Franceâ€™s new president, Emmanuel Macron, may have written several unpublished novels inspired by everything from the Spanish conquest of Mexico to the life of a Paris pianist, but it is the literary endeavours of his newly appointed government that have come under the spotlight this week.
Nine of its members have published books, from political essays and historical biographies to pulp fiction and political crime thrillers. The culture minister heads a major publishing house, and the economy minister, rightwing Bruno Le Maire, once wrote racy romances about a lovestruck nurse â€“ under a pseudonym â€“ before graduating to literary fiction and memoirs.
However, the biggest fuss has been reserved for the political thrillers of the new rightwing prime minister, Ã‰douard Philippe â€” particularly over what his novels say about politics and women.
Philippe, who as mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre introduced a literary festival, has co-written two novels in the past decade, both satires on French politics. His most recent, Dans lâ€™Ombre (In the Shadows), was published in 2011 and co-written with Gilles Boyer, who, like Philippe, was an aide to the former centre-right prime minister Alain JuppÃ©.
Dans lâ€™Ombre is a scathing saga about ego and wrongdoing in a French presidential election campaign â€“ from a spoonfed political press, to warring politicians, ageing candidates whose age must never be mentioned, and rightwingers bored by constantly having to traipse around Charles de Gaulleâ€™s birthplace for the cameras.
The narrator is a cold and jaded political adviser known only as the Apparatchik. The bookâ€™s toxic mix of infighting and moral emptiness might hint at why Philippe jumped ship to help fulfil Macronâ€™s promise to â€œrebuildâ€ French politics in a new kind of â€œneither left nor rightâ€ centrist compromise. Nevertheless, centrists are not spared in the book. â€œNegotiating with a centrist is like trying to catch an eel in a bowl of olive oil,â€ the narrator says.
But it is the female characters who have sparked the most controversy, because of the ongoing battle against sexism that still looms over French politics. The narrator describes a senior female candidate in her â€œlegendary trouser suitsâ€ as having â€œthat imperceptible coldness of women who will never be mothersâ€. A senior press officer is referred to as â€œMarilynâ€ on account of her attractiveness. â€œEveryone was wondering who the first member of parliament would be to get the trophy,â€ the narrator says of the all-male teamâ€™s desire to sleep with the press officer.
The Apparatchik has in the past had two one-night stands with her, and though he rates her intelligence, he complains that she has small breasts. â€œI donâ€™t usually like that,â€ he adds, saying he prefers â€œrounderâ€ breasts. â€œNot imposing and shapeless, not heavy to the point of having drooped, but, rather, something with a bit of shape â€¦ A real chest is round, comfortable, welcoming, and one should be able to put oneâ€™s nose into the middle with jubilation.â€
The weekly Lâ€™Express complained under the headline â€œThe macho-erotic thoughts of Edouard Philippeâ€™s heroâ€. But the daily LibÃ©ration shot back that an author must never be confused with a fictional character â€“ particularly when it is a satirical character so clearly being held up to criticism and when no one knows which of the co-authors wrote which part.
Philippeâ€™s position on gender equality will be rated by the new governmentâ€™s action on equality, and by what changes will be introduced by MarlÃ¨ne Schiappa, the new junior minister for gender equality. The feminist group Osez le FÃ©minisme has complained that as an MP, Philippe abstained in 2014 on a vote for a sweeping gender equality law.