There are still signs of intellectual life in Franceby Jonathan Derbyshire / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
In February 2003, the then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin addressed the United Nations Security Council. Villepin was setting out France’s opposition to the use force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. “We are the guardians of an ideal,” he said, “the guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and the immense honour which is ours should lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament.”
Sudhir Hazareesingh, who teaches politics at Oxford, opens his new book, “How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People,” with a discussion of Villepin’s speech. Villepin’s appeal to universal values—which, it was implied, France incarnates more completely than any other nation—was, Hazareesingh writes, “recognisably, unquestionably French”. I spoke to him on the phone earlier this week and began by suggesting that the speech was also a reminder that French politicians of both right and left, particularly in the postwar period, have often spoken the same political language, one which exalts the power of the state at home and France’s “civilising mission” abroad.
SH: Very much so. In a way, that’s part of the longer republican tradition. Villepin is a Gaullist, and Gaullism is one of the most recent examples of the republican tradition, which is sometimes called the “Jacobin” tradition. And it goes back to the French Revolution—the idea of a strong, centralising state that has a civilising mission both domestically and abroad. Domestically, it shines through in education and in the idea of creating a rational political community. It shines through, too, in the French notion of citizenship, which is one based on adhesion to common values and has nothing to do with ethnicity. All of that is the cultural and intellectual backdrop to the sorts of things Villepin believes and which were very widely shared by French elites on the right and on the left.
Added to that is a vision of France as a kind of benevolent force in world politics. That changes over time, of course. With the Revolution and particularly with Napoleon, it’s a slightly more brutal form of French messianic power. In a sense, the two empires represent the apogee of this more brutal version of it—Napoleon’s empire, on the one hand, and the French colonial empire,…