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The decline of French intellectualism

Albert Camus, on a visit to London in 1952 - Credit: Getty Images

France has always prided itself on its great thinkers. But the current crop are embarrassing and increasingly irrelevant. What happened?

There must be some lesson to be drawn from the fact that today’s woke crowd insults France and the French while name-dropping French totems from a great height. As the country is repeatedly condemned, Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu and Deleuze are all invoked to legitimise today’s angry deconstructivist word salad.

There’s no business like intello-business, and for centuries it came from Paris: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir once defined both public engagement and intellectual glamour — the ultimate in intersectional cool.

As far back as the 18th century, Diderot famously boarded with Catherine the Great while Voltaire, a steadfast correspondent of Catherine’s for decades, visited Frederick the Great at his Sanssouci palace for two years. Victor Hugo, somewhat unfairly, destroyed Napoleon III’s reputation in posterity for good (he dismissed him as “Napoléon le Petit”). Jules Verne predicted the future; Proust and Céline, at opposite ends of the spectrum, illuminated the precipices opened by the Great War.

Marc Bloch opened up historical studies to social sciences and painstaking assessment of primary sources in context, while Fernand Braudel mapped out mentalities and trends over centuries in the Mediterranean. Sartre and de Beauvoir travelled across Russia, China and America, sprinkling intellectual pixie dust at universities from Cornell to Smith and Wellesley ­— or endorsing communist dictators from Mao Zedong to János Kádár.

When the young André Glucksmann, one of the bright stars of the Nouveaux Philosophes, organised the public reconciliation between Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1979, the encounter took place in the office of president Giscard d’Estaing at the Élysée. Le Président looked on benignly from the sidelines, obviously enjoying a validation that in everyone’s mind bested the popular vote he’d won five years earlier.

Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy, for all their Left Bank rich boys swagger, had rightly called the end of the French intelligentsia’s love affair with the radical left: no more fellow-travellers, no more Odes to Stalin (from France’s greatest 20th century poet, Paul Éluard, no less); no more apologias for Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Even staged, it was momentous. 

But perhaps the more pertinent question is: who would a Nazarbayev, Kim Jong Un or Lukashenko invite today, assuming they even saw the point? Where are the successors to Sartre and Aron? To curry favour with their president, Kazakh oligarchs found more soft power value in buying Prince Andrew’s decaying marital home. Kim Jong Un had to make do with Dennis Rodman. Contracts with Tony Blair’s associates have replaced correspondence with Voltaire.

Camus died in 1960, Merleau-Ponty the following year, while Sartre’s death in 1980 was followed by Aron in 1983, Foucault the year after and de Beauvoir in 1986. Derrida lingered on until 2004, pre-deceased by Bourdieu in 2002; but by that time they had become their own statues, only of use to radicalised Ivies at $60,000 a pop, to spruce up their toxic mix of race/gender/linguistics/post-colonial studies. The only French novelist of true international note is Michel Houellebecq, a misanthrope and a pessimist whose protagonists embody anomic failure.

Compare our four most recent Nobel Prizes for literature — Claude Simon (1985), Gao Xinjian (2000), J.M.G. Le Clézio (2008), Patrick Modiano (2014) — with their predecessors (Romain Rolland, Anatole France, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre) and the problem becomes obvious. Of all the works by current aspirants to the title of Public Intellectual, you can probably take Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to the barricades, but it’s a dry read at 976 pages. (Piketty’s most publicised political stance was his public support for François Hollande in the 2012 presidential election. It has not aged well.)

When the talented Le Figaro columnist, Eugénie Bastié, recently asked publishing house Éditions Gallimard’s residing sage Pierre Nora, 89, what he thought of the state of intellectual life in France today, Nora couldn’t find enough epithets to characterise his disdain. “Do we have an intellectual life left? It has collapsed. Well,  subsided, really. Shrunk… Ran out of steam… French intellectual life is provincialised.” (And no worse insult is possible from the heart of the Septième Arrondissement.)

Back in 1980, Nora co-founded the influential Le Débat bi-monthly review with the sociologist, historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet, who to this day — aged 75 — sits in the next-door office at Gallimard. A trio of Paris publishing houses set the Parisian intellectual tone, issue excommunications and sweep up the majority of literary prizes, a situation which has not changed since Balzac’s Lost Illusions. I once witnessed the editor of a lesser intellectual review paying court to Gauchet in hopes that they might publish a joint issue with Le Débat. It was straight out of the Duc de Saint Simon’s Memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV. The joint issue never happened.

Called upon to answer Bastié’s question, Gauchet doubled down, stating that “Intellectual life nowadays is non-existent.” And just to emphasise the point, he and Nora closed down Le Débat last year. Bastié, who’s 29, agrees with this downbeat assessment. “Fifty-thousand people walked behind Sartre’s funeral procession [in 1980],” she writes in the newly-published La Guerre des Idées. “Nowadays it’s Johnny Hallyday’s they follow.”

In many ways, France’s intellectual life suffers from the same conformism as French politics, or French society at large. Just as our vaccine roll-out was plagued from the start by pusillanimity, negativity and the structural incapacity of France’s top-heavy bureaucracy to think imaginatively or admit to mistakes, French universities or Grandes Écoles haven’t produced a critical mass of robust dissidents. Conformism is the key to good grades and social advancement, whether in government, the private sector or in an intellectual community where the gatekeepers have sometimes held the same job for half a century. Outliers — they do exist — take years to receive some sort of acknowledgement; and this is more often conferred by newspapers opinion pages or cable channels talk shows, neither of which make for solidly grounded arguments.

What we get, in keeping with the rest of the world, are strident debates. Thoughtful thinkers like Alain Finkielkraut, once a promising Gallimard author, now a member of the Académie Française (an honour that usually smothers its holders to complete irrelevance), has become little more than a conservative columnist. Finkielkraut is regularly targeted by the left: cancelling attempts, as early as 2005, by Le Monde, Libé and L’Obs, lumped him in a group of right-of-centre commenters as a Nouveau Réactionnaire (boo, hiss).

Finkielkraut still publishes books that sell well and has a France Culture (think Radio Three) weekly programme, but his influence in Parisian circles of power is non-existent. Unlike in the United States, non-personhood in France isn’t followed by the actual destruction of your professional life; you just become an intellectual ghost.

As for French intellectual soft power nowadays, it lives more in old symbols than in actual argument. There are no French Jordan Petersons to polarise public opinion and draw crowds of thousands (even if on Zoom these days) to demonise or applaud their latest pronouncements. Foucault and Bourdieu, being safely dead, cannot protest the uses they are put to in American universities: their former students refute most of these, but this isn’t much heard beyond our borders, and not just because the French language is in full retreat.

The language barrier has to some extent protected us — so far — from the excesses of identity politics; but as a cultural rampart, it’s a Maginot Line. It’s a sad retreat from what politicians up to Jacques Chirac used to praise as le rayonnement de la France (rayonnement can either refer to the benevolent light of the sun’s rays, or to atomic radiation; in today’s performative anti-colonialism it’s the second meaning that’s more often implied). French intellectuals need to be less retiring and limelight-shy — and there’s a sentence I never, ever expected to write.

This article was first published by UnHerd

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