Simenon’s Le président

November 17 2012

Somebody has asked me why Simenon’s masterly 1958 novel, The President, has that title when it is all about a prime minister who never became president. He was reading it in English. The French title is Le président. It was one of five 1958 Simenons.

He had written it the year before, at the end of the Fourth Republic (1946-58). Under that constitution and that of the Third Republic (1870-1940), the President of the Council (of Ministers) was the leader of the executive branch, and informally Prime Minister. The President of the Republic, elected by the two chambers of Parliament, was a figurehead. So the premier could also be referred to as the president. And often would have been.

Simenon’s hero is a venerable figure in a way that an ex-prime minister could not be today. He is, in fact, partly modelled on Clemenceau. The translation by Daphne Woodward was originally called The Premier in both the UK and US. The 2011 US reprinting by Melville House has been renamed The President, unhelpfully for English readers, particularly since the translation constantly refers to “the Premier”, and with no explanation.

The Fifth Republic (1958-) was created to deal with the Algerian crisis. De Gaulle, in retirement for the whole duration of the Fourth Republic, came back as President of the Republic (1959-69). The Third and Fourth republics had been built on unstable parliamentary systems. The new constitution gave France strong presidential government for the first time, at least since Louis-Napoléon. The prime minister remained the senior figure in the Council of Ministers (cabinet), but was no longer President of it. The Council was now chaired by the President of the Republic.

The First Republic (1792-1804) contained the National Convention, the abolition of the monarchy (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793; the uncrowned Louis XVII died in prison in 1795 aged ten), the Reign of Terror and the Directory, the Thermidorian Reaction and, finally, the creation of the Consulate and Napoleon’s rise to power.

The First Empire lasted until 1814. Napoleon I’s son Napoleon II reigned for a few days in 1814 and in 1815. Louis-Napoléon, Napoleon III, was Napoleon’s nephew by his brother Louis.

The Bourbon restoration (1814 to 1830, except for the Hundred Days) brought Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis XIX, Henri V. Louis XIX reigned for twenty minutes (the shortest alleged reign in at least modern history, with the possible exception of that of Luís Filipe of Portugal in 1908), Henry V for a week.

The July Revolution brought the July Monarchy (1830-48) under the liberal Orléans branch of the House of Bourbon (Louis-Philippe).

The President for most of the Second Republic (1848-52) was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who then became ruler of the Second Empire (1852-70). So the French presidency was founded in 1848.

I’ll try to do a post on the history of French elections.

Louis-Napoléon was not, strictly speaking, the first president to have become an emperor. Agustín de Iturbide, the general who helped to secure Mexican independence, briefly made the transition in 1822. Faustin I of Haiti made it in 1849. Jean-Bédel Bokassa would make it in Central Africa in 1976. See my post on Augustuli.

My Simenon website is here. It’s complete as far it goes, but I need to do more work on it.

One Response to “Simenon’s Le président”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The French film of the novel, directed by Henri Verneuil, appeared in 1961. The opening credits show a visit to France by a virtual Harold Macmillan (Wilfrid Hyde-White). Music by Maurice Jarre of Lawrence of Arabia.

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