Superwife on the warpath

Sylvie Brunel launches a counter-attack

She is a humanitarian by trade, but a warrior by marriage. After 30 years of suffering the indignity of a philandering partner, in the coiffed form of France's immigration minister, Éric Besson, Sylvie Brunel has launched a counter-attack. Her book, Guerrilla Handbook for Women, has just been published in France, much to the delectation of the political classes.

In it, Brunel leaves no marital stone unturned, describing Besson's voracious appetite for other women and "interchangeable mistresses". Apparently, when they wed in 1983, as the mayor intoned the French vows of "fidelity, aid and support", Besson interrupted: "Fidelity, no."
It was hardly a great start. Nevertheless, the couple made a good show of it, once posing, hands placed tenderly on one another's knees, nestled amid haystacks in his constituency in rural France. But Brunel now says her husband was unfaithful during five years before marriage, never mind the 25 they battled through before he left her for a younger woman.

For Brunel - a geographer, economist and writer who worked for Médecins sans Frontières and Action Against Hunger for more than 15 years before becoming a professor at the Sorbonne - washing her dirty linen in public must feel like a grisly come-down. She is a woman preoccupied
by higher things, who has spent her working life tackling the world's problems.

But it seems that ending world hunger might have been a more manageable task for Brunel than steadying the roving eye of her hyperactive husband. Besson - known once as "the Traitor" for his sudden abandonment of the Socialist cause to support Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election - was never one to be contained. The story goes that as soon as Besson had finished his starter at the couple's wedding reception, he leapt up to watch motor-racing on the television.

Besson's reaction to his ex-wife's book has been similarly unexpected. After realising he was unable to stop its publication, he appears to have embraced the furore and French journalists suggest in private that he is relishing the media attention. It is the ultimate indignity for Brunel. In seeking to ruin her husband, she has managed to promote him. Politics, it seems, has no time for a woman scorned.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times