Originally published in Politico on 19/09/15 and written by Sudhir Hazareesingh.
One of the most characteristic inventions of modern French culture is the “intellectual.”
Intellectuals in France are not just experts in their particular fields, such as literature, art, philosophy and history. They also speak in universal terms, and are expected to provide moral guidance about general social and political issues. Indeed, the most eminent French intellectuals are almost sacred figures, who became global symbols of the causes they championed — thus Voltaire’s powerful denunciation of religious intolerance, Rousseau’s rousing defense of republican freedom, Victor Hugo’s eloquent tirade against Napoleonic despotism, Émile Zola’s passionate plea for justice during the Dreyfus Affair, and Simone de Beauvoir’s bold advocacy of women’s emancipation.
Above all, intellectuals have provided the French with a comforting sense of national pride. As the progressive thinker Edgar Quinet put it, with a big dollop of Gallic self-satisfaction: “France’s vocation is to consume herself for the glory of the world, for others as much as for herself, for an ideal which is yet to be attained of humanity and world civilization.”
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This French intellectualism has also manifested itself in a dazzling array of theories about knowledge, liberty, and the human condition. Successive generations of modern intellectuals — most of them schooled at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris — have hotly debated the meaning of life in books, newspaper articles, petitions, reviews and journals, in the process coining abstruse philosophical systems such as rationalism, eclecticism, spiritualism, republicanism, socialism, positivism, and existentialism.
This feverish theoretical activity came to a head in the decades after World War Two in the emergence of structuralism, a grand philosophy which underscored the importance of myths and the unconscious in human understanding. Its leading exponents were the philosopher of power and knowledge Michel Foucault and the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, both professors at the Collège de France. Because he shared the name of the famous brand of American garments, Lévi-Strauss received letters throughout his life asking for supplies of blue jeans.
The ultimate symbol of the Left Bank intellectual was the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who took the role of the public intellectual to its highest prominence. The intellectuel engagé had a duty to dedicate himself to revolutionary activity, to question established orthodoxies, and to champion the interests of all oppressed groups. Integral to Sartre’s appeal was the sheer glamor he gave to French intellectualism — with his utopian promise of a radiant future; his sweeping, polemical tone, and his celebration of the purifying effects of conflict; his bohemian and insouciant lifestyle, which deliberately spurned the conventions of bourgeois life; and his undisguised contempt for the established institutions of his time — be they the republican State, the Communist party, the French colonial regime in Algeria, or the university system.
As he put it, he was always a “traitor” — and this contrarian spirit was central to the aura which surrounded modern French intellectuals. And even though he detested nationalism, Sartre unwittingly contributed to the French sense of greatness through his embodiment of cultural and intellectual eminence, and his effortless superiority. Indeed, Sartre was undoubtedly one of the most famous French figures of the 20th century, and his writings and polemics were ardently followed by cultural elites across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Beirut.
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Today’s Left Bank is but a pale shadow of this eminent past. Fashion outlets have replaced high theoretical endeavor in Saint-Germain-des-Près. In fact, with very rare exceptions, such as Thomas Piketty’s book on capitalism, Paris has ceased to be a major center of innovation in the humanities and social sciences.
The dominant characteristics of contemporary French intellectual production are its superficial, derivative qualities (typified by figures such as Bernard-Henri Lévy) and its starkly pessimistic state of mind. The pamphlets which top the best-selling non-fiction charts in France nowadays are not works offering the promise of a new dawn, but nostalgic appeals to lost traditions of heroism, such as Stéphane Hessel’s “Indignez Vous!” (2010), and Islamophobic and self-pitying tirades echoing the message of Marine Le Pen’s Front National about the destruction of French identity.
Two recent examples are Alain Finkielkraut’s “L’Identité Malheureuse” (2013) and Eric Zemmour’s “Le Suicide Français” (2014), both suffused with images of degeneration and death. The most recent work in this morbid vein is Michel Houellebecq’s “Soumission” (2015), a dystopic novel which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.
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How is France’s loss of its bearings to be explained? Changes in the wider cultural landscape have had a major impact on Gallic self-confidence. The disintegration of Marxism in the late 20th century left a void which was filled only by postmodernism.
But the writings of the likes of Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard if anything compounded the problem with their deliberate opaqueness, their fetish for trivial word-play and their denial of the possibility of objective meaning (the hollowness of postmodernism is brilliantly satirized in Laurent Binet’s latest novel, “La septième fonction du langage,” a murder mystery framed around the death of the philosopher Roland Barthes in 1980).
But French reality is itself far from comforting. The overcrowded and underfunded French higher education system is fraying, as shown by the relatively low global rankings of French universities in the Shanghai league table. The system has become both less meritocratic and more technocratic, producing an elite which is markedly less sophisticated and intellectually creative than its 19th and 20th century forebears: The contrast in this respect between Sarkozy and Hollande, who can barely speak grammatical French, and their eloquent and cerebral presidential predecessors is striking.
Arguably the most important reason for the French loss of intellectual dynamism is the growing sense that there has been a major retreat of French power on the global stage, both in its material, “hard” terms and in its cultural “soft” dimensions. In a world dominated politically by the United States, culturally by the dastardly ‘Anglo-Saxons,” and in Europe by the economic might of Germany, the French are struggling to reinvent themselves.
Few of France’s contemporary writers — with the notable exception of Houellebecq — are well known internationally, not even recent Nobel-prize winners such as Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano. The ideal of Francophonia is nothing but an empty shell, and behind its lofty rhetoric the organization has little real resonance among French-speaking communities across the world.
This explains why French intellectuals appear so gloomy about their nation’s future, and have become both more inward-looking, and increasingly turned to their national past: As the French historian Pierre Nora put it even more bluntly, France is suffering from “national provincialism.” It is worth noting, in this context, that neither the collapse of communism in the former Soviet bloc nor the Arab spring were inspired by French thought — in stark contrast with the philosophy of national liberation which underpinned the struggle against European colonialism, which was decisively shaped by the writings of Sartre and Fanon.
Indeed, as Europe fumbles shamefully in its collective response to its current refugee crisis, it is sobering that the reaction which has been most in tune with the Enlightenment’s Rousseauist heritage of humanity and cosmopolitan fraternity has come not from socialist France, but from Christian-democratic Germany.