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Bruno Le Maire: The French minister under fire for writing a steamy novel amid pension reform crisis

An erotic passage in the politician’s new book has caused a stir on social media, with users both ridiculing his literary style and criticizing him for being out-of-touch with the everyday concerns of the people

Bruno Le Maire
Bruno Le Maire, at his home in Paris, on April 27, 2023.JOEL SAGET (AFP)

French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is the man of the hour. He’s everywhere. He was on the last page of the French newspaper Libération on Tuesday; he was on the morning program of the radio station France Info on Wednesday; and his name has been spreading like wildfire on social media. And if that wasn’t enough, if you go to the prestigious Gallimard bookstore, in the literary district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, you’ll also find Le Maire on display — he has just published his latest novel, Fugue Américaine.

To achieve this degree of omnipresence, several circumstances have had to occur. Here are a few: France is still in crisis over the pension reform plans, inflation continues to skyrocket, and the Fitch ratings agency decided last Friday to downgrade France’s credit rating to AA-. But more than anything, Le Maire is in the news because of a near-pornographic sex scene in his novel. This steamy passage has been the subject of many online jokes, ridicule, literary criticism (nearly all negative) and attacks more generally.

Le Maire, 53, has been France’s economy minister since Emmanuel Macron was first elected president in 2017. Born in Paris and a student at the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), Le Maire is no newcomer to literature — quite the contrary: Fugue Américaine is his 15th book. Le Maire has been publishing at a steady and productive pace. His favorite writers are Blaise Pascal, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Bernhard and Philip Roth. He says he’s interested in characters with duality, who are pulled in opposite directions due to the conflicting sides of their personality. Le Maire is a friend of French writer Michel Houllebecq, who took inspiration from the minister for the Bruno character in his latest novel, Annihilation. And he’s also been fond of classical music since he was a teenager.

In the interview published in Libération, the minister told French journalist Virginie Bloch-Lainé that he has always been passionate about literature and that he likes to go to read in public parks, explaining that he wears a baseball cap to avoid being recognized. But this ruse doesn’t usually work, he said.

The meteoric interest in Le Maire’s latest novel has been sparked by the racy scene between the book’s protagonist and a Cuban woman. Here is a rough translation of the main paragraph of the passage: “‘After my period, for two or three days, I get aroused like never before, I’m wet,’ she said. She pulled up her gray T-shirt to show her breasts. ‘Do you see how big they have become, Oskar, do you see?’ She took off the top completely, revealing small red dots that looked like mosquito bites in the hollow of her armpits. She turned away. She lay down on the bed. She showed me the brown nub of her anus. ‘Are you coming, Oskar?’”

Literary criticism

As soon as the scene hit the internet, the comments came rushing in, one after the other. French linguist Laélia Véron wrote on her Twitter account: “I have found the social utility of Bruno Le Maire: getting rid of the impostor complex forever if you want to break into the world of literature. Or convincing yourself that the standard is really low. It does not surprise me that Fitch has lowered our rating.”

Writer Nicolas Mathieu, winner of the 2018 Goncourt Prize for the novel And Their Children after them, took a different, perhaps more stinging approach, with his criticism. To highlight the minister’s lack of style, he rewrote the paragraph on his Instagram account, giving it much more rhythm, lyricism and depth.

Meanwhile, François Ruffin, a lawmaker for the left-wing party La France Insoumise (Unbowed France), questioned how Le Maire found the time to write a novel. “At a time when the French are worried about inflation, is it normal for him to spend a minute or an hour on writing novels with erotic content?”

Le Maire is not the only French minister who is also a writer. Marlène Schiappa — who has held various positions in Emmanuel Macron’s Cabinet and is currently Secretary of State for the Social Economy — has written a dozen books since 2017. Indeed, she has written almost double the number of Le Maire, who has published four books in the same period. Even in a country with such a strong literary culture as France, this has raised eyebrows. So much so that, according to Le Canard Enchainé, Macron himself said in 2021: “The French are going to end up thinking that [these ministers] don’t do any work and dedicate themselves to writing books.”

Le Maire, in the aforementioned radio interview on Wednesday, spent nearly all the time talking about the economy. With respect to Macron’s unpopular pension reform, which will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, the minister asked critics how the government should pay for pensions if the controversial move is not taken. Only at the end of the interview, when responding to the presenter’s question, did he mention his novel. He said that he was upset that he was only ever asked about the erotic scene — “read the entire book” — he said, warning: “nobody is going to censor me.”

Days before, Le Maire said that while some people enjoy going to concerts, museums or hiking in their free time, writing is what he loves to do “on weekends and vacations.”

Incidentally, French journalist Bloch-Lainé — who is also a literary critic — described Fugue Américaine as a “very good novel” in her article in Libération.

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