Saturday 13 June 2015 08.30 BST
From Voltaire and Rousseau to Sartre and De Beauvoir, France has long produced world-leading thinkers. It even invented the word ‘intellectual’. But progressives around the globe no longer look to Paris for their ideas. What went wrong?
Writing shortly after the end of the second world war, the French historian André Siegfried claimed (with a characteristic touch of Gallic aplomb) that French thought had been the driving force behind all the major advances of human civilisation, before concluding that “wherever she goes, France introduces clarity, intellectual ease, curiosity, and … a subtle and necessary form of wisdom”. This ideal of a global French rayonnement (a combination of expansive impact and benevolent radiance) is now a distant and nostalgic memory.
French thought is in the doldrums. French philosophy, which taught the world to reason with sweeping and bold systems such as rationalism, republicanism, feminism, positivism, existentialism and structuralism, has had conspicuously little to offer in recent decades. Saint-Germain-des-Prés, once the engine room of the Parisian Left Bank’s intellectual creativity, has become a haven of high-fashion boutiques, with fading memories of its past artistic and literary glory. As a disillusioned writer from the neighbourhood noted grimly: “The time will soon come when we will be reduced to selling little statues of Sartre made in China.” French literature, with its once glittering cast of authors, from Balzac and George Sand to Jules Verne, Albert Camus and Marguerite Yourcenar, has likewise lost much of its global appeal – a loss barely concealed by recent awards of the Nobel prize for literature to JMG Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano. In 2012, the Magazine Littéraire sounded the alarm with an apocalyptic headline: “La France pense-t-elle encore?” (“Does France still think?”)
Nowhere is this retrenchment more poignantly apparent than in France’s diminishing cultural imprint on the wider world. An enduring source of the French pride is that their ideas and historical experiences have decisively shaped the values of other nations. Versailles in the age of the Sun King was the unrivalled aesthetic and political exemplar for European courts. Caraccioli, the 18th-century author of L’Europe Française, expressed a common view when he enthused about the “sparkling manners and lively vivacity” of the French, before concluding: “Every European is now a Frenchman.” Through the revolutionary epics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, French civilian and military heroes inspired national liberators throughout the world, from Wolfe Tone in Ireland and Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti to Simón Bolívar in Latin America. The Napoleonic Civil Code was widely adopted by newly independent states during the 19th century, and the emperor’s art of war was celebrated by progressive writers and poets across Europe, from William Hazlitt to Adam Mickiewicz, but also by Japanese samurai warriors and Tartar tribesmen (a Central Asian folk song celebrated “Genghis Khan and his nephew Napoleon”), and by the Vietnamese revolutionary hero Võ Nguyên Giáp. In the late 1930s, when he was a history tutor at the Than Long school in Hanoi, Giáp taught French revolutionary history; one of his students later recalled the “mesmerising” quality of his lectures on Napoleon.
Progressive men and women across Europe celebrated the heritage of the 1789 revolution throughout the 19th century, and the first generation of Russian Bolsheviks was obsessed by the analogies between their own revolution in 1917 and the overthrow of the French ancien régime. Lenin drew on the Jacobin heritage as an inspiration for his own revolutionary organisation in Russia, and dismissed those who opposed him as “Girondists”. Stalin’s francophilia extended to obsessively reading the novels of Victor Hugo. French ideas and symbols were universally equated with self-determination and emancipation from servitude: the Statue of Liberty, the iconic emblem of American-ness, was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi; Poland’s national anthem celebrated Napoleon Bonaparte, while Brazil’s flag bore the motto “order and progress”, after Auguste Comte’s motto of positivism. French inspiration was most evident in stimulating traditions of critical and dissenting inquiry about modern society: Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) was embraced by champions of feminine emancipation across the world, while social inequality and political oppression were eloquently denounced by Rousseau and the radical republican tradition of Babeuf, Buonarroti and Blanqui all the way through to the works of Sartre, Fanon, Foucault and Bourdieu. Yet little of this ideological fertility is now in evidence, and French thinking is no longer a central point of reference for progressives across the world. It is noteworthy that none of the recent social revolutions, whether the fall of Soviet-style communism in eastern Europe or the challenge to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, took their cue from the French tradition.
A yearning towards universality
This intellectual retreat is of course not unique to France. Notwithstanding the recent electoral successes of populist radical movements such as Syriza and Podemos, the horizons of reformist, progressive and internationalist politics have dimmed across Europe since the late 20th century. But the phenomenon is felt much more acutely in France because (in notable contrast with Britain) the nation’s self-image is existentially bound up with its sense of cultural excellence, and with the assumption that their ideas have universal appeal: “France,” claimed the historian Ernest Lavisse without any irony, “is charged with representing the cause of humanity.” From the Enlightenment onwards, France was renowned for her génie scientifique. Paris was celebrated as a principal centre of the European “republic of sciences”, and indeed the discoveries of French scientists revolutionised modern life – from the Cassinis’ new principles of cartography to Louis Pasteur’s seminal findings on disease prevention, and Marie Curie’s ground-breaking research on radioactivity. France also played a pioneering role in devising original forms of intellectual sociability, such as masonic lodges, salons and cafes (the daily Libération celebrated the bistro as a provider of “key social links” among French people). Likewise, the primary impetus for the nation’s ways of thinking has traditionally come from Paris. Indeed, to an extent which is unique in western culture, France’s major cultural bodies – from the state to the great educational and research institutions, academies, publishing houses and press organs – are concentrated in its capital, hence Victor Hugo’s exorbitant claim that Paris was the “centre of the earth”.
This centralisation is one of the main reasons why French ways of thinking exhibit such a striking degree of stylistic consistency – a phenomenon further accentuated by the nation’s profoundly ambivalent intellectual relationship with religion. On the one hand, there has been an ardent tradition of anticlericalism in France, assertively upheld in recent decades by publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and in a colourful lexicon of derogatory designations of priests, with terms such as bouc, calotin, corbeau and ratichon; the place of Islam in contemporary French society continues to generate confusion and acrimonious debate. Yet, in stark contrast with Britain, French thought is also haunted by a pervasive neo-religious rhetoric. One of the modern French words for an intellectual is clerc (a member of the clergy), and the positions held by intellectuals have been consistently defined through concepts such as faith, commitment, heresy and deliverance. Like many men and women of his generation, the philosopher Edgar Morin defined his experiences in the French communist movement as a form of “religious mysticism”. France’s endemic incapacity to reform its state institutions is often represented as a mal, a term which carries connotations of physical disorder as well as sinfulness. One of the classic pamphlets denouncing France’s passion for authority and state centralisation was Alain Peyrefitte’s Le Mal Français; when in 2014 former socialist leader Lionel Jospin challenged what he perceives as France’s unhealthy fascination with Bonapartism, he entitled his polemical essay Le Mal Napoléonien.
This intellectual unity of French thought is crystallised in a number of lasting tropes about Frenchness. The most celebrated, as Siegfried said, is the sense of an exceptional Gallic aptitude for lucidity. The writer Rivarol put it even more imperiously: “What is not clear is not French.” Typically French, too, is an insouciance of manner, “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously”, as the philosopher Montesquieu wrote. But it also bears a contrarian and disputatious tendency, as the historian Jules Michelet observed: “We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects.” Above all, French thinking is famous for its love of general notions, such as the French Revolution’s classic triad of liberty, equality and fraternity. As the essayist Emile de Montégut said, “There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies, and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstractions.”
This passion for generality strongly contrasts with the practical, empirical reasoning of the British. It shows up in many dimensions of the esprit français, especially the tendency for arguments about the good life to revolve around first principles. Burke railed against the “clumsy metaphysics” of the French Revolution’s concept of the rights of man – but the ideal of monarchy celebrated in France by royalist thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald and later Charles Maurras was just as abstract (if not more so). Equally widespread is the passion for considering questions in their totality as opposed to their particular manifestations. In his classic work Les origines de la France contemporaine (1875), Hippolyte Taine described this holism as entrenched since the Enlightenment, a method which sought “to extract, circumscribe and isolate a few very simple and general notions, then, without any reference to experience, to compare and combine them, and from the artificial compound thus obtained, to deduce by pure reasoning all the consequences which it contains”. The resistance leader Charles de Gaulle thus opened his War Memoirs by sketching his “certaine idée de la France” – a country with a vocation for an “eminent and exceptional destiny”. Such lofty aspirations remain an integral feature of French thinking, according to the academician Jean d’Ormesson: “More than any nation, France is haunted by a yearning towards universality.”
Yet paradoxically – the French love paradoxes – this holism comes with the equally cherished Gallic intellectual habit of dividing things into two. This explains why French public debate is invariably structured around a small number of recurring binaries. La France coupée en deux is a familiar representation of the political realm, referring to historical divisions between conservative and progressive blocs, but also dichotomous ways of seeing the world such as opening and closure, stasis and transformation, reason and sentiment, unity and diversity, civilisation and barbarity, masculine and feminine, and good and evil.
The progressive imagination
One of most distinctive features of modern French thought since the Enlightenment, which long provided the basis for its global appeal, is the richness of its progressive tradition. This ingeniousness shines through in the sheer number of mainstream concepts and discursive practices that have their origins in France: a (cursory) list would include the notions of ideology and socialism, the invention of the figure of the “intellectual”, and of the discipline of sociology; the spatial representation of politics as between left and right; the ideas of popular sovereignty and altruism, and the belief that culture should not only be democratically accessible, but should be assigned its own specific department in government (an innovation introduced in 1959 by De Gaulle on his return to power, the first incumbent of the new ministry being the writer André Malraux). This emphasis on creativity bears witness to the consecration of the writer as a spiritual guide for society, and to the central role assigned to imagination in French political and literary culture – hence one of the most celebrated slogans of May ’68: “L’imagination au pouvoir”.
Such has been the centrality of the ideal of creativity that the concepts of revolution and rupture have become familiar tropes across the French humanities and social sciences, whether in politics, history, literature, philosophy, sociology, linguistics, psychology or anthropology. The period between the early 1950s and the late 1970s alone gave us the nouveau roman, the nouvelle vague (in cinema), the nouvelle histoire, the nouvelle philosophie, the nouvelle gauche (and even, in echo, the nouvelle droite), without forgetting nouvelle cuisine – although that concept dates back at least as far as Menon’s Nouveau traité in 1742. For the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose notion of structuralism arguably represented the single most inventive French contribution to western thought in the second half of the 20th century, this thirst for innovation is inherent in the very idea of knowledge: “The great speculative structures are made to be broken. There is not one of them that can hope to last more than a few decades, or at most a century or two.”
This creativity also manifests itself in the French predilection for grand theorising, and in the often breathtaking ambition of progressive thinkers in their quest to uncover original truths about the human condition. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum broke new philosophical ground by locating the source of all certain knowledge in the thinking self, and providing an account of human understanding that was independent of God. Much of Rousseau’s political philosophy was driven by the goal of regenerating humankind through the achievement of republican virtue. Comte wrote extensively about astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics, and he devoted his life to elaborating an original scientific synthesis that would herald “the definitive stage of human intelligence”. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of French grand theorising is its aspiration to find comprehensive and universal explanations for all social phenomena: hence the Annales historians’ ambition to provide an account of the entire range of human activities (histoire totale). Likewise, Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) aimed to establish “whether there is any such thing as a Truth of humanity as a whole”. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex offered a sweeping alternative to the classic view that gender difference was grounded in human nature: “One is not born, but one becomes a woman.” His scattered observations of Brazilian-Amerindian tribes led Claude Lévi-Strauss to conclude that all social thought was based on certain shared symbolic patterns or myths, while Michel Foucault’s sprawling oeuvre claimed to uncover the forms of control and domination that were inherent in all ideologies and ways of thinking. The most recent product of this distinguished line of grand theorising is the republican historian Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, which offers an overarching framework for reconsidering France’s relationship with its own past.
These intellectual constructs have enjoyed such wide appeal not only because of their seductive literary qualities, but also because of their critical functions in shaping the French collective self-understanding (the contrast with British self-perception is again noteworthy: in Keir Hardie’s memorable expression, the British are “not given to chasing bubbles”). Rousseau’s political philosophy, to take the most obvious example, has consistently provided the bedrock for French republican patterns of thinking over the past two centuries – notably the belief in the possibility of a more rational organisation of society; and the thought that not just society but human nature itself could be regenerated through collective endeavour. Comte’s celebration of the dead (who in his view represented “the better part of humankind”) tapped into a deep fascination among French progressives for the occult. His Religion of Humanity, a secular system of belief complete with its institutions, cults and festivals, exemplified the consistent French quest for a more buoyant and less reactionary alternative to Catholicism. Sartre’s existentialism and his excursions across the philosophical terrain of Marxism in the postwar era underwrote the orthodox idea of a proletarian revolution, and justified the intellectual hegemony of the French Communist party (in his pithy expression: “un anticommuniste est un chien”). The works of De Beauvoir and Foucault are littered with intuitions about the pervasive manifestations (and corrupting effects) of power that have deep roots in French social thought from Rousseau onwards. Nora’s conception of memory has transformed the way the French see themselves, and has also provided the bedrock for a conservative form of neo-republicanism, which has become intellectually and culturally dominant in France since the late 20th century.
The darker sides of abstraction
Over the longue durée, these French progressive ways of thinking have been formidably productive, helping to generate powerful and engaging systems of thought. French thinkers have been especially influential in shaping modern conceptions of citizenship – notably the revolution’s concept of civic patriotism (based on adhesion to common values rather than ethnicity), the notion of the general interest, and the vision of the state’s enabling and enlightening power, embodied in the holistic philosophy of Jacobinism. But this penchant for abstract generality also has its darker sides: an insensitivity to the potentially intrusive and coercive role of the state; a suspicion of social groups that do not conform to shared universalistic norms (in the past, these included Catholics, women and colonial subjects); a disposition to fall back on stereotypes, negative fantasies and conspiracy theories; and a fondness for dividing the political sphere into antagonistic camps of good v evil.
Indeed, the “other” has been an enduringly problematic concept in French culture: hence the long tradition of antisemitism in French nationalist thought. But progressives have also faltered here, notably in their entrenched hostility to female emancipation (women were long viewed by republicans as reactionary agents of Catholicism, and were only granted the vote in 1944). Progressives also struggled to reconcile their universalist ideals of the good life with notions of cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity. Part of the reason why multiculturalism is regarded so negatively by the French is that it is perceived as an alien Anglo-Saxon practice. A contemporary example of these shortcomings is the discussion of the integration of postcolonial minorities from the Maghreb. The roots of this issue lie in the deeply held assumption of the beneficial quality of French civilisation for humankind. This vision underpinned the expansion of French power in Europe during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. A belief in the emancipatory quality of their culture explain why leading French progressives consistently advocated a policy of assimilation in the colonies, and – with the honourable exception of the communists – largely turned a blind eye to the racism and social inequalities produced by their own empire. This uncritical belief in the supremacy of the French mission civilisatrice was epitomised during the Algerian war of national liberation in the 1950s and early 1960s by François Mitterrand’s endorsement of the precept of “L’Algérie, c’est la France”. The same way of thinking led the socialist Guy Mollet to reject all manifestations of Algerian nationalism as reactionary and “obscurantist”.
This colonialist legacy still casts a long shadow over the ways in which France treats and perceives its ethnic minority citizens, especially those originating from the Maghreb. These minorities are demonised in the French conservative press and by the extreme right, in a way that would be found shocking in Britain. This vilification has been made easier by the typically abstract way French progressives have framed the debate about minority integration. Thus the principle of laïcité (secularism) has been deployed not to protect the religious freedom of the Maghrebi minorities, as would follow from a strict interpretation of the 1905 law of separation of churches from the state, but to question their Frenchness. Those who have opposed the ban on the veil in schools have been spuriously accused of communitarianism and Islamism – terms all the more terrifying in that they are never precisely defined. Since the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo there have been widespread calls for French citizens of Maghrebi origin to “prove” their attachment to the nation. Presenting the issue of civic integration in such terms has proved counterproductive, not least because it has detracted from the real problems confronting these populations: unemployment, racial discrimination and educational underachievement.
This French penchant for abstraction appears in most paradoxical (and perverse) form in the absence of precise statistical information about their Maghrebi minorities, as it is illegal to collect data about ethnicity and religion in France. And so, instead of drawing on specific social facts and trends, the debate about minority integration has become mired in crude ideological oversimplifications: the equation of secularism with Frenchness; the suggestion that the (white, secular) French are the bearers of “reason”, while those who practise the Islamic faith are “reactionary” (the very same argument deployed earlier against any natives who dared question French colonial rule); and the essentialist assumption of an immutable, and yet paradoxically fragile, French national identity. This unitary and implicitly masculine sense of the French collective self, one of the less salubrious legacies of Descartes’ conception of philosophical reason, remains widespread among progressives today. As the editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, put it in an article in February: “Only an abstract conception of Man can confer unity upon France.”
The pessimistic turn
Since the late 20th century French thought has lost many of the qualities that made for its universal appeal: its abundant sense of imagination, its buoyant sense of purpose, and above all its capacity (even when engaging in the most byzantine of philosophical issues) to give everyone tuning in, from Buenos Aires to Beirut, the sense that they were participating in a conversation of transcendental significance. In contrast, contemporary French thinking has become increasingly inward-looking – a crisis that manifests itself in the sense of disillusionment among the nation’s intellectual elites, and in the rise of the xenophobic Front National, which has become one of the most dynamic political forces in contemporary France. Nora, writing in 2010, concluded despondently that France had become the land of “shrinking horizons, the atomisation of the life of the mind, and national provincialism”. Time magazine proved him right in 2015 when it included Marine Le Pen in its list of the world’s 100 most influential figures (the only other French person on the list was the economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century).
How is this transformation to be explained? Among the most important factors is a collective recognition that France is no longer a major power. The complicated condition of the European project, which was decisively shaped in the past by a string of French figures (from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors), bears witness to this decline. This change in the nation’s collective psychology also stems from a delayed recognition of the devastating character of France’s military defeat in 1940, and the impact of two further catastrophes that were not fully internalised: the loss of Indochina and the withdrawal from Algeria. For most of the post-liberation decades, these events were cushioned by the reassuring fiction that the French had behaved heroically during the war, and that France still represented an alternative force in world politics, thanks to its seat at the UN security council, its messianic Gaullist leadership and its distinct political and cultural values (as De Gaulle once observed: “I prefer uplifting lies to demeaning truths”). This myth was largely intended as a replacement of the (equally fabulous) ideal of the French mission civilisatrice in the colonies. Yet this collective confidence has been seriously damaged by the unravelling of the myth of the resistance and the emergence of a “Vichy syndrome”, which in the last two decades of the 20th century detailed the extent of French collaboration during the years of occupation.
This pessimistic sensibility has been exacerbated by a widespread belief that French culture is itself in crisis. The representation of France as an exhausted and alienated country, corrupted by the egalitarian heritage of May 68, overrun by Muslim immigrants and incapable of standing up for its own core values is a common theme in French conservative writings. Among the bestselling works in this genre are Alain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse (2013) and Éric Zemmour’s Suicide Français (2014). This morbid sensibility (which has no real equivalent in Britain, despite its recent economic troubles) is also widespread in contemporary French literature, as best exemplified in Michel Houellebecq’s recent oeuvre: La carte et le territoire (2010) presents France as a haven for global tourism, “with nothing to sell except charming hotels, perfumes, and potted meat”; his latest novel Soumission (2015) is a dystopian parable about the election of an Islamist president in France, set against a backdrop of a general collapse of Enlightenment values. A major underlying consideration here is the perception of the decline of French as a global language, and its (much-resented) replacement by English. A variety of groups and associations have long been campaigning vigorously against the importation of English words into French. The linguist Claude Hagège referred to the invasion of the English language as a “war”, claiming that its promotion “served the interests of neoliberalism”. Since 2011, the website of the Académie Française has a section dedicated to weeding out anglicisms from the French language. Among the expressions recently singled out for censure were conf call, off record, donner son go (authorise), chambre single, news and faire du running (notwithstanding this crusade, the word “selfie” is set to be included in the 2016 edition of the Larousse dictionary).
A more profound cause of the current malaise relates to the ways in which French elites are recruited and trained. For much of the modern era, the nation’s republican and socialist leaders were grounded in a meritocratic and humanist culture typically provided by institutions such as the École Normale Supérieure: among its most famous graduates were the likes of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. However, since the 1960s French elites have increasingly come from technocratic grandes écoles such as the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Most of the recent leaders of the Socialist party, including prime ministers Fabius, Rocard and Jospin; and president Hollande, are énarques. Their intellectual outlook reflects the strengths of this type of technocratic education, such as a capacity for hard work and for mastering complex briefs. But it also illustrates its endemic weaknesses: an inability to think creatively, a tendency towards formalism and rule-following, a socially exclusive and complacent metropolitan outlook, a corporatist, bunker mentality (as the joke goes, “Spain has the ETA, Ireland the IRA, and France the ENA”). Above all, it shows an overwhelmingly masculine style and ethos. Women in France struggle even more than in other advanced industrial societies to assume leading positions in politics (the law on parité, for example, is openly flouted by all parties) – and when they do break through the glass ceiling, female politicians face an exceptional barrage of hostility: Édith Cresson is the only woman to have served as prime minister, and she lasted less than a year.
This ascendency of technocratic values among French progressive elites is itself reflective of a wider intellectual crisis on the left. The singular idea of the world (a mixture of Cartesian rationalism, republicanism and Marxism) that dominated the mindset of the nation’s progressive elites for much of the modern era has disintegrated. The problem has been compounded by the self-defeating success of French postmodernism: at a time when European progressives have come up with innovative frameworks for confronting the challenges to democratic power and civil liberties in western societies (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of empire, and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the state of exception), their Gallic counterparts have been indulging in abstract word games, in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard. French progressive thinkers no longer produce the kind of sweeping grand theories that typified the constructs of the Left Bank in its heyday. They advocate an antiquated form of Marxism (Alain Badiou), a nostalgic and reactionary republicanism (Régis Debray), or else offer a permanent spectacle of frivolity and self-delusion (Bernard-Henri Lévy). The sociologist Bruno Latour clearly had this syndrome in mind when he observed: “It has been a long time since intellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed it has been a long time since the very notion of the avant-garde …passed away.” But we should remember that in France especially, there is always the potential for a sudden reversal: regeneration is one of the essential myths of French culture.
Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People is published by Allen Lane this month. To order a copy for £16 (RRP £20), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.