Tuesday, September 9, 1997

Society writer inspires the French Left

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet describes how Paris has fallen at the feet of a 72-year-old lady bountiful.

A seventy two year-old lady novelist whose couture suits, pearl earrings and shoulder brooches have become ubiquitous on the coolest French television talk shows (such as Canal Plus's Nulle Part Ailleurs) has become the unlikely heroine of the French left. She presides at grand lunches given by French industry for George Soros; and even -- in effigy -- at the front of workers' marches, with banners quoting from her book.

The success of Viviane Forrester's slim essay L'Horreur Economique, which has been on the L'Express bestseller list for one year, selling 350,000 copies since the summer of 1996, must be seen against the background of rising unemployment and political impasse. In the past 15 years every political party has been in power save the National Front; each promising to reduce unemployment, each failing and being voted out in what has been called the "windshield-wiper voting pattern."

L'Horreur Economique is being translated into 17 languages; and there is talk of a Gaumont-backed documentary directed by Marcel Ophuls. Meanwhile Forrester tours the country lecturing. She promises a sequel "to answer the people who have written to me" -- 500 in the first month of publication alone.

Many believe Forrester's ideas played a part in the Socialist party's surprise victory in May's general election. One of the slogans shouted by the striking Belgian Renault workers, recently protesting against the closure of the Vilvoorde plant, was Non à l'horreur économique.

Her thesis is simple to the point of crass. There is, she writes, a conspiracy by "those who control economic power" to "hide from the workers the truth that they are no longer needed by the capitalist economy." These new elders of Mammon regard unemployment as desirable: companies which close down plants see a rise in their share price. Politicians and civil servants collude in producing trumped-up statistics and trompe-l'oeil policies designed to provide fallacious hopes for the jobless. Countries such as Britain and the US, where unemployment has fallen, have achieved this by slashing welfare protection and creating jobs that "import third world conditions into first world countries."

"I do not belong to the power elite, to the establishment," says Forrester, commenting on her unexpected popularity. "I can say unfashionable things. I can speak for the downtrodden." This is disingenuous, to say the least. Forrester is a book reviewer for Le Monde and a member of the Prix Femina jury, which makes her a serious force in the Paris nomenklatura. (When André Brincourt, chief reviewer for Le Figaro, did not like one of her recent novels, he devoted a third of a page, complete with flattering picture of the author, to explain how he felt unable to understand her.) She has published a dozen novels and biographies of Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. A scion of the Louis-Dreyfus banking family, she wrote an acclaimed memoir of her war years, describing how she and her parents hid from the Nazis. In literary Paris, you mess with such a woman at your peril.

"We are now discovering that there is something worse than being exploited: it is to be deemed unexploitable. In the 19th century, proletarians were expected to stay in their place. Today, they are told that they have no place at all," she says. Her sincerity is not in question. But it is considered unsophisticated in Paris to ask what exactly are Forrester's credentials as a political economist. (Answer, given cheerfully by the author herself: none - although she lists 146 books in her bibliography, ranging from Hannah Arendt to Norbert Wiener.) One of her critics is Alain Minc, the author and Le Monde chairman - a nomenklatura heavyweight himself. "Your book is a talented opinion poll," he recently told her. "It is a publishing success because it plays on people's fears. But it would have sold far fewer copies if it had been signed by [Communist party leader] Robert Hue." Minc argues that the prosperous French workers and their unions have refused to trade some of their benefits for wider employment. "Since 1973, average purchasing power has risen by 40 per cent in real terms in France. If we had accepted a rise of only 35 per cent, there would be 1m more jobs."

Minc's language is very far from Forrester's emotional prose. In beautiful, stream-of-consciousness French, she describes the homeless sleeping in the streets of Paris near luxury shops; compares young French Algerians in their banlieues to Emma Bovary dreaming of the good life; berates the economics Nobel prize winner Gary Becker for suggesting that European governments lower their dole payments to push the unemployed back to work. It is easy and repetitious ("there are fewer jobs" appears, among others, on pages 10, 13, 38, 42, 63, 74, 86, 136) and sterile. "It's not my job to offer solutions," Forrester says.

Forrester believes that "cosmopolitan foreign thought has taken over our familiar world, destroying it"; and repeats variations of this theme throughout her book. For some reason, nobody in France has yet pointed out to the former Viviane Louis-Dreyfus that exactly the same terms are now used by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and were at the core of Vichy ideology. The myth of a defenceless France besmirched by a coven of evil financiers is regrettably familiar in French history.

© Copyright Prospect & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1997

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