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France: The Myths

In response to:

The Strangely Conservative French from the October 22, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful for Mark Lilla’s generous and probing review of my book How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People [NYR, October 22]. However it begins with a basic misunderstanding: on offer here is not a general survey of French thought, but an attempt to explain the style, the rhetoric, and the discursive techniques that are characteristic of French thinking. That said, the book deals extensively with many of the subjects Mr. Lilla claims are missing: thus, an entire chapter is devoted to utopianism, and therefore to the question of how the French think about the future.

I would also question Mr. Lilla’s assertion that television has become “the biggest gear in the French culture machine.” If we compare current levels of cultural programming on mainstream French channels with the late twentieth century, there has been an incontestable decline—the few surviving shows are now broadcast very late, and the cerebral atmosphere of Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophes has given way to the brash tone of Laurent Ruquier’s On n’est pas couché. A writer friend of mine who was recently invited on the show compared it to being a contestant on the Hunger Games.

Your readers will have been entertained by Mr. Lilla’s tirade against French intellectuals who contest the neoliberal global order. But would he seriously regard Thomas Piketty and Bruno Latour as nostalgic bourgeois hipsters? In this respect, his closing assertion that the French are “strangely conservative” is paradoxical: French thought is never one-dimensional. The French may be conservative, but they are also lovers of change—and typically of sudden and sweeping change.

Mr. Lilla also overstates the extent to which America continues to loom in the French mind. Tocqueville’s hold over the French imagination is over: those Gallic intellectuals and politicians who aspire to less economic regulation, more pluralism, and greater devolution tend to look nowadays to Britain, and America these days mostly inspires indifference rather than resentment. Indeed Mr. Lilla exhibits a glorious touch of ethnocentrism when he suggests that the French are currently divided between California dreamers and New York wannabes. Are these the only two available options? Perhaps your reviewer too has caught the French disease of reducing everything to binary oppositions.

Sudhir Hazareesingh
Balliol College, Oxford
Oxford, England

Mark Lilla replies:

Between World War II and the 1980s, getting a sense of what was going on in French culture and intellectual life seemed a simple matter. One read the papers Le Monde and possibly Libération (more seldom the conservative Le Figaro, whose circulation is slightly larger). One looked at a few literary revues and weeklies like L’Obs, glanced at the books on the tables at the bookstore La Hune, and tried to catch the latest episode of Apostrophes. That is no longer sufficient—or, since La Hune and Apostrophes have disappeared, even possible. As in most Western countries, today culture in France is being refracted into many different forms and media.

People watch much more television than ever before and thanks to cable the number of stations is now relatively large and diverse. Most are banal but some, like Arte and Canal+, represent something new. News websites focusing on investigative reporting and scandal, spanning the political spectrum, are challenging the staid traditional media. There are inventive sites for those interested in books, politics, art, dance, and music. Hip-hop, which is political and hugely influential in the banlieue housing projects, is its own island, with more bridges extending to North Africa than to the bourgeois arrondissements of Paris. The equally influential and isolated far right blogosphere is a force to be reckoned with, politically and intellectually. Do the same style, rhetoric, and discursive techniques Professor Hazareesingh thinks are characteristically French appear in these realms of contemporary culture as well? I’m curious to know, and I’m sure other readers of his stimulating book will be as well. He does not say, but his thesis depends on it.

As any reader of Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution will attest, I’m not alone in thinking that French institutional and social conservatism almost always dashes dreams of “sweeping change.” What really deserves explanation is how the French myth of their political daring survives its almost daily refutation, much like America’s myth of itself as the land of common sense. As for French attitudes toward the United States, it’s true that Britain is far more attractive to young people and businessmen as a place to work today. But the inspiration of British neoliberalism was of course the US, as Mrs. Thatcher was the first to admit. And the French know that. If Professor Hazareesingh has never found himself at a Paris dinner party with, on his right, a bore just returned from a tour of Bay Area start-ups, and, to his left, a bore waxing nostalgic about his years working for a Wall Street hedge fund, he is a luckier man than I.