The French have historically valued high culture and given an almost sacred role to the writer. Intellectuals have always had a prominent role in French, their ideas debated with intensity. Their philosophers and thinkers have influenced political life to a degree rarely seen in other nations.
France is arguably the world’s most self-consciously intellectual country, devoted to reason, abstraction and logic. French historian and political essayist André Siegfried claimed that French thought had been the driving force behind all the major advances of human civilization
But is this today no longer the case? So contends Sudhir Hazareesingh, a tutor in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, in a new book,“How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.”
A specialist in French political and cultural history, the Mauritian-born Hazareesingh has also written“In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of De Gaulle,”arguing that de Gaulle saved the French political right after the disaster of the Vichy regime in the Second World War. (The general also considered France a country with an “eminent and exceptional destiny.”)
“French thought is in the doldrums,” Hazareesingh declares in his new book. “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.”
In the past, French civilian and military heroes inspired national liberators throughout the world, French legal codes were widely adopted, and the 1789 Revolution became a template, for better or worse, elsewhere in Europe and later, on other continents.
Victor Hugo proclaimed that Paris was the “centre of the earth.” As the New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik has remarked, Paris “remade human consciousness.”
From the Enlightenment onwards, French ideas and symbols were universally equated with self-determination and emancipation from servitude: the Statue of Liberty, the iconic emblem of America, was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi.
Yet little of this ideological fertility is now in evidence, maintains Hazareesingh, 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.”
In any case, there was a darker side to “the deeply held assumption of the beneficial quality of French civilization for humankind.”
French progressives consistently advocated a policy of assimilation in their colonies, due to their uncritical belief in their “mission civilizatrice,” which would bring “civilization” to those under their rule. France had a duty to enlighten the rest of the world.
France’s republican heritage and civilization would be offered to all of its subjects, who could become assimilated as French citizens. The empire would become an integral part of France. But this proved a disaster in places like Algeria and Syria.
In France itself, the republican principle of laicité, or secularism, and the strict interpretation of the 1905 law of separation of church and state, which states that religion has no place in the public square, has bedeviled relations with the country’s growing Muslim population.
France is no longer a major power, and there is now a widespread belief that French culture is itself in crisis. Hazareesingh cites France’s diminishing cultural imprint on the wider world. The decline of French as a global language, and its replacement by English, is resented by many.
The mixture of rationalism, republicanism and Marxism that dominated the mindset of the nation’s progressive elites for much of the modern era has disintegrated, concludes Hazareesingh, and with it much of the confidence, and even arrogance, of the French intelligentsia. “Grandiose declarations of intellectual and spiritual superiority” are not heard as often as in the past.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.