Thursday, November 21, 2002

A French Revolution

When Paris sneezes, all Europe catches a cold. These were the words of the famous Austrian foreign minister Metternich, and if he was correct, Europe may be in for some bumpy times. I reported a few days ago on the publication of a new book in France that attacks a group of prominent French intellectuals, accusing them of being reactionaries. Interestingly enough, the book has received significant coverage in French daily newspapers and journals. The result is something of a debate about the status of French intellectual life and its defining moment, May '68. The book itself, written by Daniel Lindenberg, is, quite frankly, garbage. But this in itself is important. The author is a defender of all things 1968 stood for. I won't provide a review of that less than stellar period in French history, because for the time being, it is history. What's important is that the partisans of 1968 are, in many instances, the same people who are now attacking American-Israeli imperialism and globalization, defending the transnationalism and calling for international justice and the hobbling of the nation-state.

The key point here is that these people, represented by Lindenberg, are intellectual underachievers, easily blown away by the likes of the new generation of liberal thinkers including such names as Finkelkraut, Gauchet, Nora, Revel and Manent. Equally important is the fact that the old guard is so terrified of these important new liberals. Two of these men, Gauchet and Manent, are professors of mine and I can attest to their popularity; during their seminars, it's standing room only. The attack on these thinkers by Lindenberg has set off an important debate in France, one that could result in a significant change in the French intellectual scene and France itself. For Americans, the rise of these new thinkers is of substantial importance, because none subscribe to the reflexive anti-Americanism that so marked French thinkers through much of the post-World War II period. The outcome of this debate will have implications for both France and its relations with the United States. It could also decide whether Paris, still an important European intellectual centre, will finally break free from the stranglehold ideology has held on it, or whether it will succumb to dogmatic idiocy. That this battle is causing such a stir suggests that the old ideologues are scared. A revolution might be in the works in France.

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