Want to be president? Write a book

How bookshelves become battlegrounds in French presidential elections

Many French presidential hopefuls boost their standing by hitting up TV hosts and conversing with constituents on their very own tour de France. Yet it seems that securing a book deal is another key to the Elysée.

Every five years, during the run-up to presidential election day in France, the neatly stacked bookshop shelves of leafy Parisian quartiers become fierce political battlegrounds. 

Whilst battle buses, bacon sandwiches and bizarre photo calls underscore British elections, eloquent ten-point plans and alluring life stories collide in France as potential heads-of-state compete to publish the most inspiring and radical reads.

A 270-page magnum opus entitled Révolution was a key element of current president Emmanuel Macron’s successful election campaign in 2017. The book enabled him to solidify his strategy for a “democratic revolution” and become the country’s first centrist leader.

Mr Macron was not the first to use his way with words to win over voters. François Hollande released four separate books over the four years before he became president in 2012. And just before the now-embattled Nicolas Sarkozy pinched the 2007 presidency, his book Ensemble (Together) was on many a bookcase.

The countdown to the 2022 présidentielle has come with its own stack of page-turners from across the political spectrum as potential candidates flex their muscles.

Socialist Arnaud Montebourg may have released L’Engagement (The Commitment) last November as a prelude to a possible candidacy, with a French-jobs-for-French-businesses approach he hopes will convince centrists to support a fragmented left.

Philippe de Villiers, who ran to represent France’s conservatives at the 1995 and 2007 presidential elections, may also be planning a comeback with his new release Le Jour d’apres (The Day After) in which he criticises the role of elites in the coronavirus pandemic.

And with Pas une goutte de sang français (Not a Drop of French Blood), former socialist prime minister Manuel Valls has attempted to build a bridge between what he saw as the “inertia” and “weakness” of the Hollande era and the “duplicity” of Mr Macron, who he says “played to our naivety.”

Other works penned by incumbent socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, green politician Yannick Jadot, Communist Party national secretary Fabien Roussel and the confirmed radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are to be released in coming months. 

But not all pre-presidential publications have hit the printing presses lightly.

Many criticised Bruno Le Maire, Mr Macron’s current finance minister, for launching L’Ange et la Bête (The Angel and The Beast), his third book written whilst in the post, amidst the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Le Maire, who attempted unsuccessfully to represent the French right in 2017, has, however, denied a possible presidential challenge in 2022.

Similarly, Mr Macron’s popular former prime minister, Edouard Philippe, who launched Impressions et lignes claires (Impressions and Clear Lines) with MEP Gilles Boyer last year, worried government MPs when he praised the president but used media coverage of the book launch to highlight his “large freedom of tone and thought.”

Launching a book enables politicians to reinvent themselves after a tumultuous ministerial appointment or a career spent hitherto in the background.

What’s more, in a fragmented French political system where successful presidential candidates must build consensus, focusing on character traits and formative experiences in Obama-style “storytelling” rhetoric gives policies a more relatable emotional dimension and assists them in transcending party boundaries.

For example, Mr Macron discussed in his treatise how he “learned to work” and mentioned the inspiration he derived from the writings of Colette and Jean Giono. In doing so, Mr Macron placed his academic and philosophical credentials at the heart of his unprecedented campaign to reshape French politics. Emphasising his tenacity and determination and mentioning how he met his wife Brigitte arguably made him appear more personable.

But not everyone can be won over by words, which must be why politicians like Mr Macron are investing so much time in social media. The president recently collaborated with YouTube influencers McFly et Carlito and gave an interview on Brut.

And as for Marine Le Pen, the far-right politician likely to face Mr Macron in the second round of the 2022 election has most recently gone paperless.

The leader of the Rassemblement national launched a book in 2006 in an attempt to begin a new chapter after the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and produced another in 2012. 

But whilst Ms Le Pen sought to publish a new work in 2016, she was unable to find a publisher. One told RTL that putting her words to bed would be “too risky for the brand.”

However, a less literary approach might actually suit Ms Le Pen better. The populist knows that rejecting elites and conventional political methods appeals to many. And, in any case, perhaps the younger Marion Maréchal, a rising star in RN, will have more luck if she launches a presidential bid.

Nevertheless, it looks like French politics will be bookended by spellbinding paperbacks for a while yet.

Photo ActuaLitté, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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