Au Revoir Les Clercs

It may seem like the French belletrist is a dying breed, but the modern-day public intellectual has always been something of a myth

When France’s socialist-led government under President François Mitterrand ran into severe economic and political difficulties in the summer of 1983, an article appeared in Le Monde penned by the left-wing writer and commentator Max Gallo. Where, Gallo asked, were the intellectuals when a government of the Left needed them? Where were the equivalents to Gide, Malraux and Alain, those who had rallied to the defence of the Popular Front governments of the 1930s? The answer, in brief, was that they were nowhere to be seen.

Since that summer there has been much debate about whether the French intellectual — born with the Dreyfus Affair — is dead, dying or in need of resuscitation. This year’s presidential election campaign provides the answer. The French intellectual looks well and truly dead. Scan the pages of the French press. Listen to the radio or watch the television. There’s not an intellectual in sight. 

Why? First, the intellectual — a left-wing creature by disposition and training — finds nothing to admire in the bland socialist candidate François Hollande. No one believes that he will break with capitalism or has any intention of doing so. The choice before France, trapped in the eurozone, is one form or other of austerity. Second, who in any case would listen to the pleas of the intellectual? The young of France no longer walk around with copies of Foucault and Lacan in their pockets. And why should the intellectuals be taken seriously? They got it wrong on all the big issues of the 20th century — Marxism in particular — and no one now imagines that the intellectual speaks out in the name of universal truths. For intellectuals, read university professors, state employees who are best at defending their own pensions and privileges as fonctionnaires. And were they to speak out, what would be their chosen issues? If there is a big question in French society today it concerns the place of the economically and socially marginalised Muslim population. Yet, secularists to a man and woman, ardent republicans to their fingertips, intellectuals cannot take up the cause of a religious minority which refuses to embrace the core republican doctrine of laicity. Multiculturalism and the French intellectual do not go together.

So, the French intellectual has nowhere to go and no audience. And no future. When all is said and done, this is probably no great loss, either for the French or for us. So, please, no more hunting for this near-extinct species. In any case, like the snark, the French intellectual was always something of a mythical beast. Where were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as the strikes of the Popular Front brought France to a standstill in 1936? On a cycling holiday in the south of France.

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