Does France need an anti-French revolution?


Frank Baasner

Frank Baasner grew up and went to school in Paris, Bonn and Mons. After studying Romance studies and psychology in Bonn, Bologna, Tübingen and short study visits to Perugia, Salamanca and Paris, he received his doctorate in 1986 in Tübingen. In 1993 he was appointed to the University of Erlangen and in 1995 to Mannheim. Since 2002 he has been director of the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg. Frank Baasner is a member of the Academy of Sciences in Mainz.

Where are the intellectuals in France in the current crisis? In the following pages the main features of what is called an "intellectuel" in France are outlined. A distinction is made between three important periods. Finally, the role of the intellectual in mediatized democracy is examined.

Voltaire (Portrait of Nicolas de Largillière). License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
The European Union is in a fundamental process of transformation that can safely be described as a crisis. Large and, above all, credible visions of the future of Europe are in short supply. At the national level we observe national or even nationalist reflexes in most member states, populist parties are gaining influence. And France? Hardly any other country in Europe has argued so much and so often about a loss of importance, about unwillingness to reform, about stagnation of society. Nicolas Baverez had already drawn an unpleasant picture in 2003 under the title "La France qui tombe" ("France in free fall"). Nicolas Sarkozy started with the aim of breaking the blockades in France and developing a new dynamic in politics, economy and society. When the new President François Hollande took power, the situation was not much better than it was 5 years earlier. The economic indicators are sobering for France, the need for reform is undisputed and the tasks to be solved politically are immense. Such a situation calls for guidance and leadership figures who can strengthen the trust and willingness to act in French society. Politics has long suffered (across party lines) from an overall bad image. Looking for help, one waits for the voice of that group of people who have had moral leadership roles several times in French history: the intellectuals.

The French press, but also the feature sections in Germany, Europe and the USA, have been concerned for some time with the question of where the "intellectuels" can actually be found in the deep crisis of meaning in France and Europe. This group of people, which is difficult to define, seems to be trusted to have groundbreaking answers to all major questions of national or international politics. Are the allegations against the intellectuals justified? Are they actually shirking their responsibility, could they even provide the orientation that is required?

The beginnings of the intellectuals

When people today complain that "les intellectuels" are silent, they are clearly referring to a golden age when their voices gave orientation to the country or, more generally, to the world. Before we go into the famous examples since the 18th century, we must ask ourselves what the term "intellectuel" means. How should you translate that into German? Of course, the term "intellectual" is obvious. In order to make the connotations that the word has in French (and presumably only in French), one could add that it is not a subject qualification (one cannot study "intellectual"), but an enormous one Assignment of moral authority. The "intellectuel" takes on the position of a power of orientation outside the publicly administered order, just as the Catholic Church was for centuries. This powerful position is directly related to the emergence of the social figure of the intellectual.

Let's go back to before the French Revolution for a moment. The absolutist monarchy ruled the population, France ruled Europe politically and culturally. At the same time, a movement in France and in many other European countries that has been summarized under the symbolic concept of "Enlightenment" could no longer be stopped. It was about questioning traditional authorities, about systematic doubts about the divine origin of political legitimation, and about combating traditional prejudices. It was primarily writers, but also scientists from different disciplines, who came together in an effort to question the existing regime, to attack its very foundations and to fight for the common good of the people.

To this day, some names are inextricably linked with the French Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, the triumvirate in a large group of hundreds of European thought leaders and champions of human rights, equality before the law, separation of powers and freedom of thought. At that time these free spirits were called "philosophes", i.e. philosophers, although this did not mean a qualification of an academic discipline. The "philosophe" of the 18th century was the "intellectuel" of his time. Voltaire in particular has remained alive in the collective memory of France, and not only because of his sharp pen and because of his texts, which are still well worth reading. Voltaire as "intellectuel" is also the one who, on behalf of speechless and powerless citizens, has called for and fought for their rights and has stood up for unjustly convicted citizens. The highest moral authority, which Voltaire placed on the pedestal of an apostle for a humane world order, stems from this commitment to general civil rights based on natural law. From the outset, the intellectual movement's conception of the "intellectuel" included the opposition to the rulers and the design of a better and more just order.

The Dreyfus Affair

A second, almost mythical reference in the discussion about intellectuals is the internationally known Dreyfus affair, in which Emile Zola played the leading role. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer from Alsace, was wrongly convicted of high treason in an anti-Semitic mood at the end of 1894. In an open letter to the President with the programmatic title "J’accuse ...!" Zola takes sides. He turns against the entire state power; against the government, the military leadership and the judiciary. At the same time, he became the representative of a group that saw themselves collectively as committed intellectuals. Zola made use of the relatively new medium of the mass newspaper at the time. In contrast to Voltaire's pre-revolutionary France, the majority of the French were able to read at the end of the 19th century and thus participated in one of the republican achievements, freedom of the press.

Once again it was a well-known and internationally acclaimed author, an eloquent novelist, who slipped into the role of the moral conscience of the nation and was able to use his popularity with a large audience. And again it was about the opposition to a state power that did not meet the high moral standards. Zola was convicted, went into temporary exile and achieved what he wanted: public attention for a scandalous incident in which anti-Jewish emotionalization had trampled the basic principles of truth and justice. The wave of solidarity emanating from writers and scholars constituted the group of critical, committed intellectuals for all to see. The affair split French society and did not come to an end until 1906 with the rehabilitation of Dreyfus.

The Golden age"

Simone de Beauvoir: Your work "The opposite sex" made you the mother of modern feminism. (& copy AP)
Anyone who complains today about the scandalous silence of the intellectuals has a norm in front of their eyes that should supposedly also be adhered to today. This norm is inextricably linked with the decades after the end of the Second World War and with the names Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. The idealizing retrospective seems to forget that neither Sartre nor Camus were undisputed at the time, there was by no means a moral consensus about their actions, and not even on the side of the then left, i.e. the anti-authoritarian forces. In retrospect, the authors mentioned seem to be the guarantors of a political conscience that stood up in the name of a permanent revolt against (corrupt) power. Sartre himself has claimed the authority to interpret the concept of the intellectual more than any other author. In several lectures from 1965 he differentiates the "true" intellectuals, by which he seems to mean himself above all, from the "false" imitators. The right intellectual, according to Sartre, is necessarily radical and therefore revolutionary. The "false intellectual" - Sartre calls it exactly - is the one who considers the existing political regime to be reformable. The real intellectual therefore has no choice but to radicalize his thinking.

What Sartre sets absolutely as the only valid form here with high claims is in line with the writers of the Enlightenment and the 19th century, who were uncompromising in their opposition to political power. What the three stages mentioned and the names associated with these epochs also have in common is the fact that they lived in a world of the written word: novels, pamphlets, satires, newspaper articles - these are the classic genres of the French intellectual.

This makes it clear that the figure of the intellectual in the form described here - and this form is being demanded again today - is tied to a certain period in European and French intellectual history. It is the epoch of the political book, the committed text of authors who speak up on all human issues with purely moral authority, even if they may lack a formal scientific-technical qualification.

With the world-famous names Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan or Roland Barthes - to name just the most famous - there has been a broad and worldwide influence on the university disciplines of the entire human sciences starting from France. However, these theorists have not achieved the status of "national symbols" for the general public in Germany (and Europe).

The situation today

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire and since the crisis of financial capitalism, we have lived in a time without a dominant, coherent ideology that could claim to explain humanity, its history and goals. At the same time, globalization has become a reality that hardly anyone could have imagined 10 years ago. The simultaneity of the availability of information through the new media and the polycentric dynamics of the world, where old Europe and even the USA are only centers of power among many others, have also completely changed the role of the writing guild. The world no longer looks and waits for the speakers of Saint-Germain des Prés, and the book has lost its function as a privileged bearer of meaning.

Stephane Hessel. (& copy AP)
Today the moderators of the talk shows, which go hand in hand with high ratings, or the spontaneously occurring mass phenomena in social media such as Facebook, have the authority to interpret the major social issues. In the media democracy - and that includes France of course - there is absolutely no lack of personalities who can express themselves in their role as "experts" on all conceivable questions. This already indicates that a technical specialization has prevailed today, precisely because the disappearance of all-encompassing ideologies forbids reference to the one absolute truth. Of course, there are some names in France today that immediately come to mind when you hear the term "intellectual": the still influential triumvirate of the late 20th century were (and in a certain sense still are) Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut. But compared to Sartre's time, they no longer have the sole claim to representation when it comes to the moral interpretation of the world. A surprising phenomenon, which incidentally shows very clearly that even in today's medialized world, personal individual experience can play an enormous role, is the position of Stéphane Hessel, who with his little work "Outrage!" Gained great fame in 2010.

In conclusion, it can be said that the classical French intellectual has been overtaken by history. Even so, there is no need to worry about the intellectual power of the public debate in France and Europe. And nobody can hide their own responsibility for the common good behind the supposed silence of the intellectuals.


Dosse, François: La marche des idées. Histoire des intellectuels - histoire intellectuelle, Paris: La découverte, 2003.

Julliard, Jacques / Winock, Michel (eds.): Dictionnaire des intellectuels français, Paris: Seuil, 1996.

Jurt, Joseph: France's committed intellectuals. From Zola to Bourdieu, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2012.