The End of Francophonie: The Politics of French Literature

I. We were a couple of minutes late for the panel we’d hoped to attend. The doors were closed and there was a surly-looking man standing guard next to a sign that read ‘Complet’ – ‘Full’. No more room. A stubby line of six or so people had formed behind him.


‘Vous êtes là pour “Je est un autre”?’ we asked.


‘Yes,’ the guard replied. ‘Is it really full?’


‘Yes,’ he said.


‘And for members of the press?’ I brandished my pass, appealing to the guard’s sense of professionalism and media savvy.


‘C’est complet.’


My friend Elisabeth and I had travelled from Paris to Brittany to check out the Etonnants Voyageurs (Astonishing Travellers) literary festival in Saint Malo, created by Michel Le Bris in 1990. Every year, around sixty writers converge there to celebrate… well, what exactly we’re not sure, but it’s got something to do with travel literature, francophone literature, and Russians. In 2009, when I was researching a piece on the French literary milieu, all anyone could talk about was this festival and the movement associated with it: littérature-monde.   ‘French literature is opening outward,’ I was told. ‘Just look at the success of the Etonnants Voyageurs festival.’ This was all the encouragement I needed to book a spot on the TGV to the 2010 edition, which was dedicated to Russian literature, Haitian literature, and the theme of the organisers’ new book, Je est un autre – I is Other. Of all the literary festivals in France – and there are hundreds – this one is the most political, and the most controversial. This is in part because Le Bris and Jean Rouaud were the major voices behind a 2007 manifesto, ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’ (Towards a World Literature in French), which ran in Le Monde and was followed by an anthology of the same title.   Signed by forty-four writers including JMG Le Clézio, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Maryse Condé, Nancy Huston, and Edouard Glissant, the manifesto’s argument was twofold: first, that French literature ought not to be divided into ‘French’ (for work produced by writers born in France) and ‘francophone’ (read: those writers with origins in France’s former colonies) but rather should be considered as one continuous world literature in French. We are witnessing the ‘end of francophonie’, they wrote, ‘and the birth of a world literature in French’. Second, they argued that French writers who since the rise of the nouveau roman and post-structuralist theory have been engaged in a ‘literature with no other object than itself’ should stop navel-gazing and put the world back in the text. Le Bris and Rouaud called for literature ‘to rub up against the world to capture its essence, its vital energies’, making the littérature-monde movement a sort of randy grandchild of Sartre’s littérature engagée.


The manifesto’s declaration of the ‘end of francophonie’ kicked up quite a fuss in Paris and beyond. No less than two special issues of academic journals were devoted to thinking through the issues it raised. Colloquiums were held in Florida, Denmark, California and New Brunswick. Other responses included a rejoinder in Le Figaro from then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (‘Francophonie is not dead!’), and an angry Le Monde article from Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal and current Secretary of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. But Le Bris and Rouaud were content with their handiwork: the following year, Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize, and when asked if he regretted signing the manifesto he replied that he would do it again.   The manifesto seeks to correct an inequality in the way the French tend to think about francophone literature, one which can be gauged with something I like to think of as the Fnac test. That is: you walk into a French bookshop – the Fnac, La Hune, your local bookseller, whatever – armed with a list of writers: Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Nancy Huston, Alain Mabanckou, Marie N’Diaye, Dany Laferrière. Pre-2007, you would find Beckett, Camus, and Huston in the ‘littérature française’ section, and Mabanckou, N’Diaye, and Laferrière in the ‘littérature francophone’ section. They all write in French. Camus was born in North Africa, but is considered French, not francophone. Beckett was born in Ireland, Huston in Canada; English is their native language. Both appear in ‘French literature’ because at a certain moment in their lives they began to write in French. If a writer is white then he can produce ‘French literature’. If not – he’s ‘francophone’.   As far as I know, the Fnac has no official policy about where particular writers should be shelved. But the Fnac test does illustrate an inequality between French and francophone writing that has endured for quite some time, and which the manifesto seeks to address. That such a division should exist seems absurd: you don’t hear about English versus anglophone writing. Very often writers from outside the Anglo-American metropolis will be referred to as ‘post-colonial’ but that term – unstable though it may be – is not used as a hierarchical distinction. No one would argue that Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie should be placed on different shelves, or that one should be considered English and the other anglophone.   The littérature-monde movement works against classifications in general, emphasising the common responsibilities of a shared language. Mabanckou and his colleagues say they have made French their own; it is no longer the language of the coloniser. Littérature-monde, according to the manifesto, is a way for ‘the French language to become untied from this exclusive pact with the [French] nation’ and to become an international poetic language.   This idea has its roots in Goethe’s Weltliteratur. In an undated essay, Goethe casts world literature as something to work towards, rather than an already existent entity: ‘The phenomenon which I call Weltliteratur will come about mainly when the disputes within one nation are settled by the opinions and judgements of others’. Goethe had in mind a cosmopolitan community of readers and writers; he envisioned ‘a common Weltliteratur transcending national boundaries’. Appealing to Goethe would indicate a strong – if unarticulated – desire to heal the politically fragmented francophone world through the salve of the French language. This is essentially the position of Léopold Senghor, who similarly believed in the power of francophonie to ‘promote a universal humanist model of cooperation between nation-states that was to be realised through the shared medium of the French language.’


Le Bris and Rouaud chose the oft-cited Rimbaldian phrase ‘Je est un autre’ for the title of their follow-up to the 2007 volume, an anthology published by Gallimard in May 2010 which argues for the empathetic, world-enlarging power of literature. Any novel worth its salt, they claim, enables a ‘passage à l’Autre’, or ‘access to the Other’; writers must learn to live at a ‘crossroads of identity’ and negotiate the pressure put on them to articulate an ‘identité-monde’: a ‘personal narrative orchestrating this identity’. Je est un autre emphasises the give and take between writer and world, acknowledging the contrasting influences which combine to create a writer’s identity.   Le Bris articulates what he sees as the genius of Rimbaud’s statement in terms of travel and exploration: ‘[The phrase] ‘je est un autre’ opens the very space of liter-ature – the space, and the mystery, which writers obstinately explore.’ Writers set out into ‘unknown territory’, like ‘explorers in a dark forest’; sentences come and go, and guide him, or ‘throw [him] off the track’; but when he thinks he is on to something he experiences the ‘frisson’ of a ‘traveller … with the world crossing through him like a light wind.’   When the festival was founded in 1990, it was to celebrate travel writing. Le Bris told Lire magazine in 1999: ‘As a writer, I was suffocating in the French literary milieu, and I needed space to breathe.’ He founded Etonnants Voyageurs in the spirit of letting ‘the four winds of the world’ into French literature. Around that time, Le Bris also founded a magazine of travel writing called Gulliver, largely inspired by Bill Buford’s Granta – which he credits with reinvigorating contemporary English literature. Gulliver gave birth, in 1992, to a manifesto of its own, called Pour une litterature voyageuse (Towards a Travelling Literature), the terms of which are remarkably similar, and in some cases identical, to those of the 2007 manifesto. Taking aim even then at the nouveau roman and post-structuralist theory, Le Bris wrote, ‘the idea is less to be on the avant-garde and more to be resolutely elsewhere: outside.’   The problem with travel writing, of course, is that it very often confirms an imperialistic relationship between the writer and the lands he visits, implicating the reader in that position. As the critic Charlie Sugnet has written, travel writing too often means a rational, detached, slightly disillusioned writer making a foray out from the centre (usually London or Oxbridge) to the peripheries (Uganda, Benin, Vietnam, Borneo) where he (and it’s almost always a he) sees that, as usual, the peripheries are uncivilised, and the people of colour who live there are making a botch of running the place.


Writing about other places and other peoples has proved problematic for ethnographers, anthropologists, journalists, and travel writers (not to mention fiction writers) alike; it is a problem which different disciplines have solved for themselves in different and evolving ways. Perhaps due to a growing awareness of this problem, over the years the festival has become less about travel writing qua travel writing and more about the conjunction of cultures: Etonnants Voyageurs favours foreign writers who write about where they’re from, or writers with a sense of hybrid identity, or writers who evoke a strong sense of place in their work. (At most of the panels I attended, it was rare to find a writer who spoke only one language, and frequently they wrote in more than one language.) World literature is now the festival’s watchword.   But even if the festival is trying to get beyond the exoticising, Othering tendency of traditional travel writing by inviting writers from those far-off places to speak for themselves, they don’t completely avoid typecasting them as cultural emissaries. This may not be the fault of the organisers, but may have to do with the way the French experience and consume culture. The founders’ ambition is encyclopaedic. Their zeal for the hybrid and the international is laudable in theory, though in execution it sometimes verges on the absurd. (Russia! Haiti! Je est un autre!) But a festival is not only about the political statements its founders and participants may want to make. It is also about what the audience has come to hear.

II. If they can even get in to hear it. Being barred from the ‘Je est un autre’ panel was the first sign that attending the festival was not going to be as easy as getting on a TGV. People started queuing up for panels half an hour ahead of time to go and sit through ninety minutes of book talk in the swelteringly hot seminar rooms. There were a tonne of people milling around, almost none of them under 40. The press attaché told me that something like 60,000 people turned up, coming from all across France, some from as far away as Bordeaux and Toulon. This confirms my burgeoning theory about the performative role culture plays in France – the French will-to-culture that heavily subsidises booksellers even as the actual reading rate decreases. (The will is not always on the side of the masses, but is often imposed on them by the Ministry of Culture, bless its heart.) To the average Frenchman, it is not only important to consume culture but to be seen consuming it. This will-to-culture takes on a particularly moralising component when it comes to other cultures – especially those formerly colonised by France.


When we finally did manage to get into a panel – ‘Géographies africaines’ – a lively discussion broke out when the interviewer asked the panellists if they write in order to work against clichés about Africa. Moussa Konaté, a Malian playwright, answered, ‘When I moved to France I realised that the French don’t know anything about African history, or they aren’t told anything about it; they think Africa is all giraffes. We write to say that Africa has a history. It is not all giraffes.’   Florent Couao-Zotti, an author of comic books as well as a recently published detective novel, disagreed: ‘I don’t think literature is there to work against clichés,’ he replied. ‘My task is to show reality as I see it.’   Alain Mabanckou, who won the Prix Renaudot in 2006 for his novel Mémoires de Porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), was the most laid-back of the panellists, jaunty in his leather newsboy cap and denim jacket. ‘You have to remember that African literature was born precisely at the moment when Africans decided to refuse the clichés that had been drawn of them,’ he explained. He recalled the kinds of clichés of Frenchmen he heard growing up in Congo – beret, baguette, handlebar moustache – and the audience roared. ‘Literature is made to go against all that.’   ‘But what sells,’ Konaté pointed out, ‘are clichés – and the risk is that African writers will fall into the trap of giving editors what they want: misery and clichés.’   ‘But what constitutes an African writer?’ the interviewer asked the panel. Someone mentioned the Haitian/Canadian writer Dany Laferrière’s novel I am a Japanese Writer, which asks, provocatively:


What is a Japanese writer? Is it someone who lives and writes in Japan? Or someone born in Japan who writes in spite of it? (…) Or someone who isn’t born in Japan, who doesn’t know the language, but decides one day to become a Japanese writer? That’s how it is for me.


Laferrière’s novel is a comedy, and his protagonist doesn’t get very far as a Japanese writer. But as the novel points out, the relationship between a writer and his nationality can be utterly arbitrary. Of course, in most cases the relationship is far from meaningless, as Laferrière is no doubt aware; if he is being provocative, it is to call into question a literary system in which a writer’s work is immediately classified according to where a writer was born. In the post-colonial French context, where a writer is born may or may not form the basis of his classification. Konaté says, ‘We call what is written by blacks living in France “African literature” even though all the blacks living in France are not all African. When a black American writes, we don’t say it is African literature of America. We say it is American literature. Why in France do we not call it French literature if it’s written by those with non-white origins? The day has to come when France recognises this kind of writing not as African literature but as French literature.’


The issue no one raised that might have clarified the difference in writerly identity between a black writer in America and one in France is that French republicanism doesn’t allow for any kind of hybrid identity. French republican values, grounded in secularism and universalism, call for the immigrant, or the child of immigrants, to be assimilated into French culture. This insistence on homogeneity means that the writer who was born to Algerian parents and raised in France is called a ‘francophone’ writer ‘of Algerian origin’. Difference sticks out, and undoes the whole picture. A black writer in America may or may not think of himself as African-American, but the category is there. In France, the idea of a hyphenated identity is unfamiliar, which is why the francophone category is at once so useful and so useless. It covers for all manner of non-French identities, but creates an alternative to Frenchness that is not coextensive with being French. One is either French or francophone, but not both. Francophone signifies ‘difference’, and that category has served the French in this way for quite some time.

III. To some French journalists, the festival smacks of self-aggrandisement and political correctness. I am reminded of this the next day, at a panel called ‘Pour une France plurielle’ (For a plural France). One panellist, the actress and screenwriter Ariane Ascaride, described her upbringing in Marseille, where almost half of the city’s 800,000 residents are of Italian origin, a quarter are North African, and 10 per cent are Jewish. ‘I was born into a mélange of cultures,’ Ascaride said, ‘and I believe that makes you more sensitive to the immigrant experience.’ She kept underscoring the fact that immigrants are welcome in Marseille; why aren’t they welcome in the rest of the country? ‘I don’t understand,’ she repeated. ‘I don’t understand.’ This refusal or inability to think through these problems is something that plagues the French Left as well as the Right. As Konaté had pointed out the day before: ‘France is still a victim of her colonial past. People think the colonised are the victims, but the colonisers are as well, somehow. We all suffer from it, from having been colonised, and from having colonised.’   This results in much political posturing about the issue, to the point where the politics seems the main issue, rather than the inequalities the politics ought to address. Le Bris and Rouaud picked up on this in Je est un autre. ‘If France is suffering from its colonial past, it is because its republican universalism finds it impossible to [deal with the consequences],’ they write. ‘At a moment when we should be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the African independences,’ Le Bris writes, ‘we find a debate around “French identity”, which is endlessly self-referential and comes out of a politics of exclusion.’ He is referring to the debate about French identity that Nicolas Sarkozy launched in November 2009, asking Eric Besson, the Minister of Immigration (a ministry created by Sarkozy in 2007) to head it up. ‘We must reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French,’ Besson declared. Town hall meetings were held across the country to discuss what it meant to be French and a website was established where people could leave their comments. The site soon devolved into a racist free-for-all: a fifth of the entries had to be deleted.


Sarkozy cast the debate in terms that made him appear sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant in France. ‘Am I making up the “ghettoisation” of certain city districts, the rise of a form of racism in others, violence in yet others, the absence of diversity in French elites?’ the Independent quotes him as asking, coyly refusing to acknowledge the role his statements and policies have played in encouraging this kind of racism.   The response to the initiative was derisory; Sarkozy was accused of taking advantage of the tense racial situation in France to win the municipal elections held in March last year. Although in a November 2009 TNS Sofres poll 60 per cent of respondents had said they would be interested in such a debate, while 80 per cent said they felt French identity was ‘weakening’, a January poll showed that 49 per cent of respondents considered the debate to be essentially focused on Islam, and was largely ignoring issues of French values, culture or patrimony. By early February 2010 Eric Besson announced the debate was at an end, and that new patriotic rules would be implemented: schools must fly French flags (most already do); the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man must be displayed in every classroom; students will be given ‘Young Citizen’s Logs’ in which to record their civic activities.   The very fact that such a debate was initiated was a first for the French, who do not keep statistics on immigrants’ ethnic background or country of origin, as to mark out a citizen as something other than French, or something in addition to French, would be to violate the republican value that a citizen be seen as French and nothing more. The topic of national (or ethnic) identity is so taboo that only extreme right-wing politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen would touch it in the past.   The Left was reticent to get involved in a debate on national identity on Sarkozy’s terms, and in October 2010 when the National Assembly voted to ban the burqa, the Socialists abstained from voting, thus tacitly allowing the ban, which went into effect last April, to go into effect. ‘Why did the Left stay practically mute in this debate about national identity?’ Le Bris asks in Je est un autre. ‘The truth hurts: the Left abstained from the debate because its republican model is in crisis, may be at the end of its days, or at least has no longer any grip on reality, but, prisoner of its own mythology, refuses to own up to it.’   What is becoming clear, Le Bris points out, is that French republicanism can be used as a means of discriminating against the not-French. Statistics, he asserts, citing a recent study called Appel pour une Republique multiculturelle et postraciale, are the ‘“only tool which would allow us to measure the efficacy of public and private policy” … Today it is the principle of égalité which prevents us from putting into action the means to obtain a real equality.’ The face of France is changing, and judging from the recent political rise of Marine Le Pen, 15 per cent of the French – who voted for the Front National in the March 2011 local elections – would prefer it remain the same. For the FN, as for Sarkozy, the rhetoric of égalité is a tool to enforce the exclusion of the more heterogeneous elements of the population.


Le Bris and Rouaud conceive of the concept of littérature-monde as being inclusive in the way that French republicanism is inclusive, leaving unmarked the difference in the writer’s origin. If the manifesto calls for a world literature in French, they write, it is because ‘judging from all the evidence, there are multiple literatures in the French language throughout the world, forming a vast complex, the ramifications of which link together several continents.’ But it seems to me that to group all these writers together would be to ignore the different circumstances which have brought these writers to the French language. It leaves out the very important issue of perspective: the view a writer has on the world, and how it is conditioned by (because where would any conversation be without Bourdieu?) his habitus. But is it terribly Anglo-American of me to insist on a model of visible diversity? Is the ‘salad bowl’ approach to culture really more desirable than the French ethos of assimilation? Le Bris and Rouaud’s solution seems to create more problems than it solves.

IV. I’m not alone in finding the littérature-monde idea untenable: the manifesto has met with no end of criticism in France. Le Bris and Rouaud’s way of talking about the ‘new energy’ that writers from across the world will bring to the French language is reminiscent, as Kathryn Kleppinger has pointed out, of the redemptive role assigned to ‘primitive’ African art by the Modernists. It seems to assign an impossible authenticity to writers from the periphery, and as Rushdie reminds us in his essay ‘Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist’, ‘authenticity is the respectable child of old-fashioned exoticism.’ Graham Huggan has described this as the ‘post-colonial exotic’, which ‘joins post-colonial literary/cultural production to a naïvely celebratory global sensibility’ and can actually end up reifying the imperialist structures ostensibly being opposed. Huggan calls this commodification of marginality the ‘alterity industry’. One problem critics have had with the manifesto is its unclear use of the term ‘francophone’. ‘How can they announce the end of francophonie’ the Lebanese writer Alexandre Najjar asked in Le Monde, ‘when these prizes, which are supposedly such a barometer of contemporary literature, attest to the validity of francophonie?’ Replacing the term ‘francophone’ with ‘littérature-monde en français,’ Najjar wrote, quoting an old Lebanese proverb, is ‘to explain water with water’.


So then why are Le Bris, Rouaud, and the other signatories so anxious to throw out francophonie? I sat down with Le Bris on the last day of the festival to talk through some of these issues with him. A former Marxist revolutionary of the soixante-huitard variety, he has genuine intellectual street-cred because he spent eight months in prison in 1971 for directing the illegal radical left-wing newspaper La Cause du Peuple (the official organ of the Maoist group La Gauche Prolétarienne). Sartre intervened on his behalf, without success. After his release from prison, Le Bris broke with La Gauche Prolétarienne. Since his activist days, Le Bris has invested his political energy in more legal directions; he has published his own travel narratives and philosophical tracts, and founded a travel literature imprint called Voyageurs-Payot, where he has published writers like Jonathan Raban, Colin Thubron, and Peter Matthiessen (all of whom are regular guests at the festival). We met in the press room on Sunday could consider itself to be part of francophonie. France thinks of francophonie as something separate from itself. The French think they diffuse the light of their culture onto the former colonies. We’d rather imagine a space of exchange, within this world-language.’ What they aim to do, he told me, is not to throw out the term ‘francophone’ altogether (on the contrary, they continue to employ it, as do many of the contributors to the anthology), but rather to enlarge the term to include the literature previously known as ‘French’.   Alain Mabanckou made this argument in Le Monde a year before the manifesto was published:

When we talk about francophone literature, we think quite naturally of a literature made outside of France, most often by writers from the former French colonies. This definition, in its generality, has the merit of cutting short further discussion in order to assuage [French] consciences. And we could apply it to the literatures of all former colonies.


If French literature has been considered one of the ‘“great literatures” which are supposed to have established the universal model of literary creation,’ francophone literature ‘is only seen as a literature of the margins, a satellite of French literature’.   At one time, Mabanckou told me at the festival, he thought francophone literature would be integrated into French literature. But over time he began to reassess the relationship between them. It is up to French literature ‘to enter into the complex of francophone literature.’ If a text is written in French, he says, ‘it’s a francophone text.’   He elucidated his vision thus: ‘To be a francophone writer is to be a depository of cultures, a whirlpool of worlds. To be a francophone writer is to benefit from the heritage of French literature in general, but it is above all to bring a personal touch to a harmonious whole, one that dissolves borders, erases race, reduces the distance between continents in order to achieve a fraternity in both language and the universe,’ Mabanckou concluded. ‘We will no longer come from a country or a continent, but rather from a language.’ Mabanckou’s programme does not erase the difference between francophone and franco-français. But it is a step towards erasing the hierarchy which exists between them.


Until France can come to terms with difference, until France can find a new version of its republican model that allows for hybrid identities, until France can find a way to consider multiculturalism not as inherently bad or inherently good, but rather as a fact of twenty-first century geopolitical life, this hierarchy will persist. The littérature-monde movement emphasises the common responsibilities of a shared language, but only hints at the question of how these responsibilities are inflected by the particular relationship between France and its former colonies. These ‘erasures’ seem to pose a significant, unresolved (and perhaps irresolvable) problem. How much do we want to erase when we are assimilated into a culture, and how much ought to remain? These are questions that go beyond France’s borders.   While it may be true that the littérature-monde manifesto is somewhat under-cooked, at least it is trying to negotiate this problem in the context of post-colonial France. The central argument of Je est un autre brings the I and the Other together in a joint alienation – no one is familiar, not the Other and not the Self. ‘If there is a “secret” to travelling (and to literature),’ Le Bris writes, ‘if there is something at play in the fluid space of wandering, it is perhaps this: the point of reversibility between the Same and the Other, the interior and the exterior, that is so difficult for us to think through, but which we feel so violently.’



is most recently the author of No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute (Semiotext(e)/Fugitives) and the UK translator of Simone de Beauvoir's previously unpublished novel, The Inseparables (Vintage). Her previous book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Chatto/FSG) was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Her essays have appeared in Granta, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, the New York Times, and Frieze, among others. Her next book, Art Monsters, will be out in July 2023 (Chatto/FSG). She lives in London.



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