François Hollande has had it with austerity. Well, fair enough — austerity is dull and painful. No wonder other European leaders are keen to follow his example. But perhaps Hollande should take heed of what happened to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who also longed to escape an austere life.

After all, Hollande hails from Rouen, the very city that plays host to Madame Bovary’s adulterous affair with Léon Dupois. It is at Rouen cathedral that Emma Bovary initially resists Léon’s amorous advances — that is, until he hails a cab, bundles her in, and evidently employs some persuasive behaviour while they are snugly ensconced. Famously, all that emerges from the carriage is a climactic ‘bared hand’, which casts out ‘some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom’. Emma’s virtuous letter, written to put Léon off, doesn’t do the trick. Could this be the fate of the European budget discipline pact, torn into shreds after Hollande’s powers of persuasion are exercised to the full?

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But Emma and Léon’s love affair is doomed from the start. Emma Bovary is a creature of extravagance, longing for luxury as a means to escape what she perceives to be a very dull provincial life. She only takes the fateful carriage ride with Léon when he tells her it’s the done thing in fashionable Paris. She insists on enjoying an expensive lifestyle with him, and when he cannot afford it, she makes up the deficit herself. It’s a moral low point when she makes Léon pawn a set of silver spoons that she was given as a wedding present.

Emma’s downfall isn’t her adultery, it’s her reckless extravagance. She falls prey to the dastardly merchant Lheureux, who sells her far too many gorgeous fabrics and other beautiful things, telling her she can pay him another time. And so Emma spend-spend-spends, meeting what debts she incurs with yet more debts, and selling off more and more of her poor husband’s property.

We all know the sad ending of Madame Bovary. Alas, Emma’s fantasies of the high life cannot last for ever. The time comes when she can put off her creditors no longer; she has to cough up. In despair, she turns to her lovers for money, but to no avail. She decides there’s nothing for it but arsenic, and kills herself, dying rather gruesomely.

Live within your means, seems to be the message here. Well, let’s hope his flirtation with spending isn’t political suicide for this other creature of Rouen.

Emily Rhodes is a blogger and bookseller. ‘By the Book’ is an occasional column on lessons from literature.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Literature