PARIS — In its first award since a pedophilia scandal revealed deep-rooted collusion within its ranks, one of France’s top literary juries avoided the appearance of any potential conflicts of interest on Monday by crowning the novel of a little-known female author from a small publishing house.
Judges of the Renaudot gave the prize for best novel to Marie-Hélène Lafon, an outsider of France’s clubby literary circles. Her book, “Histoire du fils,’’ was published by Buchet-Chastel, a company with an annual catalog of about 50 works and the first-time winner of a major award.
The jury of the Renaudot has been under intense scrutiny since members acknowledged rewarding the pedophile writer Gabriel Matzneff in the essay category in 2013 to help revive his career and cheer him up. Its fierce resistance to change has come to embody the tight grip of an established elite on France’s literary institutions.
This year, like many before it, the short list for the prize was made up of literary insiders whose novels were published by leading companies and whose ties to several of the jurors were widely known. So the choice of Ms. Lafon was a safe one for a jury girding itself for criticism.
“I’m aware that there are ethical stakes at work behind all this,’’ Ms. Lafon said after the award was announced over Zoom because of coronavirus restrictions. “The situation is perilous. We’re walking on a tightrope.’’
But the choice of Ms. Lafon’s novel was applauded as a recognition of literary quality by experts and literature fans on social media. The saga spans a century and looks at a family secret that the main character tries to unravel by reconstructing the genealogy of his family.
The novel is “a beautiful piece of work” from a writer whose rural background has long inspired her books, said Marie-Rose Guarnieri, a bookstore owner and a critic of France’s major literary juries, on which jurors usually serve for life. Two decades ago, Ms. Guarnieri established the Wepler, a literary prize with a jury that changes every year.
But Ms. Guarnieri said she did not believe the choice reflected a profound shift in the Renaudot’s outlook. Over the years, the jury has tried to deflect occasional criticism by rewarding an unknown author from a small publisher, she said.
“When they begin to realize that we can see how they work,” Ms. Guarnieri said, “and especially the big conflicts of interest that arise from this way of selecting books, they make a big swing in the other direction.’’
Reached by phone, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, the president of the Renaudot, declined to comment.
Dominique Bona, the only woman among the Renaudot’s nine jurors and a member of the French Academy, told the Agence France-Presse that her jury had become a “scapegoat.’’ The jurors, she said, are “genuinely inspired by the love we all have for literature.’’
Following decades of tradition, the Renaudot announced its winner immediately after the Goncourt, France’s top prize, made its choice known.
The prize for best novel went to Hervé Le Tellier, a former journalist, for “L’Anomalie,” a science-fiction thriller that revolves around the double lives of passengers aboard a Paris-New York flight. It was published by France’s most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard, which has now captured 38 Goncourt awards since the creation of the prize in 1903.
Early this year, a tell-all book about Mr. Matzneff led to unsettling revelations about collusion inside the Renaudot jury. The writer’s editor, Christian Giudicelli, and friends — all members of the jury — awarded him the prize for best essay in 2013. All of the Renaudot’s current nine jurors were part of the jury that year.
Mr. Giudicelli has been questioned in an ongoing police investigation into Mr. Matzneff’s pedophilia and has drawn criticism for the role he played in furthering his friend’s career. Activists in the city of Vichy have pressed him to step down from a literary jury financed by the local government, where he has also long been a juror.
“As long as Mr. Giudicelli is not suspended, the city is officially considering suspending our financial participation in the prize,’’ Frédéric Aguilera, the mayor of Vichy, said in a phone interview Monday.
The spotlight on the Renaudot has also raised questions about the legitimacy of France’s other top prizes, including the Goncourt.
Jurors serve for life — or until age 80 at the Goncourt — and select prize winners in a process rife with conflicts of interests. None adhere to the strict standards of Britain’s Booker or the Pulitzer in the United States, whose juries change every year and whose jurors recuse themselves over potential conflicts of interest.
Still, differences exist among the top prizes, and the Renaudot suffers from the most potential conflicts of interests, with four of its nine current jurors working for publishers whose books were among award candidates this year.
The Goncourt is considered — in France at least — the cleanest jury. Alone among top prizes, the Goncourt has carried out reforms, in 2008, that barred jurors from working at a publishing company and created a mandatory retirement age of 80.
“What’s extraordinary is that a reform was necessary,’’ said Pierre Assouline, a writer and juror on the Goncourt since 2012. “A conflict of interest in the world of business is condemned right away. But not here.’’
The Renaudot never considered picking up any of the Goncourt’s changes, longtime jurors said. Over the past 20 years, potential conflicts of interest have only increased at the jury.
From 2010 to 2019, on average, nearly three of the Renaudot jurors shared publishing ties with a laureate for the novel category — up from barely one between 2000 and 2009, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
Though the Goncourt’s reforms were short of the standards at the Booker or Pulitzer, they had an immediate impact on the composition of the prize winners. Before the overhaul, prizes were monopolized by big publishers with strong ties to the Goncourt jurors.
Actes Sud, once a small publisher that — on principle — has long refused to allow its editors to serve on juries, had been almost completely shut out of the big awards for decades. But since the 2008 reforms, Actes Sud has scooped up four Goncourt prizes, including in 2012 for Jérôme Ferrari’s novel, “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome.’’
The financial windfall was immediate: Only 9,700 copies had been sold before the novel made the Goncourt’s first list. Inclusion on the list helped sales rise to 52,000, and then they skyrocketed to 370,000 after the award.
“It’s just transformed into an easy Christmas present,’’ Mr. Ferrari said in a recent interview, referring to the popularity of prize-winning books as holiday gifts.
Other top juries, like the Femina, debated emulating the Goncourt, but ultimately decided against any change, said Christine Jordis, a Femina juror since 1996 and a longtime editor and professional reader at Gallimard.
Ms. Jordis said she had led the fight against barring jurors from working at publishing companies, believing that her years as an editor gave her expertise.