Andreas Whittam Smith: A compelling truth revealed in the pages of a French thriller

In this contemporary French thriller, Dans L’Ombre, the intimate workings of politics are explained much better than by conventional analysis

Share
Related Topics

If you are on holiday in France, and want to improve your French by reading a good political thriller, then I recommend Dans L'ombre ("In The Shadows") by Edouard Philippe and Gilles Boyer, published by JC Lattès. It is written in a fluent, contemporary French; I confess I had to turn to my dictionary on about a hundred occasions during its 500 pages. M. Philippe is currently mayor of Le Havre, and thus a major local politician who also has, I guess, national ambitions. M. Boyer is the senior political adviser to Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister who was prime minister in the 1990s.

M. Boyer would call himself an "apparatchik", the one who works in the shadows. Indeed the novel is written in the voice of an apparatchik. As the narrator says of himself: ''I am an apparatchik. I have always been one. I have never thought of myself as a politician. I know many of my opposite numbers who have wished to cross the barrier. Some have succeeded quite well. There are not many of them and I don't like them... in my world, politicians and apparatchiks exist together. Neither can survive alone. All those who deceive themselves about their role are living disasters."

For a British example, one only has to turn to Sarah Helm's play Loyalty, currently at the Hampstead Theatre, London until 13 August. This "fictionalised memoir" describes the role that Tony Blair's chief of staff, "Nick", played during the Iraq war. "Nick" is also an apparatchik and he is based on Ms Helm's husband, Jonathan Powell, who undertook that role for Mr Blair. Both in this play on the London stage, and in this French novel published last month, the intimate workings of politics are explained much better than by conventional political analysis.

Dans L'ombre is set during a presidential campaign. The narrator works for the right-wing candidate, always referred to as Le Patron by his staff. His socialist opponent is the outgoing President. It promises to be a tight race. The Patron has just triumphed in a primary election conducted by his party in which voting took place on the internet. One day, however, a young staff worker, close to the Patron because of a family connection, receives an anonymous phone call: "Pinguet knows who falsified the primary election. Pinguet could tell you about it. But Pinguet is dead. Curious, no?'

The narrator reflects: ''Electoral fraud is part of the field in which the apparatchik works. He is not obliged to practise it, but he is required to understand it." More than that, in the novel at least, he must deal with the accusation in such a way that it doesn't derail the candidate's campaign. As the narrator says: "When a problem can be summed up in a simple and explosive phrase, it is at once explosive and insoluble. Complicated problems are easier to deal with."

The allegation of electoral fraud, however, was both: capable of being explained in a few, potent words, yet a tangled knot to unravel. For this reason – in a wonderful passage – the apparatchik finds he has to amend the speech that the candidate has already begun to deliver to a packed stadium at the final meeting of the campaign. The candidate is reading from an autocue. How to alter the text now that it is scrolling? Answer: wait for the speech to be interrupted by applause and then work on a computer with manic speed.

While this sort of helter-skelter is going on, the narrator reflects that paranoia is the characteristic condition of politicians and apparatchiks. "In politics you spend as much time wondering what others will do as you do in working out what you should do."

So it is impossible to be in politics for several years without becoming paranoid. Moreover, you cannot really do politics unless you have a large ego. "A politician is an ego without limits who permanently thinks that he or she is better than anyone else, and that only through him or her will problems be resolved, life be changed and peace be preserved... the natural consequence of this is an excessive swelling of the personality. Very quickly all that happens around the politician with the big ego is seen in simple, brutal terms: what doesn't work has been done against me; those who are not with me are against me: coincidences don't exist."



At the same time, Dans L'ombre describes the uplifting times in politics. The candidate visits a factory making medical imaging equipment. There he found an occasion for addressing a word to everyone present, as if he had all the time in the world. "These visits offered him the chance to touch people physically, but also morally because he shared for a moment their lives, their struggles, their worries." The unchanging techniques are reiterated. "In politics, many of the things one does have little value, but it is important to do them correctly. You have never seen anybody lose because they were mediocre, but a brilliant candidate who doesn't do exactly what is required risks being surprised when the results are read out."

Back to the big election meeting, the great occasion for true believers. Party members attend for a variety of reasons – some having risen at 5am to travel hundreds of miles by coach – but they are guided by the same faith. These meetings are like pilgrimages. They constitute a moment of intense political communion. "Only those for whom party membership represents a collective adventure can understand that." One goes to them "because one should and because finally one meets the leader of the believers and the protector of the true faith... one attends them above all because what counts much more than the destination is the journey itself... You mix with everybody, you make new friends, you learn things... in short, you become part of a community."

As for our apparatchik waiting to edit the candidate's discourse as the speech scrolls across the screen of the autocue, it was all wasted effort. For the candidate began to improvise. "The audience was captivated. It was no longer a speech to which one listened, but more like a conversation between a man and a crowd. It was a magic moment." That's politics, and a book or a play can show its texture better than anything else.



a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Supervisor & Advisor - Automotive

£16500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Housing Assistant

£16819 - £21063 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest  

Even when refugees do make it to British soil, they are treated appallingly

Maya Goodfellow
 

Daily catch-up: immigration past and present, in Europe and in America

John Rentoul
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones