French Intellectuals Resisting Reactionaries

Philosophy graduate and journalist Nicolas Truong, 54, heads up the Debates and Ideas section of daily newspaper Le Monde, offering his take on the French intellectual scene while keeping an eye out for the next revolution.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique : The French terms laïcité and intellectuel are both difficult to translate into English. We have often spoken about the former in France-Amérique, but not yet the latter. Intellectuals are a French specialty that remain still little-known in the United States…

Nicolas Truong: We could view these two terms as linked, as the medieval, Christian West was divided between the clerics – those who had studied to become men of the church – and the laypeople, les laïcs. However, the word intellectuel really came into its own with the Enlightenment. We could say that, from the Calas Affair to the Dreyfus Affair, from Voltaire to Zola, and from Sartre to Bourdieu, intellectuals in the French sense of the term have been those who devote their knowledge and status to a cause. The medieval and Christian heritage is still also very present. In 1927, Julien Benda published La Trahison des clercs, literally “The treason of the clerics,” translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals! This was a reference to what he saw as negative ideological shifts among his peers, and was aimed at those who had made a profession out of thinking.

In the United States, there are academics, editorialists and journalists, but everyone stays in their lane. There are also powerful foundations offering ideal spaces for the expression of general or expert opinions. Do you think the almost total absence of similar foundations in France leads experts to instead express themselves in the press?

This is above all because intellectuals rose to prominence in 18th-century Europe in bourgeois salons, where writers opposed to an absolute monarchy sought to publicize their ideas. France does not have foundations, but rather journals, fairs, essays, and encyclopedias. The advantage of this is that intellectuals can form their own, independent spaces. The disadvantage is that they have always been dependent on the authorities, even since the Revolution. The creation of the republic failed to completely prevent the perpetuation of the figure of the court intellectual.

From the perspective of the United States, Sartre was an archetypal intellectual and I am often asked if there are any intellectuals left in France today. What is your view?

Sartre embodied the universal intellectual who, much like Voltaire and Hugo, spoke for all of humanity. However, he has had many successors. Foucault proposed the theory of “specific intellectuals,” who intervene within their fields of expertise, as he did about prisons and asylums. Does this mean Sartre was the last true intellectual? Certainly not. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, we observed a shift from “thought leaders” to “thought sharers,” professors who popularized philosophical concepts, as seen in the books of André Comte-Sponville, for example. But the “return of history” over the last twenty years has changed the game. Critical intellectuals battling the established orders are still present, as are collective intellectuals in the “war of opinion pages,” where scientists and writers needle governments about migrants and climate change. We are also currently observing the rise of the field intellectual. Rooted in regions where they are developing new ways of living, often far from Paris, these new-world thinkers are heralding an ecopolitical change in contemporary thought. Inspired by sociologist Bruno Latour and anthropologist Philippe Descola, they are reconsidering our relationship to the living world while inventing a more grounded politics.

Many Americans believe that French intellectuals are always left-wing, or have been since 1789. Does this cliché hold any weight?

The opposite question is asked in France; we wonder where left-wing intellectuals have gone, given the ubiquity of far-right polemists in the media. But left-wing intellectuals have not disappeared entirely. Republicanism is alive and well, led by figures such as writer Régis Debray, as is the concept of communism, driven by philosopher Alain Badiou, along with a new form of socialism upheld by economist Thomas Piketty. At the Collège de France, Patrick Boucheron proposes a “global history” in opposition to the national narrative, and maintains that “the passionate search for identity goes against the very idea of history.” However, it is true that right-wing and far-right intellectuals are gaining traction, although they are above all publicists, editorialists, and polemists.

The French Communist Party had its own organic intellectuals. Does this category still exist?

This category had faded but is now being revived alongside reactionaries. “Anti-’68” thought rules the roost. This inversion of progressive values is built upon an “integral anti-liberalism,” an offensive focusing on the “exaltation of the people” who are supposedly scorned by the elites, an obsessive attack on the “deterrent” that May ’68 has become, as well as on neofeminism, environmentalism, and decoloniality. The references drawn upon by these conservative polemists appeal as much to Catholic royalists as to revolutionary communists. Across these writings, we can observe “right-wing thought in left-wing language,” writes historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon. This is a central point, because this major reversal shows a desire to go beyond usual divisions; the traditional opposition between right and left should be surpassed to reach a fantasized struggle between the people and the elite. Rational discussion is abolished by permanent fighting, a rhetoric of discredit combining Stalinian and Maurrassian undertones.

Through social media and news networks, there has been a boom in the number of intellectuals – although you may describe them as commentators. Have we shifted from an age of intellectuals to one of the punditariat?

We have entered into a society of commentary. Authentic intellectuals devote their knowledge to a cause they see as just and universal. Meanwhile, pundits and pseudo-philosophers, who are omnipresent in the media, merely express opinions on subjects of which they know relatively little. The reign of the punditariat is symptomatic of the growing influence of the media, which occupies the void left by political parties and unions. This domination has an economic origin: It is cheaper to invite an editorialist on a news show than to broadcast an investigation. There is also a technological cause: Social media is an invitation to knee-jerk commentary instead of sustained, thoughtful discussion. And the ideological explanation is that the reactionary galaxy has melted down into a society of punditry, in which one-upmanship is the name of the game. Anti-system ideologists have understood that they can easily impose their issues and ideas within the public arena. Inspired by what has happened in the United States, they are now looking to spread a French take on Trumpism.

Were intellectuals influential, or did they just think they were, and are they still? Is there a field in which the influence of one or more intellectuals is measurably significant?

All changes in contemporary society, such as ecology or questions of gender, are driven by intellectual revolutions. This can be seen in laws governing the principle of ecological reparations and the fundamental rights of nature, as well as measures addressing consent and sexual harassment.

Interview published in the January 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.