Spring in Paris, and revolution's in the air again

March 12, 2004

France's intellectuals have gone to war against the government. Jennifer Wallace reports.

If you ask any wistful romantic about his image of the French intellectual, he will probably paint you a picture of black-roll-necked philosophers sitting in cafes, smoking, arguing and earnestly solving the world's problems.

But in today's money-oriented world, the days of Dreyfus, Sartre and 1968 seem long since gone. So it was with a mixture of relief and surprise for anyone involved in French cultural life that on February 18 Les Inrockuptibles , a music and politics magazine, published a petition denouncing the government's " guerre contre l'intelligence ". "This is the first time for years that people who do not belong to the image-selling market but who are just intellectual workers have started something," says the feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous. "It is spring, you know. Something completely new is happening."

The petition has collected, in just over two weeks, more than 70,000 signatures. It aims to offer an "analysis of the situation we are now in", says its organiser, Sylvain Bourmeau, and to expose the government's overall strategy to commercialise and regulate intellectual thought.

The dispute began last summer with actors. The government changed the regulations whereby actors were supported financially, whether or not they were working. Under the new policy, actors in permanent positions (in television) will be supported while actors who work intermittently, " les intermittants ", will be paid only for the periods they work. The proposal marks an end to state-subsidised theatre. In the past, " les auteurs anglais ", such as Edward Bond, Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, came to Paris because there was money and no need to make a profit, says Samuel Churin, the chief spokesman for les intermittants .

Churin says that politicians are "proud of their theatre and their cinema and their festivals" but, at the same time, they tell the actors that they are overprivileged compared with the rest of Europe. "Why are there no festivals in Europe?" Churin asks. Because there, he says, actors are obliged to "wash up and so on and not simply to work at their profession".

A series of strikes and a hard-hitting speech by a prominent actress at the Césars (France's equivalent of the Oscars) have forced the government to consider renegotiating the regulations.

The politicians' focus then shifted to scientific researchers, who have seen their budget cut and then frozen at the 2002 level and have suffered the loss of 550 first lectureship jobs. In effect, the researchers say, the government is aiming to phase out "fundamental research" and encourage only commercially funded applied research. So they formed the group Sauvons la Recherche at the end of December and have drawn up a petition with about 55,000 signatures.

On Tuesday, more than 2,000 senior researchers resigned their administrative posts after the government failed to meet their three demands - to release the money frozen since 2002, to restore the posts and to set up an inquiry, or " assise ", of research policy. The aim is to stop all research in the country. Weeks of protest activity preceded the mass resignation. During a demonstration last Wednesday, for example, departments in Hôpital Necker and the Institut Pasteur changed the name of the local Métro station from Pasteur (the great French scientist) to La Rage (anger).

Surprisingly, the scientists argue that the US has understood the value of pure research and funded it properly. "Why do companies go to the US? Because the universities there are doing basic research," says Bernard Dujon, who heads the genetics of microbes department at the Institut Pasteur.

He says France is thinking only in the short term in seeking commercially profitable results. "How can you make a discovery without a team? For a team you need to have an intellectual background, a number of students and postdocs over a long time, and this creates the environment where you can have a discovery. You can't build a team like this in a day," Dujon says.

"This country has a brilliant history," Dujon adds. "It started chemistry.

It discovered radioactivity. Microbiology largely started in Paris. But if something is not done now, most of the labs in some fields will be closed in five years."

These large disputes have been joined by a range of others: psychotherapists squabbling over regulations; film-makers protesting against harsher classification laws; doctors exposing the appalling lack of funding for public health. It is a strange alliance, " un moment du graçe ", the sociologist Luc Boltanski tells me, between the very disparate groups and between the two traditions of the left - the interventionists and the libertarians. Bourmeau has certainly brought off a huge feat in coordinating all these groups. But what does it mean? Is this a new dawn for the committed Parisian intellectual?

"No," says Alain Fischer, head of the unit that researches genetic diseases of the immune system at the Hôpital Necker. "These are very practical questions that are being addressed. We don't want a revolution."

Churin objects to the term "intellectual". He feels that postal workers and train drivers, both of whom are threatened with privatisation, are suffering from the same pressure as he is. So for him the petition is not about intelligence but about the "basic social rights of each citizen".

But Catherine Breillat, maker of what are described as "art-house sex movies" such as the controversial Baise-Moi and Romance , welcomes the term "revolution". In her home in a converted warehouse, she explains how watching sex in films is intellectual and fundamentally democratic. "If you have no intelligence, and if you have a society that has no care for the past, for artistes, for research, I think that it is a fascist society. Art should be for everybody, not just for families or the popular consensus."

She adds that by refusing to conform, artistes disturb the status quo and keep people thinking.

Breillat says France is going through a "puritan" and "stupid" phase, in which the strictest film classification - previously 16 - is being changed to 18. "Five years ago when I opened Romance , it looked like the beginning of the 'libertie de l'esprit' . But two years and then you have the beginning of a strong, fascist, politically correct movement."

The problem is that "intellectual" has become a debased term in France.

"The word 'intellectual' has been totally corrupted," Cixous says. There are people, she notes, such as the ubiquitous Bernard-Henri Levy, who "market intelligence" without having any substantial body of work behind them. "They are pseudo-philosophers," she says. "It as if there are a dominant party, occupying the whole stage." Cixous, the philosopher Jacques Derrida and theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine have consequently rather withdrawn from the scene.

The problem of the pseudo-intellectual, obsessed with television image, goes even wider and deeper, Bourmeau says. I meet him, exhausted and excited, between deadlines in the chaotic warehouse that is the Inrockuptibles office. French politics, he says, is based on television image and not about real debate in France. And so the analysis of politics and the probing of debate is not very intelligent or rigorous either. "You must understand that politics is an art form in France," he says. "And political journalists are the art critics."

Boltanski agrees. "As the space of the intellectual becomes weaker, the space in which you must make your reputation is the space of the media," he muses. There is no equivalent in France of the Times Literary Supplement .

So there is arguably nowhere for academics to analyse intellectual ideas.

"Intellectuals are less and less capable of having a democratic debate about their role. There is a space for display as an intellectual, but there is no real democratic space in France," Boltanski says.

But Elizabeth Roudinesco rejects that view. She is a leading historian of psychoanalysis in France, originally a close confidante of Jacques Lacan and now a major thinker on the left. "Intellectuals have always had an important role. But from time to time, the press says there are no longer intellectuals. It's always the same. The right continually say that the intellectuals have disappeared and are no longer protesting. But as soon as there is a crisis they appear." She says that since universities have lost the power they once had, television is now the main, or even the only, place to make an impact and intellectuals cannot avoid it.

So might this movement develop into a full-scale revolution? "If a lot of students feel that they are involved and if they mobilise, then it will become something. But they are so desperate for position, so individualistic, that I am sceptical," Boltanski says.

But Dujon, who takes the long, historical view, is prepared to entertain the concept. He points out that all revolutions in France started in March.

"1968 started in March. The communes de Paris started in March 1771. So possibly this March may be another March."

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