Opinion | Is This the End of French Intellectual Life?

Opinion | Is This the End of French Intellectual Life?


With Le Débat dead, its critics on the left are shedding few tears, having viewed the publication less as a venue for ideas to be argued with and more as an obstacle in the way of social justice. The historian Ludovine Bantigny, interviewed about the demise of Le Débat, had no pieties to spare about the marketplace of ideas. “By repeating that there’s a problem with immigration in France,” she said, “by waving around this so-called ideologization of human rights to question the legitimacy of new rights and by relaying the arguments of the Manif Pour Tous” — a movement against gay marriage — “the way Gauchet did, you wind up legitimizing magazines like Causeur or Valeurs Actuelles.”

Ms. Bantigny’s allusion to the “legitimacy” of these two very different magazines was curious. Causeur is a spirited monthly barely a decade old, edited by disillusioned anti-multicultural liberals; Valeurs Actuelles is a long-established archconservative newsmagazine on the Time/Newsweek model. Apparently one no longer debates the things written in magazines. One questions the “legitimacy” of the magazines themselves. Where did this very un-French attitude come from?

The editors of Le Débat have an answer: America. A few days after announcing that the review would publish no more, Mr. Nora spoke about its closing on Alain Finkielkraut’s radio show. Mr. Finkielkraut was pointing to disturbing tendencies in French intellectual life, but Mr. Nora wanted to take the conversation in a different direction: to the “mouvements à l’américaine” that start on campuses across the ocean and tend to show up in France. “What they call,” he said, “to follow the argument to its logical conclusion, cancel culture, which is to say the extermination of culture, the will to. …”

Here Mr. Nora paused before continuing: “Anyway, I daresay some of us are old enough to have echoes in our heads of Goebbels when he said, ‘When I hear the word “culture” I reach for my revolver.’”

The Goebbels quote may be apocryphal, but it is worth pausing to ask why Mr. Nora — born in the first half of the 20th century and preoccupied with the moral legacy of World War II — should call such a name to mind when discussing the influence of American culture on his own country’s.

“There is a mighty ideological wave coming from the United States,” the philosopher Yves Charles Zarka wrote last fall in an article about the death of Le Débat. “It brings rewriting history, censuring literature, toppling statues, and imposing a racialist vision of society.” Nor is it as iconoclastic as it looks, according to Luc Ferry, a philosopher and conservative columnist. “However anticapitalist and anti-American they may think themselves,” he wrote last year, “these activists are only aping whatever has been going on on campuses across the Atlantic over the last four decades.”

The shoe used to be on the other foot. The United States used to learn a lot from France. Until a generation ago, into the age of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, one could say America deferred to France on matters intellectual. It doesn’t any longer. The demise of Le Débat was marked by not a single mention in any major American newspaper or magazine.

There are still lessons Americans can learn from France, provided we approach it with the right questions in mind. A good one to start with might be whether the American academy of recent decades — with the culture it carries and the political behaviors it fosters — has been, in the wider world, a force for intellectual freedom or for its opposite.

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