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Book review French intellectuals obscured in a moral twilight zone

The End of the French Intellectual
by Shlomo Sand
(Verso, £16)

PHILOSOPHER Bertrand Russell once claimed that Britain was the only country where he could not identify himself as an intellectual.

While this country might not “do” intellectuals, the French embrace them with a vengeance. Or, according to Israeli author Shlomo Sand, they did up until the present.

The French have always accorded the producers of “high culture” an eminent status and the Parisian intellectuals from the time of Voltaire and Rousseau have wielded an influence over public opinion quite alien to the more prosaic British.

Yet the term intellectual as a noun only came into general usage in the late 19th century, when the convulsive Dreyfus affair tore the country apart. Leading men of letters took sides, with Emile Zola’s devastating J’Accuse spearheading the attack on the government and French hypocrisy in general.

In modern times, the likes of Jean Paul Sartre — “the most emblematic and famous critical intellectual of the 20th century” — became the voices of social conscience, operating outside the main structures of business or politics. But the first world war, when nearly all intellectuals supported their respective sides in the conflict, marked the decline of their position as moral arbiters speaking in the name of humanity as a whole.

Sand signals his own attitude by quoting Jacques Prevert. “Intellectuals should not be allowed to play with matches” and the core of Sand’s book examines the roles of those many intellectuals who embraced Marxism, particularly in the post-second world war period, and those seduced by “the discreet charm of fascism” which, usefully, he distinguishes from nazism.

Subsequently, in the view of the influential Pierre Bourdieu, the new “advent of the technocrats … has displaced intellectuals from the public arena.” Moreover, the possessors of cultural capital have faced a problematic relationship with the developing workers’ movements representing those with no economic capital.

Sand reflects throughout on Judeophobia and, as the writer of the much-praised work The Invention of the Jewish People, he rejects the term anti-semitic. His chapter on the virulent anti-Islamic atmosphere in France centred on the Charlie Hebdo massacre asks, and answers, the question, “Why did more than four million French people parade under a slogan that identified them with a totally irresponsible and Islamophobic magazine?” It will make many readers re-examine the current anti-Corbyn diatribes and their motives.

This hugely informative and highly readable book is written with an engaging humility. Sand laments that just when he has achieved the status to which he has always aspired that “the moral intellectual stands in a twilight zone” and that “this strange creature of pluralist democracy” is on the decline.



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