In his book The Burning House: What Would You Take?, Foster Huntington interviewed people across the United States, asking what they would grab if their homes were ablaze. His heartbreaking series of photos reveals objects all of us would think are essential—passports, money, pets, spouses—but also objects all of us, except that individual, would think are nonessential: a parent’s ashes or a Lego helicopter, a fountain pen or a shell necklace.

As the world confronts the fire of the novel coronavirus, not just people but entire nations are drawing different lines between the essential and the nonessential. On this side of the Atlantic, Americans are up in arms over whether gun stores should qualify as essential businesses, remaining open even though most other stores are shuttered. On the other side of the pond, however, the French are mounting the (virtual) barricades over the status of a different kind of business—the sort that sells not bullets but books.  

On March 16, the French government released its list of “commerces de premières nécessité,” or essential businesses that would stay open during the national lockdown. Predictably, banks and pharmacies, supermarkets and gas stations made the cut. No less predictably, boulangeries (bakeries) and tabacs (tobacconists) also made the list.

And yet, although gâteaux and Gauloises were deemed products of the first necessity, other products—or rather, the brick and mortar stores selling them—were not. Among the absentees from the official list were the nation’s librairies, or bookstores. The omission is striking for several reasons. First, dozens of French politicians, past and present, have made their mark as writers. They include prime ministers stretching from François Guizot and Adolphe Thiers to Georges Clemenceau and Léon Blum, presidents ranging from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, and even emperors extending from Napoleon I to Napoleon III. Most of their works are forgettable and forgotten, but some—such as Napoleon’s Mémoires de Sainte-Hélène and de Gaulle’s Mémoires de guerre—rank as literary classics.

Dozens of French politicians, past and present, have made their mark as writers.

Several members of the current government are also authors. The translation rights to President Emmanuel Macron’s somewhat autobiographical and very political Révolution were sold to nearly two dozen countries. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has penned political thrillers, such as L’Heure de vérité (The Moment of Truth), and a memoir called Des hommes qui lisent (Men Who Read), about his relationship with his father and their shared love of, well, books. By far the most prolific cabinet member, however, is Bruno Le Maire, the minister of finance. In 2017, he published his eighth book, Paul: Une amitié (Paul: A Friendship)—a moving account of his effort to make sense of the death of a close friend.

But the exclusion of bookstores from the list of essential businesses in France was striking for a larger, cultural reason. Bookstores have a special standing in France. In his landmark work, Le sacre de l’écrivain (The Sacralization of the Writer), the historian Paul Bénichou traced the transformation of the writer’s status in France from artisan to artist. Wrapped with this spiritual yet secular power, the writer’s aura carried over to the site where written works were sold. Bookstores are as common in French cities as churches are in American cities. In Paris alone, there are more than 700 independent stores, whereas New York City has fewer than 80. My home city of Houston has just two independent bookstores to serve a population of more than three million.

As a matter of fact, an earlier French government passed a law defining bookstores as essential businesses. In 1981, the newly installed socialist government of François Mitterrand passed the “Lang law,” named for Jack Lang, the minister of culture; the law imposed a single price, determined by the publisher, on all books sold in France. The law’s target was what Lang called “the theologians of the free market”—in this case, bookstore chains like FNAC, which by discounting their stocks, were putting independent bookstores out of business.

The law’s wording was simple—no book could be discounted by more than five percent—as was the reasoning behind it: the government held that bookstores belonged to the nation’s cultural patrimony. By this logic, imposing a single price on books was no odder than insisting, as France did during trade talks in 1993, that cultural goods be excepted from international treaties and agreements. The Lang law marked the start of the Mitterrand era, and the insistence on l’exception française culturelle came at its end. “Creations of the spirit are not just commodities; the elements of culture are not pure business,” Mitterrand declared at the time. “What is at stake is the cultural identity of all our nations.”

When it comes to France’s bookstores, however, the business of the spirit is splintering under the pressure of the pestilence. Following the official order for all nonessential businesses to close on March 15, the reaction from the Syndicat de la librairie française (Association of French Bookstores) was immediate and irate. In a public statement, the association observed that although independents were forced to shut their doors, business continued as usual for Amazon and FNAC. “If the sale of books in bookstores is not ‘indispensable’ to the life of the nation, why is that nevertheless the case for the sale of books by Amazon and other big chains?”

When a radio interviewer posed the same question a few days later to the minister of finance, Le Maire the writer, not the minister, replied. “Bookstores are a site of culture. I see no reason why Amazon alone should claim the market and risk damaging the bookstores,” he observed. “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 reflected, they might be able to reopen.

Echoing Le Maire’s suggestion was none other than Bernard Pivot. The former host of Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture, immensely popular weekly television shows that ran consecutively from 1975 to 2000, Pivot achieved the same cathodic authority as a literary critic as, say, Walter Cronkite had as a news presenter during roughly the same period in the United States. In a tweet, Pivot implored Philippe not to keep the bookstores closed: “They are indispensable to 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 nonplussed, reacting as if commanders sheltered far behind the frontlines were treating them like poilus, prodding them to go over the top. One bookstore manager tweeted that neither he nor his colleagues would risk opening during a pandemic for those who “feel the sudden need to read Camus when the novels of Zola go unread on their shelves back home.” Another bookstore clerk echoed this sentiment: “Enough of this bull***t. Those who read already have books enough at home.” Even Le Maire’s colleague, Minister of Culture Franck Riester, quickly demurred. “I don’t favor the opening of bookstores,” he declared, suggesting that audio books and e-books would suffice during the lockdown.

Amazon France, moving to limit nonessential orders under the strain of the pandemic, has since announced that books are no longer among the essential items it will deliver. Perhaps reassured by that decision, the government has yet to move bookstores into the category of essential services. Paris bookstore owner Frédéric Siméon is just fine with that. “It is not dramatic,” he observed, to go without reading a new book for a few weeks. “In two months, books will still be here . . . and bookstores too, I hope.”

Last month, France’s ministry of culture said it would release 22 million euros to bolster the publishing industry. The booksellers’ association dismissed the figure as a pittance, warning in a press release that bookstores would “in a matter of weeks run into a wall of insurmountable debt” unless the government rose to the “unprecedented magnitude” of the crisis. The prestigious publisher Antoine Gallimard predicted that bookstores would continue to hemorrhage money well into 2021 barring an immediate transfusion of government aid—a “powerful gesture of solidarity,” as he put it, at a moment of “grave crisis.”

In the absence of such a gesture, French readers just might be forced to turn to Amazon to read the books written by their ministers.

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