The Strangely Conservative French

Magnum Photos
André Malraux, France’s first minister of culture, Paris, 1968; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Two and a half weeks after the Swedish Academy announced that the French novelist Patrick Modiano would receive the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, the French minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, appeared on a popular television show to talk about herself and her work. She expressed pride that “France is again number one on the world stage of culture and the arts” and recounted her lunch earlier that day with Modiano, whom she found sympathique. “We laughed a lot.” The interviewer then asked her which of Modiano’s novels was her favorite. Pellerin gave a very long French uhhhhhhh before admitting “without any problem” that she had not read and did not know the titles of any of them. Since becoming minister she had had no time to read anything but memos, legal documents, and the news. “But you have to find time for it,” the shocked interviewer replied, “it’s important, non?” The minister grinned.

Pellerin’s reputation has not recovered. It’s been a long time since the minister of culture was expected to be an intellectual. The position was created by Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s at the urging of André Malraux, who held the post for a decade, and among his earlier successors were the novelist Maurice Druon, the essayist Alain Peyrefitte, and the journalist Françoise Giroud. But the politicians appointed today are at least expected to talk the talk, to know which intellectuals are in fashion, which exhibitions must be seen, where the summer cultural festivals are, and which novels they should pretend are on their night tables. They must be hypocrites, in the best sense of the term, rendering official homage to virtue. And sometimes it’s more than hypocrisy. President Georges Pompidou was a great lover of French poetry, recited it from memory during cabinet meetings, and published a superb anthology that is still widely read today.

Culture is a cult object in France. It has been estimated that about half of the French population is reading a book at some point every day, around two thousand book prizes are given out every year, and three thousand cultural festivals are held, often in splendid settings. Large government subsidies are given to public radio stations like France Culture, as well as to independent bookstores and countless little magazines. Some years ago the literary historian Marc Fumaroli, now a member of the Académie Française, published a blistering attack on this system, titled L’État culturel (The Cultural State). He did so, though, not on the grounds that it was elitist or cost too much, but in the name of high culture, arguing that government largesse and cultural bureaucracy stifled genuine creativity and independence.

Anti-intellectual populism à l’Américaine has no traction here. An example: ever since a new middle school reform was announced by the…

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