New literary star Marie Ndiaye takes on France's old guard

Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt for tackling immigration in her novel "Trois femmes puissantes." She refuses to retract her equally bold criticism of Sarkozy's France.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
French author Marie Ndiaye (center) speaks to the media in front the Drouant restaurant in Paris November 2 after she received the literary Goncourt Prize for her novel "Trois femmes puissantes" ("Three Powerful Women").

France's old guard wants Marie Ndiaye to know her place. But France's new literary star isn't playing that game.

Ms. Ndiaye last week won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for her novel "Trois femmes puissantes" ("Three Powerful Women"), which ends with an African woman who dies trying to reach the shores of Europe. It is a story understood well in the French banlieue, and a subject of mixed remorse and indifference on the continent. Ndayie is the first black woman – she is of Senegalese-French heritage – to win the award.

Now Paris is embroiled in a small November storm over comments the writer made this past August about France under President Sarkozy. In an interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles she described "the climate of heavy policing and surveillance [under Sarkozy] hateful.... I find this vision of France hideous." She made the comments from Berlin, where she moved in 2007 after Sarkozy was elected, calling it a freer city.

When the statements were industriously unveiled by the French media, a leading French member of President Sarkozy's party, Éric Raoult, fired off a letter to French cultural minister Frédéric Mitterand, stating that Ndiaye should be censured and asked to recant. He gave interviews with a similar message to that of his letter:

"It seems to me that the right to express one's self cannot be turned into the right to insult or settle one's own personal scores.... A well-known person who defends France's literary accomplishments must show some degree of respect toward our institutions."

Ndiaye, before she heard of Raoult's attack, had softened her views, saying she doesn't relish speaking so emphatically. But then Thursday, hearing Raoult's views, she stated that she said nothing this past summer that she regrets. "I don't see what has changed since August that would warrant that I retract my comments," she told France Inter radio.

A flurry of criticism and front-page stories have ensued. Few leading intellectuals or pundits have defended Raoult's notion that an award-winning writer who takes on the problems of migrants and treatment of minorities – should suddenly become demur and reprobate when airing their political views in a country of free speech.

The nets have buzzed in a somewhat expected fashion, with postings on artistic freedom, French identity, and a view that French should speak freely irrespective of whether they are or are not artists or writers, public or private, minority or not.

(Mr. Mitterand – reportedly wearied from a year in which he came under public scrutiny for a largely unnoticed admission in his 2005 autobiography that he traveled to Bangkok for sex with young males, and for a popular uprising against his offhanded defense of Roman Polanski, and who this summer defended some incendiary rap lyrics – has said he does not want to "arbitrate" such a dispute. That caused another round of criticism – why should the minister of culture not get involved? Isn't Ndiaye an artist?)

In fact, Ndiaye's comment is not so different from the rhetoric of many left and Socialists one meets any day on the street or banlieue or café. French often speak extravagantly. The unexplored "issue" in her case, say her friends, is an often unconscious attitude on both the right and the left among French elites, that when one "makes it" in France – and far more so as a minority – one should be properly respectful. Or, as Raoult stated, one has a "duty of reserve."

This is what Ndiaye did not do as a novelist, or later as an award winner – when she was asked to know her place. Last week France embarked on a national four-month discussion of its identity, sponsored largely by the ruling UMP party. Perhaps the debate has begun.

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