Left Bank thinkers veer to the right

April 13, 2007

Conservative intellectuals lead the field in French election, writes David Todd

The campaign for this spring's French presidential elections seems to have revived the political influence of Parisian intellectuals but under a new and shocking "neoconservative" guise. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the two leading figures of the French Left-leaning intelligentsia from 1945 until the mid-1970s, would be dumbfounded.

The Left's illusions were already shattered by the cynical policies of socialist President Francois Mitterrand between 1981 and 1995.

The influence of the Left-Bank intellectuals further declined under his successor, Jacques Chirac, who explicitly sought political inspiration from the France d'en-bas (France from below) rather than subtle Parisian dialecticians. France, it seemed, was at last becoming a normal country where intellectuals would address themselves to other intellectuals and moan about their lack of influence on political leaders.

Yet French intellectuals have regained some of the lost ground in the current presidential contest. The socialist Segol ne Royal, the centrist Francois Bayrou and the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy have been wooing the Parisian gurus again. And to the dismay of many on the Left, it is Sarkozy, recently dubbed "an American neoconservative with a French passport" by a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who has received the most tangible support from the intelligentsia.

The rallying of Max Gallo and André Glucksmann to Sarkozy embody the French intellectual establishment's shift to the Right. Gallo, a novelist and writer of popular history, was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s and a junior minister under Mitterrand in the early 1980s. He has now become the leading advocate of a rejuvenated French nationalism. His recent book, Fier d'être Français (Proud to be French), is regarded as a major source of inspiration for Sarkozy's campaign. Glucksmann, a revolutionary Maoist in 1968 turned libertarian nouveau philosophe in the 1970s, also shocked the readers of Le Monde last January with a column entitled "Why I support Nicolas Sarkozy".

Such endorsements of Sarkozy's bid for the presidency may be in part motivated by opinion polls, in which the conservative candidate has enjoyed a significant lead over his rivals for several months. The porous boundaries in France between the worlds of punditry and politics imply that intellectuals may reap substantial rewards from making the right choice before an election, including in some cases a ministerial portfolio: André Malraux, Minister of Culture under De Gaulle, is the most famous example of such opportunism.

However, the support of several intellectual luminaries of the Left for Sarkozy also reflects a deep-seated resurgence of conservative ideas. In 2002, the historian Daniel Lindenberg caused a scandal with his book Rappel à l'Ordre (A Return to Order), which examined the convergent critical views of several "new reactionaries" on sexual freedom, religious tolerance, the rights of man or the notion of equality. For several weeks, a fierce controversy raged in the French media, making the headlines of national dailies and becoming the main topic of radio talk shows, over the reality of the "Right-wing turn" taken by French intellectual life.

Few would deny that the era when Saint-Germain-des-Prés was a by-word for progressive thought has come to an end. The recent rise of several new conservative stars in the Parisian intellectual firmament is probably of greater significance than the impact of the pro-Sarkozy turncoats from the Left.

Nicolas Baverez, an economist and self-styled heir of the anti-Communist thinker Raymond Aron, has established himself as a leading "declinologist" or analyst of France's economic decline since 1980. In a series of eloquently titled books ( The Agony of the Elites , France's Haplessness , Falling France ), he has castigated the French excessive reliance on state intervention to solve economic problems and advocated more market-friendly policies.

The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is another major figure of the conservative revival. A sceptic of progress and modernity, he first achieved public fame in 1987 with his book La Défaite de la Pensée ("The Defeat of Mind"), in which he denounced the decline in cultural standards on behalf of democratisation. More recently, he has combated the culture of permissiveness in the face of rising delinquency and called for the restoration of "republican" authority in schools and other public institutions.

Neither Baverez nor Finkielkraut has publicly endorsed Sarkozy in the electoral contest. But the conservative candidate's platform of tax cuts and "rupture" with France's failed economic model draws heavily on the ideas championed by Baverez. Similarly, Sarkozy's tough stance on law and order since he became Minister of the Interior in 2002 and his commitment to pursue a zero tolerance policy against crime if he is elected could not but appeal to Finkielkraut.

During the suburban riots in 2005, the conservative philosopher denied that Sarkozy's harsh words for juvenile delinquents (whom the Minister of the Interior described as racaille or "rabble") were responsible for the outbreak. Instead, he laid the blame on the hatred felt for France by "ethno-religious" minorities. Sarkozy was grateful and stated that Finkielkraut was an "honour to French intelligence".

The new conservative ideas have also influenced the other leading candidates. Even Royal's slogan ordre juste (fair order), intended to denote the Left's new concern for the breakdown of law and order in working-class urban areas, has a traditionalist ring quite alien from the socialist tradition. Many also have interpreted Royal's proposed "popular juries", which would review the policies of elected officials, as harking back to the old conservative critique of representative democracy.

Progressive and liberal intellectuals, in contrast to their conservative rivals, have been peculiarly silent and aloof since the start of the electoral campaign. Bernard-Henri Levy, champion of the anti-totalitarian Left and a media icon, offered tepid praise for the socialist candidate. Yet he remains "puzzled" by the populist streak he detects in her rhetoric and has not formally endorsed her.

Pierre Rosanvallon is an eminent historian and a former militant of the liberal "New Left". His concern with the declining legitimacy of modern democratic mechanisms has inspired several of Royal's speeches and many of her "100 proposals" for France. But even Rosanvallon has so far declined to support her publicly, and his silence is often interpreted as a sign of his distrust for the socialist candidate.

Only Regis Debray, former comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara in Bolivia and founder of "mediology" (the study of the media's nefarious influence on politics and society), has expressed a preference for Royal over her rivals - and only because she seems the least likely, in his words, to pursue a "British-like" policy of "frank and loyal subordination" to the US.

However, one should neither exaggerate the extent nor the significance of the neoconservative drift in French intellectual life. First, it is doubtful whether prominent publicists such as Max Gallo and Bernard-Henri Levy should be described, alongside major writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, as "intellectuals". Furthermore, there are signs that the rank-and-file of the French intellectual establishment remains committed to the old progressive creed: witness a petition recently published in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur supporting Royal as "the candidate of hope"

and signed by 150 academics, writers and artists.

The influence of French public intellectuals on politics has always lagged far behind their social prestige. The neoconservative resurrection of public intellectuals in France is therefore no guarantee that their favourite candidate, Sarkozy, will become the next French president.

David Todd is research fellow in history, Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

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