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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 François Hollande government in the spring, French intellectuals and politicians have been playing assigned roles in a kabuki drama about how many hours per week students should be studying what kind of history, and when Greek and Latin should be offered to them. The curriculum in France is set at the national level, which means that the president of one of the most powerful countries on earth must have a position on when Le Misanthrope should be taught and whether gym classes should last sixty or ninety minutes. And any respectable intellectual must have one too.

Does all this activity mean that the average French person is more cultured than his homologues in other European countries? That’s hard to say, given that what counts as being cultured varies from place to place. Literature is paramount in France, music in Germany, the visual arts in Italy. These implicit hierarchies shape other forms of cultural activity. In France philosophy is understood to be a kind of imaginative literature or poetic performance, while in Germany it has always had symphonic ambitions. (In Italy it consists in restoring old masterworks.) What strikes one in comparison with the United States and even Britain is how high middlebrow culture is across continental Europe; what strikes one in comparing these European countries with each other is the diversity of cultural styles. Which is why, ever since Madame de Staël wrote De l’Allemagne during Napoleon’s reign to celebrate the Germans as sensitive romantics allergic to tyranny (unlike the French), and Heinrich Heine responded with his own De l’Allemagne portraying them as brutal pagans capable of anything, Europeans have been trying to unlock the cultural codes of their neighbors—and, in so doing, unlock their own.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People is a stimulating contribution to this literature. Born in Mauritius, Hazareesingh is a specialist in French politics at Oxford and the author of a highly regarded book on the legend of Napoleon. In this work he displays not only a deep familiarity with French society, but a rare sense for a foreigner of what really matters in French intellectual life once you dig below the surface. He is an excellent teller of tales with a good eye for the revealing anecdote. Here we learn about a French journalist who visited Descartes’s birthplace on the 350th anniversary of his death and ran into an old woman who expressed some pride in the philosopher’s intellectual achievements, but especially in the (imagined) fact that he was the “lover of a queen,” Christina of Sweden. Hazareesingh knows that “intellectual excellence combined with sexual prowess” is the strongest aphrodisiac west of the Rhine. He also has a gift for the quick sketch, as in this perfect description of De Gaulle:


He was a man of order who became a rebel, a Bonapartist who disliked war, a republican whose style of rule was monarchical, a radical reformer who appealed to conservatives, a melancholic spirit who constantly trumpeted his optimism, and a statesman who would have loved to be a writer.

That said, How the French Think gets off to a rough start. The title is catchy but the book’s scope is not as wide as it implies. Hazareesingh’s interests are mainly political and social, and he doesn’t venture into how the French think about, say, love, family, success, beauty, food, the future, or death, or how they might express their thoughts in forms other than writing. (There is little about film and nothing about television, which is now the biggest gear in the French culture machine.)

Then there is the introduction, which tries to summarize the whole book but only serves as an impediment, piling up too many themes in detail, leaving the impression that the author is unwittingly attributing everything and its contrary to the French: that they are rationalists and dreamers, that their thinking is both binary and “holistic” (a term he uses frequently without defining it), lucid and imaginative, precise and abstract, Cartesian and Derridian.

But once he gets over this hurdle the chapters begin to make sense. One discovers that Hazareesingh is laying out these oppositions for a reason: he wants to show us that the French mind, like any mind, has different sides and that what makes it French is when and how any particular side is revealed. The first half of How the French Think is a kind of collective brain scan, something richer than a conventional portrait of national character. (The second half is almost a separate book, as we’ll see.)

We start, predictably enough, with Descartes. Ever since the eighteenth century the French have been praised and denounced as rationalists, including by themselves. Throughout the nineteenth century Descartes was claimed, plausibly, as a precursor by anticlerical dogmatists, grand intellectual system builders like Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, and republican historians trying to construct a useful past for modern democratic government. He was also denounced by Catholic thinkers as the serpent in the garden who spread doubt about revealed truths, making him the real father of the French Revolution.

But Descartes is a mythical symbol that can be invoked in almost any situation and by the most surprising people. Just after World War II Maurice Thorez, leader of the French Communist Party, declared that the author of the Discourse on Method “teaches us hope and confidence, faith in human intelligence, a love for the all-conquering power of labor.” A few years later a fellow-traveling author wrote that “there is no one more ‘Cartesian’ than Stalin,” meaning the highest form of praise. More recently a horticulturalist developed a rose named after Descartes, calling it “an international rose, serious in its behavior and Latin in its color.”

So are “clear and distinct ideas” characteristically French? Perhaps. But then so is fascination with mysticism and the occult. In the book’s best chapter Hazareesingh takes us on a tour of the dark side, beginning with the strange Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, a nobleman and self-styled theosophist born in 1743 whose mystical philosophical writings found an influential audience in the decades leading up to the Revolution—so influential that for some time he was thought to have been the author of the revolutionary slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité. This fascination continues. It turns out that the arch-socialist François Mitterrand was in the habit of consulting a former model and starlet who had set up shop as an astrologist (and who may have been his lover). As she reports in her memoirs, he had her draw up astrological profiles of potential political appointees and during the first Gulf War would sometimes call her twice a day for a reading of the stars. He even asked her advice on when to hold the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, in the end choosing September 20 as a particularly auspicious day. (The treaty barely passed.)


But even secular French thinkers immune to mysticism have been obsessed by religion, to the extent that they invented their own. To put it in psychological terms, the French have never gotten over killing God during the Enlightenment, and cope with it in one of two ways: by ritually reenacting the murder through radical atheism, or by searching for something to fill the now empty tabernacle. It was counterrevolutionary thinkers like Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald who first spoke of the spiritual vacuum created by the Revolution and of society’s need to fill it, one of the most potent and consequential ideas in nineteenth-century European thought. Few know that it can be traced from these Catholic reactionaries all the way down to the sociology of Emile Durkheim in France and well beyond today.

In his later years Saint-Simon, the futurist prophet of a utopian industrial society, also began speaking of the need to create a “new Christianity,” which for him meant a godless, humanistic social morality. After his death some of his followers withdrew to a commune in the Paris neighborhood of Ménilmontant where they lived like a cult devoted to this religion and could be identified by their clothing, which was always buttoned in back (thus requiring social cooperation to get dressed). Auguste Comte, once Saint-Simon’s secretary, went so far as to create a religious calendar where every day was a feast day devoted to an important thinker. He also developed a list of sacraments that included one to be held several years after a person’s death, “incorporating” him or her into the cosmos.

Some of Comte’s Brazilian followers went around building Temples of Humanity, one of which still holds weekly services in Rio de Janeiro, and another in Paris that can still be visited. And then there was the more than half-mad utopian Charles Fourier, whose mountain of writings contain detailed (Cartesian) plans for communal “philansteries,” organized down to the last detail, that would be held together by a (mystical) religion of love and sexual desire.

It’s refreshing to read a book that recognizes this French double- mindedness. Hazareesingh is also good on the complexities of the French political psychology. He recognizes that the distinction between the left and the right is about more than ideas, that the Revolution created two political families with different cultures that survived intact until the 1960s: one Catholic, comfortable with authority, and appealing to the idea of the nation; the other secular, slightly anarchistic, and appealing to the Republic or, further to the left, le peuple. In one family you celebrated the Fête de Jeanne d’Arc in May, in the other you attended the Communist Fête de l’Humanité in September. All the two families shared was a detestation of the bourgeoisie.

It would have been good, though, to have Hazareesingh’s thoughts on how these cultural distinctions have broken down since the 1960s, as church attendance declined, a neoliberal right appeared, former working-class Communist voters turned to the xenophobic National Front, and a post-1960s bobo left grew up outside the traditional parties, focusing on humanitarianism and antiracism, and finding a home in newer media outlets like the newspaper Libération, the television station Canal Plus, and today the news site Mediapart.

He does remark on the enduring French distaste for ordinary politics and attraction to leaders promising to raise them above their petty squabbling and unify the nation. Though France is one of the most atheistic nations on earth—surpassed only by Japan, China, and, oddly, the Czech Republic—it has always revered political messiahs: Napoleon, Boulanger, Pétain, De Gaulle, Mitterrand. (As a British historian of France once pointed out to me, the French like their messiahs to be either very, very tall, or very, very short.) The French are by nature impatient and when they fall behind other nations they dream of a grand bond en avant that will put them back in the lead. In the face of the oil crisis of the early 1970s President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing famously declared that “France has no oil, but it has ideas!” A few years later he fell victim to a complex hoax involving a Belgian count, an Italian inventor, and Opus Dei, concerning a secret project to develop an oil-sniffing plane that had been presented to him by officials of a state-controlled petroleum company. Over $150 million were spent clandestinely on the project before the government recognized the scam—and quickly covered it up. France was left without the promised oil and one less bright idea.

The first half of How the French Think ends with an insightful discussion of what holds the nation together, in particular the increasingly mythical notion of la France profonde rooted in small towns and regions. (Although almost all those in the political class are educated in a few select schools in Paris and spend their entire adult lives there, it is important at election time to invoke one’s real or imagined provincial roots, appear at agricultural fairs, drink pastis with the locals, and resist checking your text messages.) But then what seems like a second book begins. Abandoning the brain scan approach to French thinking, Hazareesingh adopts a more conventional historical approach, telling the somewhat familiar story of French intellectual disputes over politics running from Jean-Paul Sartre down to the present.

For those who don’t already know this story, Hazareesingh is a good guide. He begins with Sartre’s and Camus’s existentialism and the very different political lessons they drew from it, moves to the rise of a politically ambiguous structuralism and post-structuralism based in the universities (which soon became a cargo cult in the United States), then to Maoist radicalism growing out of the events of May 1968, and finally the splash made by the antitotalitarian “new philosophers” of the late 1970s. He disdains “the transience of intellectual fashions” in this period and the sacerdotal role the media class bestowed on one thinker after another, along with the expectation that they would have articulate and “interesting” positions on just about every subject, without deigning to master any of them. Sartre has a lot to answer for, in his view.

Yet Hazareesingh isn’t happy with what followed either. Beginning in the 1980s a more liberal (in the Anglo-American sense) strain of French political thought developed under the influence of Raymond Aron and the historian François Furet, who reoriented attention away from Marxism and structuralism toward Tocqueville’s writings on democracy. This also marked a change in intellectual comportment. Rather than sign petitions or publish yet another dramatic J’accuse!, these liberals were more likely to write articles in new reviews like Le Débat on particular social problems and public policies to address them. As the coeditor of Le Débat Marcel Gauchet put it, the time had come for “the promotion of real values against false ones, analysis against clichés, reasoning rather than sloganeering, the sense of difficulty against the dictatorship of facility”—all of which, on Hazareesingh’s account, were lacking among the postwar French political intellectuals.

During the 1980s antitotalitarian liberalism became not only respectable—Sartre had once famously stated that “all anti-Communists are dogs”—it seemed to receive history’s benediction with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the regimes of its satellite nations. For some time Furet had been arguing that “the French Revolution is over”—by which he meant that the problems facing France’s settled democratic society could no longer be understood by referring to the revolutionary intellectual tradition that had given birth to Marxism. He even published a book with two collaborators titled La République du centre (The Republic of the Center) in which he argued that France had finally become a normal postindustrial democratic society and that its politics would no longer be determined by the old ideological families of revolutionary left and reactionary right.

By the mid-1990s that seemed a questionable judgment. After Prime Minister Alain Juppé announced relatively moderate reforms in the welfare state in 1995 he was met with large-scale demonstrations and strikes, the biggest since May ’68, and out of those movements a new kind of intellectual left emerged, led by figures like the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and centered in provincial universities around the country.

Hazareesingh, who seems to be one of those liberals who needs to feel he’s just to the left of himself, treats this as a significant and even welcome development. But this newest left, which has equivalents across Europe, is little more than a pantomime movement of bourgeois hipsters aping media-shaped images of the barricades and drawing inspiration from intellectual performance artists like Slavoj Žižek and the neo-Communist philosopher Alain Badiou. The most comical example of this tendency is the self-styled Comité Invisible, which publishes handsome little pamphlets about the coming revolution, but remains anonymous because, you know, it’s dangerous out there. (It does, however, maintain a Facebook page.) These groups have no influence whatever on public opinion or electoral politics. The real challenge to the Furet thesis of a centrist republic since the 1990s has come from the National Front on the right, whose members are proud to sign anything they write.

How the French Think ends on a somber note, for the very good reason that ever since the euphoria of the early 1990s passed the French have felt a malaise. It shows up in public opinion surveys, in the media, in learned books. “Even idiots have now stopped being happy,” Hazareesingh quotes someone saying. What is it about? What isn’t it about, one is tempted to answer. Unemployment, labor laws that make hiring hard, the overbearing strength of Europe, the weakness of Europe, the lack of innovation, the sense that too much is changing, the mediocrity and insularity of the political class, schools that are too demanding, schools that aren’t demanding enough—for two decades now this self-contradictory litany has been repeated. Add to it the very real challenge of political Islamism and the social conditions in which it flourishes and the picture can look bleak.

But Hazareesingh is right to argue that moroseness is a kind of collective psychological syndrome in France that has flared up in the past, most dramatically in the decades between the world wars. It induces a kind of intellectual posturing and political passivity that reinforce each other. It also, I would add, restores impotent dreams of a grand bond en avant to escape the present.

America looms large in these dreams. The anti-Americanism of the past that portrayed the United States—or, with Britain, the “Anglo-Saxons”—as a bloodthirsty empire of cultural barbarians is less palpable than it used to be, and there are generally warm feelings for the chief of the Anglo-Saxon tribes, Barack Obama. Today one rather has the impression that many think the way for France to recover its vitality is for it to become half-American—so long as they can choose which half. Some fantasize about Silicon Valleys springing up across the country (but with government seed money and strong labor regulations), others fantasize about France developing a more open and daring culture (but with high taxes to make sure no one makes any money from it), and others still fantasize about Paris becoming a center of world finance (without anyone having to work on Sundays). Authors of recent books on the French malaise can be divided into California dreamers and those in a New York state of mind.

But France will never be America for the simple reason that it is a deeply conservative country, perhaps the most conservative in Europe. Despite their radical tradition in politics and the arts, what unifies the French across the political spectrum today is their distrust of change. (This, perhaps more than any idealism about Europe, was behind the extraordinary recent efforts of François Hollande to keep Greece within the eurozone under just about any conditions.) The truth is that the French like the way they are; if presented with the set of all genuinely possible worlds most would undoubtedly choose the one they find themselves in. One can’t help thinking that if the French were able to recognize themselves for what they are, and the advantages of being that way, they would deal with their problems moderately but steadily. That would not be terribly interesting intellectually, but it might restore their joie de vivre.