Cergy, March 30, 2020
Monsieur le Président,
‘I am writing you a letter / That you may read / If you have time‘. As a lover of literature, you may find that this introduction strikes a familiar chord. It is the beginning of Boris Vian’s song Le Déserteur, written in 1954, between the Indochina War and the Algerian War. Today, whatever you proclaim, we are not at war: the enemy in this caseis not human, not a fellow being; it possesses neither thought nor a will to harm, knows no borders or social differences, reproduces blindly by jumping from one person to another. The weapons, since you insist upon this martial lexicon, are hospital beds, respirators, masks and tests, and the numerous doctors, scientists and caregivers. And yet, since you have governed France, you have remained deaf to the warnings from the health-care field, and the words we read on a banner in a demonstration last November – ‘The State counts its money, we will count the dead’ – tragically resonate today. You preferred to listen to those who advocate the withdrawal of the State, the optimization of resources, flow regulation – all that technocratic jargon, devoid of substance, which muddied the waters of reality. But look, these are the public services which, in great part, ensure the country’s functioning: hospitals, National Education and its thousands of teachers, so poorly paid; Électricité de France [EdF], the Post Office, the Métro and the French rail service [SNCF]. And the people you called ‘nothing’ not so long ago are now everything, those who continue to empty the rubbish bins, scan products at the checkout counters, deliver pizzas, all to guarantee the physical side of life, as essential as the intellectual side.
‘Resilience’, meaning reconstruction after trauma, is a strange choice of word. We have not reached that stage. Take heed, Mr President, of the effects of this time of lockdown, of upheaval in the order of things. It is an opportune time for questioning. A time in which to desire a new world. Not your world! Not a world in which decision-makers and financiers are already, shamelessly, resuming the old refrain of ‘work more’, up to 60 hours a week. A great many of us no longer want a world of glaring inequalities, revealed by the epidemic; on the contrary, a great many of us want a world where basic needs, healthy food, medical care, housing, education, culture, are guaranteed for all, a world which, indeed, today’s solidarities show us is possible. Be aware, Mr President, that we will no longer let our life be stolen from us, it is all we have, and ‘nothing is worth more than life’ – another song, this time by Alain Souchon. Nor will we perennially muzzle our democratic freedom, currently restricted, a freedom which makes it possible for my letter – unlike that of Boris Vian, banned from the radio – to be read on air this morning on a national radio network.
Letter by Annie Ernaux, originally broadcast on France Inter. This translation by Alison L. Strayer was first published on the blog of Fitzcarralo editions. Reproduced here with kind permission from Annie Ernaux and Fitzcarradlo editions.