In his book The Burning House: What would you take?, Foster Huntington interviewed people across the United States, asking what they would seize if their homes were on fire. His heartbreaking series of photos reveals objects that we all think are essential – passports, money, pets, spouses – but also objects that all of us, except this individual, would think of as non-essential: the ashes of a parent or a helicopter. Lego, a fountain pen or a shell necklace.
As the world faces the fire of the new coronavirus, not only people, but entire nations draw different lines between the essential and the non-essential. On this side of the Atlantic, Americans are wondering if gun stores should be considered essential businesses, remaining open even though most other stores are closed. On the other side of the pond, however, the French are erecting (virtual) barricades on the status of another type of business – the kind that does not sell bullets but books.
On March 16, the French government published its list of “essential businesses”, or essential businesses that would remain open during the national foreclosure. As you would expect, banks and pharmacies, supermarkets and gas stations made the cut. No less predictable, bakeries (butchers) and tobacco (tobacconists) also made the list.
And yet, if cakes and Gauloises were seen as necessities, other products – or rather, the brick and mortar stores that sold them – were not. Among those absent from the official list were bookstoresor bookstores. This omission is striking for several reasons. First, dozens of French politicians, past and present, have made their mark as writers. They include prime ministers ranging from François Guizot and Adolphe Thiers to Georges Clemenceau and Léon Blum, presidents ranging from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, and even emperors ranging from Napoleon I to Napoleon III. Most of their works are forgettable and forgotten, but some, like that of Napoleon Memories of Saint Helena and de Gaulle War memories-Rank like literary classics.
Dozens of French politicians, past and present, have made their mark as writers.
Several members of the current government are also authors. Translation rights of President Emmanuel Macron somewhat autobiographical and very political Revolution have been sold to almost two dozen countries. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe wrote political thrillers, such as The Hour of Truth ((The moment of truth), and a brief entitled Men who read ((Men who read), about his relationship with his father and their common love for books. The Minister of Finance, by far, is by far the most prolific in the cabinet. In 2017, he published his eighth book, Paul: A friendship ((Paul: a friendship) – a moving account of his efforts to make sense of the death of a close friend.
But the exclusion of bookstores from the list of essential businesses in France is striking for a broader cultural reason. Bookstores have a special status in France. In his historical work, The coronation of the writer ((The sacralization of the writer), the historian Paul Bénichou has retraced the transformation of the status of the writer in France from craftsman to artist. Enveloped in this spiritual and secular power, the aura of the writer was reflected on the site where the written works were sold. Bookstores are as common in French cities as churches in American cities. In Paris alone, there are more than 700 independent stores, while New York has less than 80. My hometown of Houston has only two independent bookstores to serve a population of over three million.
In fact, a previous French government passed a law defining bookstores as essential businesses. In 1981, the newly installed socialist government of François Mitterrand adopted the “Lang law”, named after Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture; the law imposes a single price, determined by the publisher, on all books sold in France. The objective of the law was what Lang called “free market theologians” – in this case, bookstore chains like the FNAC, which when updating their stocks, bankrupt independent bookstores.
The wording of the law was simple – no book could be discounted by more than five percent – as was the reasoning behind it: the government considered the bookstores to be part of the country’s cultural heritage. In this logic, imposing a single price on books was no stranger than insisting, as France did during the 1993 trade negotiations, that cultural property be excluded from international treaties and agreements. The Lang Law marked the beginning of the Mitterrand era, and the insistence on French cultural exception came to an end. “Creations of the mind are not just goods; the elements of culture are not just business, ”said Mitterrand. “What is at stake is the cultural identity of all our nations. “
With regard to French bookstores, however, the business of the mind broke out under the pressure of the plague. Following the official decision to close all non-core businesses on March 15, the reaction of the French bookstore union (Association of French Bookstores) was immediate and furious. In a public statement, the association noted that even if the independents were forced to close their doors, business continued as usual for Amazon and FNAC. “If the sale of books in bookstores is not” essential “to the life of the nation, why is this nevertheless the case for the sale of books by Amazon and other large chains? “
When a radio reporter asked the same question a few days later to the Minister of Finance, the writer Le Maire, not the minister, replied. “Bookstores are a place of culture. I don’t see any reason why Amazon alone should claim the market and risk damaging bookstores, “he said. “You know my attachment to books and reading, and I fully understand the unease of booksellers. If bookstores could institute the same sanitary regulations as supermarkets, he added, they might be able to reopen.
Echoing Le Maire’s suggestion was none other than Bernard Pivot. The former host of Apostrophes and Culture broth, immensely popular weekly television shows that ran consecutively from 1975 to 2000, Pivot got the same cathodic authority as a literary critic that, say, Walter Cronkite had as news anchor for about the same time in the States -United. In a tweet, Implored pivot Philippe not to close the bookstores: “They are essential for the moral, intellectual and creative well-being of the country.”
Amazon France has since announced that books are no longer among the essential items it will deliver.
The booksellers, for their part, were baffled, reacting as if the commanders sheltered far behind the front lines treated them like furry, pushing them to go over. A bookstore manager tweeted that neither he nor his colleagues would risk opening during a pandemic for those who “suddenly feel the need to read Camus when Zola’s novels are not read on their shelves at home. Another bookstore employee echoed this feeling: “Enough of this *** *** bull.” Those who read already have enough books at home. Even Le Maire’s colleague, the Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, quickly rejected it. “I am not in favor of opening bookstores,” he said, suggesting that audiobooks and e-books would suffice during the lockdown.