the city center. The highest mortality rates had taken place precisely in the old, decrepit center, which was also the site of violent uprisings in 1832. Associating revolution and cholera, the middle and upper classes saw the pandemic as a “Jacobin” illness. The urge to demolish the old historic fabric and replace it with broad streets and salubrious housing was thus prompted by both hygienic and political concerns. The elites and their allies no longer wished to live with the poor. “One worker sufficed to contaminate a building,” declares the caretaker in Emile Zola’s Restless House.

Was the division between the Paris of the rich and of the poor a consequence of Haussmann’s work, or rather a deliberate goal?

It was both. Thousands of workers continued to live in the center before, during, and after Haussmannization. But many more, especially families with children, had to relocate to the outskirts, since they could not afford higher rents in the gentrified areas of the historic center. Meanwhile, those who remained in the city had to squeeze themselves into the suffocating rented rooms of the marchands de sommeil, slumlords, or find refuge in the old tenements that had not yet been torn down. Urban renewal thus led to a dangerous rise in urban density precisely in the poorest districts of the city while also contributing to social and spatial polarization.

The modernization, or reinvention, of Paris by Haussmann also took place underground. Surely everyone benefits from this invisible Paris, with its drinking water, sanitation, and public transportation?

Unfortunately, the modern networks that Haussmann put in place were never distributed in an egalitarian manner. There was plenty of water in the elegant new districts of the capital, which were served by private companies. But the city’s workers suffered grievously from class-driven politics of uneven water distribution. The same was true for sewers: Paris still had 20,000 barbarous, foul-smelling cesspools, largely in working-class areas where landlords did not want to install costly systems to have human waste removed. As for public transportation, the itineraries of the omnibus companies of the time served primarily the grands boulevards, avoiding less profitable quartiers.

With the major works of the 19th century, the poor moved out of the center. This trend is continuing today. Did Haussmann invent the concept of the banlieue?

Haussmann had everything to do with the de facto expulsion of part of the working class to the banlieue. However, this was also happening in other cities. The industrial revolution had created a new class of entrepreneurs who were eager to promote the fruits of their labor: Production entailed consumption, and they worked tirelessly with the regime to create broad boulevards that facilitated the circulation of both crowds and merchandise. The old historic polis had to make way for the modern metropolis, and the historic centers were drastically curtailed to make room for the spaces of modernity. Workers, who had hitherto lived close to their work in the center, moved to the banlieue in great numbers.

The Haussmannian model had a major influence across the world, as far as New York City and Rio de Janeiro. Could this be referred to as the Haussmannization of the world based on the Parisian project?

Haussmann definitely had a pronounced impact across the continents and in France itself, where Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Montpellier styled themselves after his renovated Paris. However, it was in the Americas that Haussmann’s impact was greater – and more destructive. Francisco Pereira Passos, mayor of Rio de Janeiro from 1902 to 1906, had studied in Paris in the days of Haussmann, and he subjected the city to ruthless urban reform, lowering hills, cutting straight avenues through the urban fabric, and destroying everything in their path… In the United States, Daniel Burnham took Haussmann’s ideas into account in his plan for Chicago with its plazas, its broad avenues, and terminating vistas. Years later, in New York City, Robert Moses emulated the French prefect’s authoritarian, top-down form of urbanism predicated on widespread demolition.

The current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is working on removing vehicles and adding green spaces. There is also a wave of gentrification washing across formerly working-class neighborhoods. Has Haussmann won on all fronts?

These trends are happening in all large post-industrial cities. Gentrification pays high dividends, especially when there are no plans for social sustainability. That is, former residents, unable to pay for the upkeep and rents of renovated properties, have to move further away. Greenery plays a crucial role in this agenda, as the more vulnerable elements of the population have to make way for upscale lifestyles and higher income residents for whom the new green spaces are meant. This was indeed Haussmann’s agenda.

What advice would you give a curious American tourist looking to escape the Haussmannian circuit?

Paris is full of wonderful places dating from before and after Haussmann. The passages, which date to the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, are magical microcosms where one can find tiny shops selling walking canes, lutes, rare stamps, and all sorts of bric-à-brac. Their inward-looking world seems to exist outside of time. The Grande Mosquée de Paris, with its outdoor café and fig trees that transport us to the Middle East, is another favorite spot. But I would also advise tourists to see a real gem that Haussmann bequeathed to Paris: the Buttes-Chaumont, one of the most original and exciting urban parks in Europe, where the municipal engineers used the uneven terrain of the old quarries to create peaks and precipices that still take one’s breath away.

Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality
 (1852-1870) by Esther da Costa Meyer, Princeton University Press, 2022.


Guy Sorman is a prolific writer and essayist for a number of French and international newspapers, and is currently the editor-at-large of France-Amérique. He splits his time between France and the United States, where he used to teach economics. He has written many books about America, including Made in USA: Regards sur la civilisation américaineThe Conservative Revolution in America, and In Praise of Giving: Understanding the American Heart.
Interview published in the December 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

Fall/Automne 2022 III

Et si on s’intéressait vraiment aux générations futures

Par Jacques Attali - Écrivan

Pas une minute sans qu’on n’entende désormais un homme politique, ou un dirigeant d’entreprise, affirmer la main sur le cœur que, naturellement, il ne travaille que dans l’intérêt des générations futures, qu’il n’a que l’environnement à l’esprit, qu’il veut améliorer le climat, supprimer les gaspillages, réduire l’utilisation des énergies fossiles, développer une finance durable. Ils le disent tous. Et très peu le font.

Et plus encore, aucun, ou presque, ne parle des générations futures elles-mêmes, c’est-à-dire prosaïquement des bébés, des enfants et des étudiants. A croire que les adultes qui s’inquiètent de l’évolution du climat ne s’intéressent en fait qu’à protéger leurs propres conditions de vie dans le futur.

Dans la plupart des pays du monde, même les plus développés, sauf quelques très rares exceptions, on ne s’occupe que très mal des plus jeunes. Même celles qui, parmi les sociétés les plus avancées, comme la société française, protègent les mères pendant le temps de leur maternité, bien des lacunes restent dans la protection de l’enfance, de l’adolescence, et des jeunes adultes :

Les enfants, de tous milieux, ne sont pas protégés comme ils devraient l’être des turpitudes des adultes ; ils ne sont pas protégés non plus contre les écrans, qui devraient leurs être interdits jusqu’à l’âge de six ans, alors qu’ils servent de plus en plus souvent de baby-sitter ; ceux des milieux les plus modestes n’ont pas accès à la même éducation que les autres, alors qu’ils devraient avoir plus de moyens pour rattraper ce que la famille ne leur apporte pas ; et ceux dont les familles ne sont même pas en situation de s’occuper d’eux sont abandonnés dans le néant des orphelinats. C’est pire encore, dans tout pays, pour les filles. Et en particulier dans les pays, beaucoup plus nombreux qu’on ne le croit, où l’éducation leur est interdite, formellement ou réellement.

Les adolescents des classes moyennes et des plus pauvres ne reçoivent pas non plus les moyens de se former, dont disposent les plus riches. Ils n’ont pas accès aux meilleurs enseignements ni réellement les moyens d’échapper, par leurs études, à la prédestination sociale, et de genre, qui s’impose à l’humanité depuis des millénaires, qui fait de l’éducation un simple moyen de reproduction des classes et des castes ; qui oriente vers le travail, ou des formations médiocres ceux qui n’ont pas la chance d’avoir des parents capables de les aider, de les conseiller, de leur offrir des cours privés.

Les jeunes adultes sont eux aussi laissés à l’abandon. Il est scandaleux, en particulier en France, que des centaines de milliers de jeunes adultes soient obligés de travailler pour financer des études qu’ils ne peuvent en réalité pas suivre correctement et qu’ils doivent dépendre de la charité pour se nourrir. Il est scandaleux que, en particulier en France, les bourses soient si faibles et qu’elles soient attribuées, même pour des étudiants de plus de 18 ans, en fonction du niveau de vie de parents. Un jeune adulte doit avoir les moyens décents d’étudier. Jusqu’à 25 ans.

On peut répondre à cela qu’une nation ne peut pas tout financer et qu’elle doit faire des choix. Ce sont bien ces choix que je critique : tout est fait, dans presque toutes les sociétés, d’une façon ou d’une autre, pour protéger le niveau de vie des personnes âgées (avec bien sûr des exceptions, même en France, où des retraités continuent d’avoir des revenus scandaleusement faibles).

Chacun de ceux qui décident sait qu’il sera un jour vieux. Il sait aussi qu’il ne sera plus jamais jeune. Aussi préfère-t-il, même inconsciemment, financer celui qu’il deviendra plutôt que celui qu’il a été.

Nos sociétés vont mourir de cela : si on ne met pas les nouvelles générations en situation de découvrir leurs talents, de les faire s’épanouir, on n’aura pas, dans vingt ou trente ans, les ingénieurs, les savants, les chercheurs, les entrepreneurs, les innovateurs, les paysans, les médecins, les journalistes, les avocats, sans lesquels même les générations actuellement au pouvoir, ne pourront pas vivre une retraite décente, ni financièrement, ni socialement, ni écologiquement, ni démocratiquement. Ce serait donc, au moins, de leur intérêt bien compris que d’en faire une priorité.

Il est donc urgent de consacrer une part beaucoup plus importante du PIB à l’éducation au sens le plus large, et d’utiliser les fabuleux progrès que permettraient les nouvelles technologies, si elles étaient utilisées dans un sens conforme à l’intérêt de l’avenir, et pas, pour endormir, par des drogues ludiques, les colères des plus jeunes.


Fall/Automne 2022 II

Le « Dictionnaire historique de la langue française » : la dernière œuvre d’Alain Rey

Avant son décès, il y a deux ans, à l’âge de 92 ans, le lexicographe avait pu mener à bien la mise à jour de son « Dictionnaire historique », que viennent de publier les éditions Le Robert.

Par Lucien Jedwab - Le Monde


Deux ans après la disparition du célèbre lexicographe et essayiste Alain Rey, le 28 octobre 2020, les éditions Le Robert publient la « version définitive » de son Dictionnaire historique de la langue française. Le savant amoureux des mots, dont l’art de conteur, à la télévision ou à la radio, avait su captiver un vaste public, avait entrepris un considérable travail de mise à jour de son ouvrage de référence. Ce sont près de cinq années de lectures, de documentation, de relectures et de corrections qui auront été nécessaires à cet infatigable chercheur pour mener à bien cette tâche, juste avant sa mort, à 92 ans.

Alain Rey répétait à l’envi que le français était bien vivant, et qu’il n’avait jamais cessé d’évoluer et de s’enrichir au cours d’une histoire longue d’un millier d’années. Et c’est cette histoire complexe et passionnante que déroule ici le regretté érudit au regard malicieux, au fil de près de 3 000 pages denses consacrées à 95 000 mots, expressions et locutions, dans toute l’étendue de son savoir encyclopédique.

La couverture des deux grands volumes de l’actuelle réédition est illustrée par la silhouette bleue d’un arbre, à laquelle Alain Rey comparait la langue française, « unifiée par ses racines et son tronc, et variée à l’infini par ses feuilles ». Œuvre ultime d’une vie consacrée aux mots, à leur forme, à leur histoire et à leur sens – depuis le premier volume du Grand Robert de la langue française, en 1953 –, le présent ouvrage prend la relève des cinq versions qui l’ont précédé depuis 1992.

La vitalité d’une langue

Alain Rey s’était livré, pour la première édition de ce dictionnaire sans équivalent dans les autres langues, à un patient démêlage de l’écheveau des origines du français, « la plus germanique des langues romanes », en s’appuyant sur les travaux de ses prédécesseurs lexicographes et sur ses propres recherches étymologiques. Celles-ci ont pu se consacrer à un corpus étendu de sources grâce à l’exploration exhaustive de plates-formes comme Gallica, la bibliothèque numérique de la BnF, dont il était un utilisateur boulimique. Lire aussi Alain Rey, l’un des maîtres d’œuvre du dictionnaire Le Robert, est mort

Les mises à jour et les enrichissements, manuscrits, ont été rédigés par Alain Rey lui-même, avant d’être intégrés par les équipes du Robert – avec l’aide, pour cette édition posthume, de Danièle Morvan, son épouse. La préface de celle-ci est précédée d’une page de titre imitant le frontispice du Dictionnaire universel d’Antoine Furetière (1619-1688), clin d’œil au « précurseur des Lumières » auquel Alain Rey consacra un ouvrage en 2006. Et dont il s’est efforcé de suivre la trace dans la rigueur, la lisibilité et la liberté d’esprit, dans la lignée des encyclopédistes, d’Emile Littré ou de Pierre Larousse.

Son Dictionnaire historique atteste la vitalité d’une langue qu’on ne saurait, disait-il, réduire à ses racines grecques et latines, en prenant en compte ses évolutions récentes, dans une aire géographique étendue qui inclut une partie de la Belgique et de la Suisse, mais aussi le Québec, les outre-mer et l’Afrique francophone.

Fall/Automne 2022 I

Annie Ernaux & Edouard Louis: Writing as a Political Act

In a twist of scheduling fate, the books of two French authors who have made their social backgrounds the main inspiration for their writing are being published almost simultaneously in the United States. Do What They Say or Else is Annie Ernaux’s second novel, while A Woman’s Combats and Transformations is a book by Edouard Louis about his mother.

Par Spohie Joubert - Magazine France-Amérique

One grew up in a small town in Normandy; the other comes from a village in the Somme, in Northern France. Both are from working-class backgrounds – her parents were greengrocers and café managers; his father was a factory worker and his mother was a homemaker. Born 52 years apart, in 1940 for her and 1992 for him, almost two generations lie between them. Yet many subjects and concerns connect Annie Ernaux and Edouard Louis, and the French see him as a direct descendent of the author of Happening and The Years. On several occasions, Edouard Louis has actually spoken of how much she influenced his writing, such as in a 2014 interview with weekly magazine Télérama: “Her books are so powerful because they offer a new image of what crafting a book really means. I have tried to use this question as a starting point in all my writing.” In 2013, Annie Ernaux took part in L’insoumission en héritage, a collective work directed by Edouard Louis paying tribute to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who theorized the distinction and reproduction of social hierarchies.

Defying class boundaries, Annie Ernaux and Edouard Louis are also connected by their hyper-realistic texts, which highlight the mechanisms of dominations at the crossroads of gender and social class. In A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, the author of The End of Eddy writes to his mother, Monique, as he reflects on his own background and the history of their complicated relationship. Upon finding a photograph of her at 20, an age at which she should have been “young and full of dreams,” he sees nothing but violence, poverty, and a body broken by years spent with brutal men who humiliated her. “Seeing the photo reminded me that those twenty years of devastation were not anything natural but were the result of external forces – society, masculinity, my father – and that things could have been otherwise,” writes Edouard Louis. Alternating between the third and second person, he portrays his mother’s courageous emancipation after he leaves home to go to college. In doing so, with his trademark blend of shamelessness, violence, and anger, he wields literature like a weapon, gladly turning his back on the established bourgeois models: “I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a political manifesto but already I’m sharpening each of my sentences the way I’d sharpen the blade of a knife.”

This statement was probably not random, as it echoes L’ écriture comme un couteau (“Writing as a knife”), a book of interviews between Annie Ernaux and author Frédéric-Yves Jeannet. “I bring something hard, heavy, and even violent into literature, tied to living conditions and the language of a world that was entirely my own until the age of 18; a working-class, rural world,” she says. “There is always something real. I feel that writing is what I do best, in my context and my situation outside of my class, as a political act and as a gift.” The U.S. release of Do What They Say or Else, her second novel, originally published in France in 1977, is especially interesting because it enables us to see how far the author has come. Hidden behind a mask of fiction, she follows the transformations of Anne, a high school student who has her first sexual experiences and dreams of “changing life.” By observing movements and table manners, by restoring a working-class language that gradually repulses the teenager, Annie Ernaux expresses the widening gap between Anne and her parents. While the language is not as dry and harsh as in her subsequent books, readers will recognize the themes that feature in her later work: the fear of getting pregnant in France before the legalization of abortion, class violence and all forms of domination, and her contradictory relationship with her mother.

“No one writes in the same way after reading Annie Ernaux,” said Edouard Louis following the recent French publication of her latest book Le jeune homme, a lucid depiction of an affair between the writer, then 54, and a 24-year-old student. By writing about their origins and the violence inherent to passing from one world to another, Annie Ernaux and Edouard Louis have dared to write against the dominant literary grain, to shine a light on other lives and other bodies that have been excluded until now.


Do What They Say or Else by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland, University of Nebraska Press, October 2022. 120 pages, 17.95 dollars.


A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Edouard Louis, translated from French by Tash Aw, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 112 pages, 20 dollars.

L’une a grandi dans une petite ville de Normandie, l’autre vient d’un village de la Somme, dans le nord de la France. Tous deux sont issus de milieux populaires, un couple d’épiciers-cafetiers pour elle, un ouvrier et une femme au foyer pour lui. Nés à cinquante-deux ans d’intervalle, elle en 1940 et lui en 1992, ils ont presque deux générations d’écart. Pourtant, beaucoup de sujets et de préoccupations relient Annie Ernaux et Edouard Louis, qui est perçu, en France, comme l’un des héritiers directs de l’autrice de L’Evénement et des Années. A plusieurs reprises, Edouard Louis s’est d’ailleurs exprimé pour dire combien elle avait influencé son écriture, comme dans un entretien accordé en 2014 à l’hebdomadaire Télérama : « Ses livres sont aussi puissants parce qu’elle propose une nouvelle image de ce que construire un livre veut dire. J’ai essayé en écrivant de prendre cette interrogation pour point de départ. » En 2013, Annie Ernaux avait participé à L’insoumission en héritage, un ouvrage collectif dirigé par Edouard Louis qui rendait hommage au sociologue Pierre Bourdieu, théoricien de la distinction et de la reproduction des hiérarchies sociales.

Transfuges de classe, Annie Ernaux et Edouard Louis ont en commun d’écrire au plus près du réel, de mettre au jour les silences et les mécanismes de domination, au carrefour du genre et des classes sociales. Dans Combats et métamorphoses d’une femme, l’auteur d’En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule s’adresse à sa mère, Monique, pour retracer son parcours et l’histoire de leur relation complexe. Retrouvant une photographie d’elle à vingt ans, l’âge où elle aurait dû être « jeune et pleine de rêves », il ne voit que la violence, la pauvreté, le corps abîmé par les années passées auprès d’hommes brutaux qui l’humiliaient. « De voir cette photo m’a rappelé que ces vingt années de vie détruites n’étaient pas quelque chose de naturel, mais qu’elles avaient eu lieu par l’action de forces extérieures à elle – la société, la masculinité, mon père – et que les choses auraient donc pu être autrement », écrit Edouard Louis. Alternant la troisième et la deuxième personne du singulier, il suit la courageuse émancipation de sa mère après que lui-même a quitté la maison pour suivre des études. Ce faisant, avec le mélange d’impudeur, de violence et de colère qui caractérise son écriture, il manie la littérature comme une arme, tournant volontairement le dos aux canons bourgeois : « On m’a dit que la littérature ne devait jamais ressembler à un manifeste politique et déjà j’aiguise chacune de mes phrases comme on aiguiserait la lame d’un couteau. »

La formule, ce n’est sûrement pas un hasard, fait écho au livre d’entretiens entre Annie Ernaux et l’écrivain Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, L’écriture comme un couteau. « J’importe dans la littérature quelque chose de dur, de lourd, de violent même, lié aux conditions de vie, à la langue du monde qui a été complètement le mien jusqu’à dix-huit ans, un monde ouvrier et paysan », confie-t-elle. « Toujours quelque chose de réel. J’ai l’impression que l’écriture est ce que je peux faire de mieux, dans mon cas, dans ma situation de transfuge, comme acte politique et comme don. » La parution aux Etats-Unis de Ce qu’ils disent ou rien, son deuxième roman, publié en France en 1977, est d’autant plus intéressante qu’elle permet de mesurer le chemin parcouru. Sous le masque de la fiction, elle suit les métamorphoses d’Anne, une lycéenne qui vit ses premières expériences sexuelles et rêve de « changer la vie ». Par l’observation des gestes, des manières de table, par la restitution d’une langue populaire qui révulse peu à peu l’adolescente, Annie Ernaux fait ressentir le fossé qui se creuse entre Anne et ses parents. Si la langue est moins sèche et tranchante que dans ses livres suivants, on retrouve les thèmes de l’œuvre à venir : la peur de tomber enceinte dans une France d’avant la légalisation de l’avortement, la violence de classe et tous les rapports de domination, la relation contradictoire avec la mère.

« On ne peut plus écrire de la même façon après Annie Ernaux », disait Edouard Louis à l’occasion de la récente parution en France du Jeune homme, récit lucide de la liaison entretenue par l’écrivaine avec un étudiant de 24 ans, alors qu’elle en avait 54. En écrivant sur leurs origines et sur la violence que constitue le passage d’un monde à l’autre, Annie Ernaux et Edouard Louis ont osé écrire contre la littérature dominante pour faire apparaître d’autres vies et d’autres corps qui en étaient jusque-là exclus.
Article published in the October 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.


Sophie Joubert is a journalist for the Culture department of French daily L’Humanité, where she mainly writes about fiction and essays. She also works as a consultant for the Hors-Limites literary festival, supported by the Association Bibliothèques en Seine-Saint-Denis library group. She regularly hosts literary shows and interviews, and lives in Paris.

Summer/Eté 2022 - French Idioms

Carabistouilles, galimatias et autres macroneries

Bien que pratiquant un français châtié, le président Emmanuel Macron se laisse parfois aller à quelques fantaisies sémantiques.

Par Dominique Mataillet - Magazine France-Amérique

« Les non-vaccinés ? J’ai très envie de les emmerder. » Cette petite phrase prononcée par Emmanuel Macron en janvier 2022 n’a pas plu à tout le monde. Tant s’en faut. Sur la forme comme sur le fond, la diatribe a heurté beaucoup de Français. Ce n’était pas la première fois que le président tenait de tels propos « cash ». En déplacement en Corrèze en octobre 2017, chahuté par des salariés d’un équipementier automobile, il avait fustigé ceux qui « foutent le bordel ». L’année suivante, en juin 2018, il évoquait le « pognon de dingue » englouti, selon lui, dans le financement des minimas sociaux.

Le vingt-cinquième président français – le premier ayant été Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, élu en décembre 1848 – est trop cultivé et trop raffiné pour se laisser aller spontanément à de tels écarts langagiers. Si dérapages il y a, ils sont contrôlés. Pour se départir d’une image élitiste, Emmanuel Macron opte de temps à autre pour un langage moins aseptisé que celui de ses interventions officielles. On l’a entendu parler de « restau », de « ciné » et utiliser l’expression « prendre un canon au bar ». Parmi les autres sorties ayant marqué les esprits, les journalistes ont retenu « je vous fiche mon billet », « il ne faut pas raconter des craques » et « ça, c’est de la pipe ».

Quand il le faut, Emmanuel Macron n’hésite pas non plus à rechercher des mots rares. Comme « ipséité », pour désigner l’identité française, lors d’un entretien à France Culture en mars 2017, ou ce « rémanence », synonyme de persistance d’un phénomène après disparition de sa cause, relevé dans son discours à la communauté française de New York en septembre 2017. La même année, il a fait appel à la locution adverbiale in petto, empruntée à l’italien et signifiant « dans le for intérieur

Dans d’autres cas, on ne sait pas si le président a choisi à dessein un mot qui sort de l’ordinaire. Par exemple quand il dit, à Francfort en octobre 2017 : « Ne faisons pas croire que l’Etat est totipotent. » A-t-il volontairement emprunté ce terme au lexique de la biologie, où il désigne la capacité d’une cellule à se différencier en n’importe quelle cellule ? Ne voulait-il pas dire plutôt « omnipotent » ? De même, qu’entend exactement le président lorsqu’il confie, en avril 2022, que ses succès économiques ne « percolent » pas dans l’esprit des Français ?

Il arrive que le successeur de François Hollande agrémente son discours de termes tombés en désuétude. Personne n’a oublié la « poudre de perlimpinpin » et le « galimatias » lancés à la face de Marine Le Pen en mai 2017. On l’a entendu par la suite, en octobre 2017, lâcher un inattendu « croquignolesque », adjectif formé à partir de Croquignol, personnage des Pieds nickelés, la bande dessinée créée par Louis Forton au début du XXe siècle. Rebelote en avril 2022, lorsque, en campagne électorale à Mulhouse, il dénonce les « carabistouilles » de Marine Le Pen sur l’Europe.

Lors du second débat d’Emmanuel Macron avec la même Marine Le Pen, le 20 avril 2022, quelques formulations de cet acabit ont marqué l’intervention du président en titre. Ainsi a-t-il utilisé le verbe « ripoliner », tiré de Ripolin, une marque de peinture laquée très résistante, avec le sens de dissimuler sous une apparence brillante une réalité peu reluisante. A son adversaire du jour, il a reproché son « outrecuidance », c’est-à-dire la confiance excessive en soi et, par extension, une parole désinvolte qui traduit cette attitude. « Je pourrais faire une liste par prétérition », a-t-il aussi déclaré, tirant de l’oubli une figure de style qui consiste à dire qu’on ne va pas parler d’une chose dont on est précisément en train de parler.

Au cours de ce même débat entre les deux prétendants à la magistrature suprême, un mot étranger a surgi dans la bouche d’Emmanuel Macron : finito. Il signifie « fini » en italien et on l’utilise dans l’univers juridico-financier pour exprimer l’arrêté ou l’état final d’un compte. Dans le parler courant, on l’emploie pour conclure un propos.

On ne saurait passer sous silence les formules qui, au fil des années, ont façonné l’image d’Emmanuel Macron. A commencer par le désormais fameux « en même temps », qui, à force d’être répété, s’apparente autant à un tic de langage qu’à une profession de foi. Crise sanitaire oblige, « quoi qu’il en coûte » est devenu en mars 2020 un nouveau mantra macronien. Puis, avec la guerre en Ukraine et ses implications sur le coût de la vie, est apparue la notion de « bouclier tarifaire ».

Au-delà de ces fantaisies sémantiques, une chose est sûre : Emmanuel Macron est, de tous les présidents de la Ve République, celui qui, avec le normalien et agrégé de lettres Georges Pompidou, a le vocabulaire le plus riche. Ce n’est pas nous qui l’avançons, mais des sémiologues, qui, passant au crible de l’intelligence artificielle les discours des uns et des autres, l’ont établi.


Ancien journaliste à Jeune Afrique et chroniqueur pour La Revue, Dominique Mataillet explore pour France-Amérique les ressorts de la langue française qu'il maîtrise à la perfection. Il s'intéresse aussi aux histoires cachées de France. Quand il n'est pas dans l'avion pour l'Afrique, bien sûr !

Article publié dans le numéro de juillet 2022 de France-AmériqueS’abonner au magazine.

Balderdash, Twaddle, and Other Macronisms

Despite speaking a very refined French, President Emmanuel Macron allows himself the occasional semantic indulgence.

Par Dominique Mataillet - Magazine France-Amérique

“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off.” This sentence, spoken by Emmanuel Macron in January 2022, was not to everyone’s liking. Far from it. In fact, many French people were offended by both the content and style of the diatribe. However, this was not the first time that the French president had made such a blunt declaration. After being heckled by workers at an automobile plant while visiting the Corrèze département in 2017, he criticized those who were “making a goddamn mess.” The following year, in June 2018, he claimed that “crazy amounts of cash” were being swallowed up by government-guaranteed minimum welfare payments.

The 25th French president – the first being Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, elected in December 1848 – is too cultured and sophisticated to spontaneously make such departures from the linguistic norm. If any are made, they are carefully controlled. In an effort to rid himself of his elitist image, Emmanuel Macron sometimes draws on more colorful language than that used in official speeches. He has talked about “having a bite to eat,” “catching a movie,” and even “grabbing a drink at the bar.” Other unusual soundbites that have caught the media’s attention include “You can bet your bottom dollar,” “Don’t talk nonsense,” and “That’s a bunch of baloney.”

When necessary, Emmanuel Macron is also quick to use rare words. Examples include ipséité (“ipseity” or “selfhood”), which he used to describe French identity during an interview with France Culture radio in March 2017, and rémanence (“remanence”), referring to the persistence of a phenomenon after its cause has disappeared, in a speech to the French community in New York in September 2017. The same year, he chose the adverbial phrase in petto, taken from Italian, meaning “in one’s heart of hearts.”

In other cases, it is hard to know if the president deliberately chose an unusual word. For example, when he said “We should not claim that the state is totipotent” in a speech in Frankfurt in October 2017, did he purposefully use this biological term describing the ability of a cell to differentiate into any other cell type? Or did he mean to say “omnipotent”? In the same vein, what did he mean when he confessed that his economic successes were not “percolating” in the minds of the French public?

Sometimes, François Hollande’s successor peppers his speech with expressions that have long been forgotten. Everyone remembers his use of poudre de perlimpinpin (“pixie dust”) and galimatias (“twaddle”), both enunciated during a debate with Marine Le Pen in May 2017. He was then heard, in October 2017, saying the rather unexpected term croquignolesque (“loopy”), an adjective inspired by Croquignol, a character in the Les Pieds nickelés comic-book series created by Louis Forton in the early 20th century. Macronisms struck again in April 2022, when he lambasted Marine Le Pen’s plans for Europe as carabistouilles (“balderdash”) while campaigning in Mulhouse.

During the second debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on April 20, 2022, several similar words punctuated the incumbent’s speech. He used the verb ripoliner, taken from Ripolin, a brand of highly resistant lacquer, using it to mean “hiding a rather unpleasant reality beneath a glossy surface.” He also attacked his opponent for her outrecuidance, meaning excessive self-confidence and, by extension, a nonchalant manner of speaking that reflects this attitude. “I could make a list using paralipsis” was another statement made by the president, reviving an old stylistic device which consists of saying that you will not talk about something in order to bring it into the conversation.

During this debate between the two claimants to the highest power in the land, a foreign word slipped into Emmanuel Macron’s vocabulary: finito. This means “finished” in Italian, and is used in French in the legal and financial fields to describe the final statement of an account. In common parlance, it is used to conclude a statement.

There are many linguistic mannerisms that have helped create Emmanuel Macron’s image over the years. One of them is the now famous en même temps (“that being said”), which has been repeated so much that it has become as much a verbal tic as a party line. In the context of the public health crisis, quoi qu’il en coûte (“whatever the cost”) became another Macronian mantra in March 2020. More recently, the war in Ukraine and its consequences on the cost of living have inspired the arrival of the term bouclier tarifaire (“pricing shield,” meaning a price cap).

All fanciful semantics aside, one thing is certain: Among all the presidents of the Fifth Republic, Emmanuel Macron has the most extensive vocabulary – equaled only by the Ecole Normale Supérieure graduate and literary specialist Georges Pompidou. And don’t take it from us; semiologists using AI technology to analyze presidential speeches through the ages have come to the same conclusion.


Dominique Mataillet is a former journalist at Jeune Afrique and columnist for La Revue. For France-Amérique, he explores the ins and outs of the French language – which he masters like none other. He is also fascinated by the little-known stories of France, when he isn’t flying to Africa, of course!
Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.