When asked who was France’s greatest writer, André Gide — no slouch himself, of course — replied: “Hugo, alas.”
As France heads into the first round of the presidential elections, President Nicolas Sarkozy shares Gide’s ambivalence. Suddenly, Victor Hugo has become his principal opponent. Whether it is the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, or the candidate of the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, citing from or identifying with this hulking literary figure — the 19th century’s greatest poet, novelist and bard of the Revolution — has become de rigueur.
To add that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the riotous work that channeled Hugo’s republican and revolutionary sentiments, “Les Misérables,” is, well, the sort of coincidence that would hardly faze the man who contrived to have his hero, Jean Valjean, following his epic trek through the muck and mire of the sewers of Paris, emerge and bump up into the man who had been hunting him for nearly two decades, Inspector Javert.
Long before his death in 1885, Hugo had become France’s four-letter word for revolutionary purity. This reputation was set in motion by Hugo’s ferocious opposition to Napoleon III, who had overthrown France’s Second Republic in 1851 and revived his uncle’s empire and dictatorship. From various places of exile — Brussels, London, the Channel Islands — Hugo vilified France’s ruler as “Napoleon le Petit” — to distinguish him from “Napoleon le Grand” — in prose and poetry. (Sarkozy, in turn, has frequently been described as “Sarko le Petit.”)
These early salvoes were little more than rehearsals for “Les Misérables.” Begun more than 20 years earlier, and titled “Misères,” Hugo’s novel became over time a palimpsest for his sharpening social and political concerns. In the wake of Napoleon’s coup, Hugo yoked the work to the fate of Revolution’s trinity of values — liberty, equality and fraternity — in his own time. Though the novel revolves — as much as anything stuffed with dozens upon dozens of often numbing digressions can revolve — around the failed workers’ revolt of 1832, Hugo’s concern was the lot of the laboring poor in 1862.
Indeed, this was the meaning of the word “misérables.” At first synonymous with poverty, the word “misère” morphed into “les misérables” — the riffraff and rabble, the superfluous and scum, all thrown up by a society in the throws of rapid industrialization and financial speculation. Through the trials of Valjean and Marius, Cosette and Gavroche, Hugo conveyed the fragility of lives and livelihoods in the face of vast economic and technological forces.
Is it surprising, then, that while the chattering class in Paris scorned the novel, the working class besieged bookstores to buy copies? That they took up subscriptions in order to afford what amounted to a month’s wage? What must they have thought of Hugo’s declaration that “revolutionary feeling is a moral feeling” and that “he who votes reigns”? Or, indeed, that the duty of those who have is to “create great new fields of public activity, possess…a hundred hands to reach out to those who are in distress” and “derive more light and well-being from the social system for the benefit of the ignorant and oppressed”?
Enter the race for the Elysée Palace. French voters have long expected their politicians, especially their presidents, to be versed in literature or history. Charles de Gaulle was steeped in French classics — Cyrano de Bergerac left an enduring mark on the young reader — and his own memoirs joined their ranks. Though François Mitterrand’s books never achieved the same renown, his literary knowledge ran deep and broad. Before becoming leader of the Socialist Party, Léon Blum was an acclaimed literary critic, while his predecessor, Jean Jaurès, wrote works of philosophy.
But not that long ago this tradition seemed endangered. If a presidential candidate is what he reads, what is he if he doesn’t read at all?
A technocrat, Hollande declared just a few years back that he never bothered with novels. Similarly, Sarkozy once insisted that the French electorate was ready for a new kind of leader: one who quoted from television shows rather than “The Princess of Clèves.” Critics might even have felt a secret twinge of relief when Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the extreme-right Front National, recited the poetry of Robert Brasillach, an important literary figure who also happened to have been executed after World War II for the crime of collaboration.
Recently, however, this cultural landscape, flat as a crêpe, has been rented by the man Le Nouvel Observateur calls the “great troublemaker,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon. With his trademark red tie and carnation, the leader of the Left Front — an alliance of Communists and disaffected Socialists — Mélenchon has barreled into third place in the national polls. In a series of political gatherings that began last month at the Bastille and climaxed last weekend on the beach at Marseilles, Mélenchon has galvanized throngs of more than 100,000 supporters, many sporting red scarves or the red Phrygian caps of the Revolution, with his revolutionary verve and republican zeal.
Mélenchon’s politics are unabashedly radical (and for many critics utterly impractical): full retirement pension at the age of 60, the nationalization of energy industries and a dramatic increase in the minimum wage. They are also fully republican: greater independence within the European Union, greater distance from Germany’s suffocating economic policies and greater freedom for the French to pursue their nation’s destiny. At the same time, he disconcertingly expresses his admiration of Fidel Castro, plays down China’s repression in Tibet, all the while insisting that while Hugo Chávez is not a political model, he is a source of inspiration.
But the other Hugo has been an even greater source of inspiration for Mélenchon. At meetings, he casts a conspiratorial smile to industrial or transportation workers and confides: “I’ve been told I’m too intellectual for you. But the people are, in fact, too cultivated for their leaders.” Donning his glasses, he then reads from “Les Misérables” about the sans-culottes of 1793: “These violent men, ragged, bellowing and wild-eyed, who with clubs and pikes poured through the ancient streets of Paris.”
What Hugo’s sans-culottes wanted was “work for all men, education for their children…liberty, equality and fraternity. In a word, they wanted progress.” While Hollande belatedly announced that “Les Misérables” is his favorite book — thus usurping his previous favorite book, “Le Petit Prince” — Mélenchon now owns the novel. With Hugo’s help, he channels in remarkable ways the anxiety of a growing number of French citizens who ask if progress is possible only by accepting the economic and monetary policies of European institutions that seem no less relentless and rigid as Inspector Javert. Or, instead, as Mélenchon insists, ask if progress is desirable only when “the people reign”?
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.