Pedophile Scandal Can’t Crack the Closed Circles of Literary France

New York Times

November 29, 2020

By Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut

The scandal surrounding the writer Gabriel Matzneff was not limited to his pedophilia. It also opened a window on the entrenched and clubby nature of many of France’s elite institutions.

Paris – One of France’s most prestigious literary awards, the Renaudot can change a writer’s career overnight. Prizewinners jump onto best-seller lists. Publishers earn bragging rights in a nation that places literature at the heart of its sense of grandeur and global standing.

A striking example is now a notorious one: Gabriel Matzneff, the writer whose career was revived with the award in 2013 before collapsing this year when a woman published a bombshell account of their sexual relationship when she was underage. He now faces a police investigation in a national scandal that has exposed how clubby Parisian elites long protected, celebrated and enabled his pedophilia.

Mr. Matzneff’s win was engineered by an elite fully aware of his pedophilia, which he had brazenly defended for decades. His powerful editor and friends sat on the jury. “We thought he was broke, he was sick, this will cheer him up,” said Frédéric Beigbeder, a confidant of Mr. Matzneff and a Renaudot juror since 2011.

The fallout from the Matzneff affair has rippled through France, dividing feminists and seemingly ending the career of a powerful deputy mayor of Paris. Yet the insular world that dominates French literary life remains largely unscathed, demonstrating just how entrenched and intractable it really is.

Proof of that is the Renaudot — all but one of the same jurors who honored Mr. Matzneff are expected to crown this year’s winners on Monday.

That the Renaudot, France’s second biggest literary prize, could wave away the Matzneff scandal underscores the self-perpetuating and impenetrable nature of many of France’s elite institutions.

Whether in top schools, companies, government administration or at the French Academy, control often rests with a small, established group — overwhelmingly older, white men — that rewards like-minded friends and effectively blocks newcomers.

In France’s literary prize system, jurors serve usually for life and themselves select new members. In a process rife with conflicts of interest that is rarely scrutinized, judges often select winners among friends, champion the work of a colleague and press on behalf of a romantic partner.

The process would never be tolerated in contests like Britain’s Booker Prize or the American Pulitzer, where juries change every year and judges recuse themselves over potential conflicts of interest.

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