On the French mind


On the French mind

Sudhir Hazareesingh on the rise and fall of modern French thought.

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Topics Long-reads Politics

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Intellectual self-confidence has never been in short supply in modern France. As the great 19th-century philosopher Auguste Comte modestly asserted, ‘the philosophical spirit’ was more developed in Paris than anywhere else in the world. It’s a claim with foundation. In Descartes and Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, the Enlightenment burned at its brightest in France; ideas deepened and were died for; the French Revolution inspired liberators across the globe; and in the 20th century, French intellectuals, from Sartre to Derrida, spoke to their eras in ways few others could.

But that was then. As Sudhir Hazareesingh remarks in How the French Think (2015), a powerful, intimate intellectual history, modern French thought has marched ‘from a confident and often brazen optimism to a mood of increasing introspection marked by a sense of unease with the world and a sentimental attachment to the heroes and glories of the past’. And Hazareesingh should know. A historian and lecturer in French politics at Balliol College, Oxford, Hazareesingh has long been immersed in the modern French imagination, exploring its key aspects in The Legend of Napoleon (2004); Intellectuals and the French Communist Party: Disillusion and Decline (1991); and his study of Gaullism, In the Shadow of the General (2012).

So to find out what has happened to French thought, what lay behind its ascent, and what underpins its apparent fall, the spiked review decided to put the questions to Hazareesingh himself…

spiked review: You write that the the principal aim of How the French Think is to identify the cultural distinctiveness of French thinking. How is it possible to define the cultural distinctiveness of a thought in national terms?

Sudhir Hazareesingh: It is a bit of a challenge, particularly when you’re focusing on a country as large and diverse as France. There are always intellectual and cultural tendencies pulling in slightly different directions, and there’s also the territorial dimension, which means that developments in one part of the country may not be happening with the same intensity in other parts.

But what makes it possible to approximate an idea of a French thought is that perhaps more than any other country in the Western world, France is culturally centralised. Long before the French Revolution even, there were several important institutions based in Paris which perceived it as their mission to create a national culture. This goes back to the Middle Ages with the academies, including the Académie Française, which was formally established in 1635.

The French Revolution is a key moment. It gives that drive towards a national culture a much more democratic and republican quality. A very centralised education system is founded, something the Napoleonic influence intensifies. So by the time you get to the early 20th century, all the institutions of intellectual and cultural excellence are concentrated in Paris. It’s very different from the way, historically, ideas have been institutionalised in Britain or America. There wasn’t, for instance, the same kind of institutional concentration in London. In France, it really does all happen not just in Paris, but a small subsection of Paris, which contains the big lycées, the elite universities, the major newspapers and journals, indeed, this whole intellectual life, all of which acquires such a special quality from the late 19th century onwards.

It is this centralisation, this cultural concentration, that underpins the general conceptions of French thought which I discuss in my book.

review: As you explain, few, if any, other nations venerate a philosopher in the way that France venerates Descartes. So much so, in fact, that Emile Durkheim felt confident enough to assert that ‘Every French person is to some degree, whether consciously or not, a Cartesian’. So why is Descartes so central to French thought?

Hazareesingh: First, he’s a seminal influence in terms of the history of philosophy. In France, there’s a very consistent effort to separate philosophy from theology and Descartes happens to be the figure who represents the landmark separation of the two (even though Descartes was a devout Christian). Descartes’ whole method is an attempt to make that separation between philosophy and theology effective.

But Descartes is also important because he’s picked up by Enlightenment thinkers and especially republicans, who turn his idea of what it is to have learning, of what it is to show learning, of the need to cultivate a sense of moral autonomy and intellectual daring, into the cornerstone of their idea of human rationality. So, by the late 18th century, the ideal of what it is to be a citizen rests on this very Cartesian ideal of individual autonomy and rationality. Rationality comes to be the defining essence of what it is to be a Republican citizen. Hence the French state’s emphasis on education, on culture, on learning.

So it’s those two elements, the emancipation of philosophy from theology, and his focus on logical clarity and rationality, that make Descartes vital for successive generations of republicans, from the French Revolution up until the Second World War.

review: You’ve touched on it already, but just how important is the French Revolution to the development of French thought?

Hazareesingh: It’s fundamental. First of all it gives the decisive impetus to Republicanism itself. It creates a dominant culture that develops throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in which ideas of liberty, of equality, become central to French intellectual life. And the whole impetus for that comes from the revolution.

The revolution also creates a particular intellectual elite, which comes to be very closely associated with the seat of power. Sociologically speaking, this makes it very different from the political elites produced elsewhere in Europe at the same time.

For a start, the French political elite develops a far more symbiotic relationship with institutions of higher education. This cuts across political divides, too. On the one side, you have François Guizot (1787-1874), one of the great conservative liberal politicians of the 19th century, who taught at the Sorbonne and was involved with the Académie Française. On the other side, the likes of the Socialist Party leader Jean Jaures (1859-1914), or the left-leaning prime minister Leon Blum (1872-1950), come out of the École Normale Supérieure. So the Académie Française and the École Normale in particular are not just institutions that produce great intellectuals; they also produce people who go on to exercise power at the very highest level. And that’s a consequence of the French Revolution.

In a sense, the revolution empowered thinkers and French thought, and that’s always been the big singularity of France; that intellectuals are always close to, or in a relationship with, the French state. They see the state as their interlocutor, and their duty to shape the public sphere (and to intervene if they believe collective values are being threatened): these are key parts of the French story.

review: You argue that one of the most distinctive aspects of French thought is its sense of its own importance, and more pertinently, its ‘yearning for universality’. Why does French thought have such a strong aspiration to universality?

Hazareesingh: It’s a difficult question to which one can only offer hypotheses. One such hypothesis is that it’s due to the secularisation of the universality that was already there in Catholic theology. You can see this continuity when you look at the language the French Revolutionaries use to describe the universal appeal of the ideas of the French Revolution; it’s very clearly putting a secular gloss on those older ideas of religious universalism.

But, especially from the later 19th century onwards, there is a cultural component to French universalism, this notion that France has an exceptional culture and that its mission is not just to promote the political ideas of the French Revolution but also to make that cultural excellence available to the rest of the world. If you look at the language used by the French colonialists towards the end of the 19th century, you see those two things combined, especially by the elite of the Third Republic: political universalism and a sense of cultural excellence.

There’s a paradox here, too. The universality of French thought becomes an instrument of colonial domination. In fact, it’s a double contradiction, because the other terrible thing about French colonialism is that it didn’t actually extend the benefits of Enlightenment to their colonies in anything like the way one might have expected. In the 1950s, after 130 years of colonial rule in Algeria, less that 10 per cent of the colonial population could read or write. So while the idea of French colonialism is underpinned by this idea of universality, the practice of colonialism radically undermines it. Emmanuel Macron, the French presidential candidate, recently caused a stir when he described French rule in Algeria as a ‘crime against humanity’. But it was also a crime against the generous ideals of republican universality.

This universality, the universality of French ideas, of French culture, continues to be a very important component, even to this day, of how the French see themselves. Americans also have this idea that the US is a great nation, but that notion of American greatness has virtually no cultural component. Instead, it’s all about power and, with the neoconservatives, about projecting certain political values, the idea of the free market and individual self-realisation. America’s sense of greatness is political and economic and military in nature. But France’s sense of greatness is hardly economic at all; it’s very strongly based on an idea of cultural excellence. And it’s this sense of France’s cultural greatness, the nation that has given so much to the world, that Charles de Gaulle revives after the Second World War.

review: You mention the paradox of French colonialism, that universality in theory justified domination in practice. But what’s interesting about the universality of French Enlightenment thought is the way in which, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, in one particular French colony, Saint-Domingue, slaves, led by Toussaint Louverture, used the universality of French Enlightenment and Revolution ideas, of the rights of man, of natural liberty and so on, against the colonialists of the French Republic…

Hazareesingh: I’m actually working on the Haitian Revolution for my next book! It’s now clear to me that if one is really looking for the embodiment of the ideal of fraternité in the late 18th century, it is not to be found in the French Revolution, but rather in the Haitian Revolution. It’s not the French republicans who get rid of slavery. It’s the Saint-Domingue slaves who force the local French authorities to abolish slavery in 1793. And it’s only once that has taken place that the Convention adopts (without any great enthusiasm, it must be said) the decree abolishing slavery in 1794. This contribution of the Haitian slaves is rarely acknowledged in France today.

I am struck by the way in which Louverture tries to create a community founded on the principle of fraternity: extending reconciliation even to former enemies; defending the interests of former slaves; promoting ideas, not just of reconciliation, but of generosity, of inclusivity, too. It’s all there. By the late 18th century, Haiti has become almost a model of a fraternal community.

I believe it’s one of the great tragedies not just for Haiti, but for France, and indeed for humanity, that this experiment is shattered by the French invasion in 1802. It’s bad for Haiti, because what emerges after the war of independence is a very different model of independence, one in which settlers are completely eliminated from the picture. This is not what Toussaint wanted. His vision was much more like Mandela’s ideal of post-apartheid South Africa.

I’m also finding that Louverture was not just influenced by French ideas, but also by African political traditions and Caribbean ideas and values. So what makes the success of the Haitian Revolution is that it takes some inspiration from French revolutionary ideas, but these are blended with African and Caribbean practices and values.

review: We’ve talked a lot about the progressive aspect of French thought. But how did the post-revolutionary right perceive French culture? Presumably they didn’t share the same yearning for universality.

Hazareesingh: They had a more elitist view of what French culture was. So all the way up to the First World War, one of the key ideological tenets of the right was monarchism. Their idea of French culture was one produced by and around the monarchical tradition in France. So they held a particular view of high culture, and were of course very dismissive of the Enlightenment. This dimension of French thought positions itself as a sort of counter-Enlightenment.

But certainly during the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, you see a greater convergence between the left and the right on the idea of culture. That’s why I think Gaullism is so important. It doesn’t just democratise the right politically; it also democratises it culturally. It’s no accident that the major figure in Gaullist circles is André Malraux, a novelist and art theorist from the left who becomes minister of cultural affairs under de Gaulle. If you had asked Malraux, ‘what is French culture?’, the kind of answer he’d give would be indistinguishable from the kind of answer you’d get from a progressive or a Communist.

So over time, this idea of French universalism becomes a common heritage of the left and the right. Certainly during the modern era of the Fifth Republic, there’s little difference in left and right conceptions of culture. All the presidents of the Fifth Republic have shared a similar idea of France, and the meaning of French culture.

review: You mention Gaullism, but the other significant political force of the mid-20th century is the French Communist Party. What role did the Communist Party play in the development (or not) of French thought?

Hazareesingh: The Communist Party (PCF) is, as Sartre said of Marxism, ‘the unsurpassable horizon’. From the 1930s to the late 1970s, the PCF represents the dominant political force on the left. And that’s a reason for the strength and the intellectual cohesion of the French left during much of the 20th century. But it also has a cost, because it means that all the other parts of the left define themselves in relation to the PCF, which is why so much of the debate among French intellectuals from the 1930s until the 1980s is either about the PCF or about ideas that are central to Communist ideology – the role of the working class, the necessity of radical change, the alignment with the USSR and so on. These are the big questions that French intellectuals discussed, because they’re questions that are pivotal to the PCF.

The PCF’s predominance means that French intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century miss out on some of the major global developments of the era, because they’re not issues that the PCF is interested in. Anti-colonial struggles, for instance, are largely ignored. Several French intellectuals, including Sartre, do pick up on anti-colonialism, but it’s very likely that the French would have been much more forthright in championing anti-colonial struggles if there hadn’t been such a large Communist Party, especially during the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s only really in the 1970s and 1980s, when the PCF is declining, that the left starts to be able to engage more fully with some of these previously obscured issues. But by then, it’s too late.

One of the striking things historically about the French left is the absence of a proper social-democratic tradition. There is a Socialist Party, and it exercises power, but, recalling the distinction Leon Blum made between the conquest and the exercise of power, the socialists have always exercised power, but they have never ideologically conquered power. They have never had to think through what they want to do, what their relationship is with capitalism, to what extent they want to change the system. From 1983 onwards, following the Socialists’ and Communists’ defeat in the municipal elections of that year, the French socialists, with Mitterrand the French president, just become managers of the system. They, or their intellectuals, do not undertake any significant theoretical work to underpin what they do in government. So what you see over the past four decades is periods of Socialist rule ending systematically in collapse. The Mitterrand years ended in disgrace; Lionel Jospin didn’t even make it to the second round in 2002; and look at the terrible state the Socialist Party is in now, after five years of Hollande in power.

review: How the French Think is almost a story of the rise and fall of French thought, and one of the clearest areas in which this decline is evident is republicanism. Why has the republican idea degenerated into little more than what you call ‘ethnic nationalism’?

Hazareesingh: I think it’s very closely connected to two things that happened more or less at the same time. The first is the loss of the left’s ideological bearings under the Mitterrand presidency. With the decline of Communism, ideas of progress, of progressive change, simply become associated with the exercise of power. When the exercise of power becomes corrupting or corruptive, intellectuals just feel disoriented.

The collapse of Communism also has a bigger impact on France, especially on the French left, than elsewhere, because the underlying assumptions of the French left were still very much tied not so much to Soviet Communism as it then was, but to its underlying principles. And very quickly, those principles, those certainties, were swept away. During the 1990s, nothing emerges to replace those underlying principles, except one thing: the idea of the republic. So the republic becomes a rallying cry for progressives, but it’s a republic that no longer has any clear ideological content, except patriotism. This creates the opening for nationalists, who are actually very different from patriots, who are open and inclusive; the key argument of nationalists is that France is under threat, and needs to be protected.

The 1980s and 1990s are crucial here. From that point, French concerns about globalisation, European integration and the way in which both are impairing French interests start to gain traction. A left-wing version emerges too, in which Europe is a capitalist construct, globalisation is eroding our economic sovereignty and so on. At this point, you start to see the emergence of an increasingly overt nationalistic discourse on the left. And a lot of these thinkers who have come to prominence at the start of the 21st century, from Alain Finkielkraut to Renaud Camus, in terms of their intellectual or ideological evolution, come out of that moment of republican nationalism.

Someone like Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who left the Socialist Party in 1993 and founded the Citizens’ Movement (now known as the Republican and Citizen Movement), is crucial to this intellectual shift towards republican nationalism. He is a kind of passage between the left and the new nationalism during the first decade of the 21st century. And his impact goes well beyond the left. Florian Philippot, one of Marine Le Pen’s intellectual gurus, comes from the Chevènementist stable. So this whole way of thinking, this cultural nationalism, is something that spreads out much further than the left, but its origins are on the left.

review: You write of how deeply felt is the sense of decline in France. You get it in the West generally, but why is that pessimism so acute in France?

Hazareesingh: It’s acute partly because for about 40 years after the Second World War, French men and women bought into the Gaullist myth that France was a great nation, that they won the Second World War, that they had this glorious role and mission in the international system. And political elites repeated this myth to themselves and to the French people. And all the way through to the Mitterrand presidency, this myth of French greatness defines the way the French think of themselves.

The first major blow to this mythical self-image is the re-emergence of the Vichy in the late 20th century. The French hadn’t really talked about this dark moment, this period when the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and deported Jews. But then in the 1990s, in the late Mitterrand era, suddenly the reality of what the Vichy was comes to light. This punctures the Gaullist myth of wonderful France, of the Resistance, of the nation that had this vocation to transform the world in the progressive era. French pessimism starts at this point, around 1995, 1996, with the implosion of the Gaullist myth.

But there are other factors, too. Part of this pessimism is a pessimism about France’s own political elite, which kicks in during the late 20th, early 21st century. The French have become pessimistic because they no longer believe in their republican political institutions, and the collective values they are meant to embody. Remember French identity is very closely bound with ideas of citizenship and ideas about collective virtue. But once you stop believing that your political institutions are bearers of these values, then you naturally become much less sanguine about politics in general. And it is hard to blame them: look at the latest scandal which has engulfed François Fillon’s candidacy for the presidency, for example: it has just confirmed the widespread view that French politicians are corrupt and self-serving.

review: Returning to French thought itself, it’s noticeable that there appears to have been a decline in the quality of French intellectual life. What happened to those era-defining intellectuals and thinkers, from the existentialists to the post-structuralists, many of us still associate with France?

Hazareesingh: It’s a complicated story. You can tell it in terms of a change of the guard that never happened. You have the last great generation of French intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, the last representatives of which are Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu. They’re the last great exemplars of that universalist tradition. And there isn’t a new generation that has come from behind to replace them.

The really interesting question sociologically is ‘why?’. France hasn’t really changed that dramatically over the course of one generation. So I think part of the answer is the relative decline of those intellectual institutions that were producing these great figures. Most of the intellectual elite of the postwar era come out of the École Normale Supérieure: Sartre, Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida – they’re all Normaliens. Part of this story, then, is the decline of the École Normale. Very clever people, especially from the Fifth Republic onwards, now go not to the École Normale, but to the technocratic institutions such as the École Nationale d’Administration, the École Polytechnique and so on. There’s a kind of technocratic shift in terms of where and how the intellectual elites are trained. So if you’re the best and the brightest before 1945, there was no question you would go into the École Normale, you would do philosophy and you would become an intellectual. But that’s not the way the elite is formed now. Now if you’re very bright, there’s an alternative route that people follow. So part of the reason why you don’t have public intellectuals of a similar kind of quality as before is that they pursue a different route.

I’m very struck by someone like the presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron. A hundred years ago, Macron would have been a pure product of the École Normale. He’s done some philosophy already (he worked with Paul Ricoeur), and if you listen to the way he speaks, you can discern that philosophical bent to him. But as you know, he went on to become a pure product of that technocratic elite that has taken over the political and intellectual system. Someone like him, perhaps even 50 years ago, would have followed a different route. And that explains the difference to some considerable extent: the way the French elites are trained has changed, or rather there’s been a change in the balance of power in French cultural and intellectual institutions.

That change is political, too, of course. That is the success of the Fifth Republic. It created a kind of shift in the intellectual and cultural institutions, and gave more power to the technocrats, for better or for worse (mostly, I would say, for the worse). And so the French political and intellectual system has changed.

review: So philosophy’s been usurped by technocracy…

Hazareesingh: Yes, philosophy has been usurped by technocracy. Exactly. I always have to be careful when expressing this, because a lot of the academic philosophers, especially in France, get very cross, because one is basically saying to them that they’re not as good as their predecessors. But it’s true. Who reads mainstream French philosophy now? One would be hard pressed these days even to name a living French thinker of a similar stature to the likes of Foucault and Derrida.

review: The only living figure that comes to mind is Alain Badiou, but he’s of the Foucauldian generation anyway…

Hazareesingh: Exactly. He’s very much of that vintage. And he’s also a Normalien. So it’s those great Normaliens who are just about hanging on. Even Bernard Henri-Levy, who I give a bit of rough time in How the French Think, is a product of the École Normale. You could write the history of those two great 20th-century generations of intellectuals entirely in terms of the École Normale Supérieure: in many respects, it was the apogee of its power as a cultural institution.

Sudhir Hazareesingh is a fellow in politics at Balliol College, Oxford. He is the author of several books, including most recently How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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