Is insurrection the road to resurrection?

November 12, 2004

French cafes used to buzz with the sound of heated debate, yet many of today's travailleurs intellectuels feel they are being given the cold shoulder.

Three philosophers kick off a five-page look at Derrida's legacy with thoughts on how he transformed the customs and practices of a discipline.

The death of Derrida seemed to many to mark the end of a golden age in France and, coupled with this year's protest against the "war on intellectuals", it has called into question France's profile as an intellectual world leader. But are things really that bad?

Traditionally, the rentrée (the beginning of the political and academic new year) has always been a rough time for French governments. The long summer break has often merely marked a truce in unresolved hostilities built up over the winter and spring months. This year, though, is perhaps different because the Government has had to deal with a whole range of different social, intellectual and cultural issues. In February, the magazine Les Inrockuptibles carried a manifesto denouncing the Raffarin Government. Its signatories, who included Derrida, were protesting against what they saw as a concerted attack on intellectual life in its widest sense, in particular public sector cuts threatening travailleurs intellectuels in all categories, but especially in the areas of the cultural industries and research. More broadly, this was linked to a perceived decline in the status of the public intellectual in France, threatened by the seemingly unassailable prominence of high profile, but often superficial, media figures such as Bernard-Henri Lévy.

In terms of government constraints on the public sector, the complaints centred on two areas: research and arts funding, in particular related to the cinema and the theatre, where a strike in 2003, called by performers whose right to a permanent minimum wage was summarily axed, paralysed drama festivals across the country.

To a certain extent, the Government shows every sign of heading off the rebellion that seemed so probable in March. The new €2.79 billion (£1.94 billion) arts budget, announced in September by Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the Minister of Culture, signals a 5.9 per cent increase on the previous year, wiping out the disastrous cuts of 2003. The greatest beneficiary is the theatre, and young actors have gained more job security.

The budget includes funds for building projects, such as the new Cite Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration in Paris, and provides additional expenditure on archives, libraries and art schools. But one area of disquiet is cinema, which has suffered a net cut in support of €40 million.

The Government has also gone to considerable lengths to address the chronic underfunding in research, with an additional e6 billion promised over the next three years. This will bring the national research budget to an all-time high.

But the problem is structural as well as financial. That the research sector was not totally mollified by the announcement of extra funding was demonstrated by a two-day congress on the state of research in Grenoble in October, which was attended by two ministers, Francois Fillon and François d'Aubert. Both government and researchers have come together in recognising the crisis facing scientific research. According to Le Monde newspaper, there has been a continued decline in world-class research publications from France and a decline in citations, placing the country 12th in the world.

Part of the problem lies in the peculiar nature of the administration of French research, with much of it being conducted by quasi-independent government-funded research institutes, to the partial exclusion of universities. A long-term goal of the researchers who met in Grenoble is the more effective integration of the university sector into the national scientific research strategy, and legislation to be presented to the national assembly next spring appears to address this. It includes plans for a government ministry of higher education. But at the same time, there are a number of other clouds gathering on the horizon of the government's scientific and research rentree, most notably the planned closure of the ancient Hotel-Dieu Hospital next to Notre-Dame and the relocation of the National Archives.

The "war against intellectuals", as opposed to a war against intellectual professions in general, is more complex, not least because it raises questions of perception and expectation that extend beyond France's borders. Even before the death of Derrida, the US historian Perry Anderson was positing the decline and fall of France as a dominant intellectual power, with the disappearance of the postwar public intellectuals of Sartre's and de Beauvoir's generation and that of their more scientific, and academic, successors, including Barthes and Bourdieu. In this context, Derrida's death can be seen as constituting the end of a particular road.

But this perception usually comes from outside France - most French commentaries on Derrida's career, unlike the often wilfully uncomprehending accounts in the British broadsheets, have emphasised his important place in a continuity that is by no means finished. Nor is it clear that the increased mediatisation of figures such as Lévy constitutes any particular danger to French intellectual life. French intellectuals have often used the media to reach a more popular audience.

If governments and schools have their rentrée , so too does the publishing industry, and this year's rentrée testifies to the continuing diversity and richness of the culture. It is true that this is a highly commercialised operation, similar in many ways to the annual Paris motor show that accompanies it. This year, the lack of any new work by Michel Houellebecq evoked the same perplexity as would, say, the absence of a new model from Renault. Yet this commercialisation, which has been a major factor for at least a century, supports a plethora of serious glossy literary magazines in addition to the literary supplements of the quality daily newspapers. At the same time, the quantity, diversity and quality of new works coming on the market is testimony to the continued health of the French publishing industry, which, in spite of concentration into a small number of massive agglomerates, has largely managed to stay out of the hands of the US giants and is still able to cater to a serious academic, as well as the popular, market.

Yet one feature of this year's rentrée is interesting, and it raises the question of literary generation. Two of the most important events have been the publication in Gallimard's Pléiade collection, on special high-quality paper, of André Malraux's writings on art, accompanied by a number of academic and popular studies, and Marie Nimier's La Reine du Silence , tipped for France's top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, which evokes her memories of her father, the 1950s novelist Roger Nimier. Whether this betrays a certain nostalgia in France for intellectual and literary life in the postwar period, reinforced by the massive coverage of the death of Francoise Sagan in September, which certainly at least equalled that of the death of Derrida, or whether it is a recognition of the continuity of that life is a moot point. Next year sees the centenary of the birth of Sartre and the publications and events that surround that will raise again questions concerning the ability of the French intellectual to be continually replicated.

Nick Hewitt is head of the School of Modern Languages at Nottingham University.

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