‘I smoke, therefore I am’: Is this the end of the French Intellectual?

As the French elections sow division throughout Paris and American culture creeps slowly in, can the Gallic ideal of the professional intellectual hold?

March has arrived on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It is springtime in Paris: that enviable when and where which conjures romantic images of a blue sky over the Seine, marinières, and lovers walking hand-in-hand. Today, however, and for the rest of the week, it is raining, and under the awning of the cafe Les Deux Magots, huddled around small tables, people stare out at the street and at, well… ‘Springtime in Paris’. 

I mention this to the waiter as he sets down my coffee. “Bien sûr,” he replies, “reality is often not the same as the idea.” A tall raven-haired man in a black jacket and bow-tie, he appears the image of the classic garcon. Paris is good at inserting its most famous tropes into the tourist’s periphery; insisting to us that little has changed from its 1920s-1960s intellectual heyday. And as Monsieur returns to the salon, he passes photographs of his ancestors: esteemed waiters from the cafe’s past, waiting on glamorous thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, or Albert Camus. 

When he slips away, I continue listening to the discussion on the terrasses. War rages far away, but here in Paris, a more trivial kind of war, a uniquely French one, has been sparked over 17th century playwright Molière’s induction to the Panthéon mausoleum. There was talk about it on the radio, and in the pages of Le Point and L’Obs; a debate that has called into question whether France’s proud culture of argument has come under the sway of a more ideological, identity-focused model imported from America. Commentators were at odds over the true nature of the man behind Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, and whether, as one critic noted, he ‘skewered female representation’ in his time. With elections approaching, and after riotously unpopular Covid restrictions, the Molière debate was the latest in a reassessment of France’s deepest values.

Albert Camus's ghost still haunts the terrace of Les Deux Magots

“Being a man of his era should not prevent Molière from being the best spokesperson of a nascent progressivism,” Raphaël Enthoven tells me. The presenter of the long-running television series Philosophy is renowned in France for his cultural criticism in the newspapers, his column ‘Meaning of Life’ and as one of the nation’s influential philosophers. For people of Raphaël’s generation, who grew up in the shadow of thinkers like Sartre, Foucault, Camus, and Levy, respectful debate is a national birthright. This appears less evident in Modern France: “French universalism is constantly being assailed by American ideas,” Raphaël says, echoing a sentiment also shared by President Macron: “It is leading to an impoverishment of debate, which denies people the right to speak. It reduces competence to identity, and replaces discussion with dogmatic assertions.” 

There was an air of uneasy tension during my time in Paris, a creeping fear over emerging anti-establishment populists in the elections. Soon after exiting Gare de Nord, a Tunisian cab driver described an unprecedented divide in the city, of people from either side unable to speak or listen to each other. It’s a situation that we know all too well in Britain, but France’s tradition of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is not only under threat from the new American-model gauchistes. In conversation with Sudhir Hazareesingh, professor of history at Oxford and writer of the astute, bestselling How the French Think, I’m pointed to the other end of the spectrum, to the far-right Éric Zemmour; a bolshy Trumpian commentator turned politician. Sudhir suggests he is the antithesis of, “the French intellectual world’s love of, and its belief, in the possibility of a better world…” adding: “Although I’m an optimist, this belief has faded away since the late 20th century with the appearance of people like Zemmour.” 

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