French go potty over Harry's politics

Time of article published Jul 5, 2004

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By John Lichfield

London - In the serious columns of Le Monde, a debate - slicing to the heart of the philosophical concerns of the new century - is raging.

Is Harry Potter a capitalist neo-liberal? Or is he an anti-globalist lefty - concerned by the fate of the humble and the oppressed?

The opinion pages of the centre-left French daily have gone all-out over the past three weeks to examine the political subtext of the works of JK Rowling.

The "Great Debate" was launched last month by Ilias Yocaris, ma”tre de conférences of French literature at the Institute Universitaire de Formation de Ma”tres (secondary teacher training school) in Nice.

Yocaris complained in Le Monde that the "fantasy universe of Harry Potter is, like ours, a capitalist universe".

The five Harry Potter books - enormously successful in French translation - are stuffed with "neo-liberal stereotypes" which caricature approvingly the "excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model", Yocaris wrote.

Thus all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister. Harry goes to a "private" school, whose "micro-society" is a "pitiless jungle" that glorifies "individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence".

Public institutions are unable to protect individuals. Au contraire, Harry Potter and his friends find that they have to break the magical state-imposed rules to protect themselves from evil forces.

"Capitalism is now trying to shape, after its own taste, not only the real world, but the imaginary world of its consumer-citizens," Yocaris says.

Le Monde last week published an equally erudite reply to Yocaris. Far from being a capitalist lackey, Harry Potter is the first fictional hero of the anti-globalist, anti-free market, pro-Third World, "Seattle" generation, according to Isabelle Smadja.

Smadja, who teaches philosophy at the Lycée Loritz in Nancy, suggests that Yocaris has been confused by the fact that the Potter books are, themselves, such a global, commercial and marketing success.

Examination of the text suggests that they are, in fact, a "ferocious critique of consumer society and the world of free enterprise".

The magical world created by Rowling is, Smadja declares, suffused with the ideas of alter-mondialisme ("otherworldism"), the name given to the anti-global movement in France.

Harry and his friends show great concern for the "house elves", the unpaid servants of the magical world. The fact that the elves are mostly content with their lot is, says Smadja, a "pertinent" critique of globalisation.

"Poor countries are so blinded and attracted by the system which exploits them that they have no desire to revolt against it."

Some French intellectuals have also complained that many of the wicked characters in the books have French names.

In a response to the ballyhoo, Le Monde itself mocked the tendency of French intellectuals to wallow in intellectualism. "Was Ilias Yocaris ever young?" it asked.

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