Sartre, Meet Sarkozy

September is the month of La rentrée, that time of year when the French return to work or, anyway, to their jobs. And hyperkinetic President Nicolas Sarkozy has set such a blistering pace for his ministers ("Like your Energizer bunny," a weary bureaucrat tells an American reporter) that memories are fading fast of those languorous holidays on topless beaches where the French whiled away the last days of summer. But one subject for passionate debate that emerged in the heat of August still lingers: do the French as a people discuss, contemplate, cogitate—in fact, thinkaltogether too much?

The calculated impression given by Sarkozy and his cabinet is that, yes, indeed, they do. Since long before his election in May, Sarkozy has talked about the need "to move from incantation to action." And the discussion was opened in earnest when Finance Minister Christine Lagarde fired a shot across the brow of French intellectuals in July. "It's an old national way of doing things: France is a country that thinks," said Lagarde, who as a young woman studied briefly at a prep school in the United States and later headed the major U.S.-based law firm Baker & McKenzie. "In our libraries we have enough to talk about for centuries to come. That's why I'd like to say to you: enough thinking already. Let's roll up our sleeves."

The aim, of course, is to pull the French out of that supposed citadel of intellectualizing where they retreat to opine with lofty superiority about the global competitors that are passing them by. As journalist Gilles Delafon says in his recent book, called "Hello Earth? It's France …," this is a "curious country that perceives every change as an attack, every evolution as a regression, and all adaptation as surrender."

Sarkozy's relentless call for aggressive efforts to energize the population and his suspicion of academic blather sounds perfectly common-sensical to American ears. There is, after all, an "old national way of doing things" in the United States that disparages "eggheads," a term used by supporters of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, and denounces "pointy-headed intellectuals," in the phrase made famous by the late Alabama demagogue George Wallace. "All talk and no action" is a well-known American put-down.

But the context in France is profoundly different. This, remember, is the country of 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. "Cogito ergo sum," he wrote—I think, therefore I am—and that idea is as deeply ingrained in the French psyche as the pioneer spirit is in the American. "Instead of deploring this, I think we ought to congratulate ourselves," says author Pierre Assouline, who writes the widely read Le Monde blog La République des Livres. "The idea that thought and action are opposites is so puerile there's nothing to discuss." And when it comes to talking, well, "the French have made conversation one of the fine arts," says Assouline. "I suppose Madame Lagarde doesn't have time to waste on conversation—the real thing. Too bad for her."

Perhaps more to the point in today's world of global commerce, as political science professor Thierry Leterre has pointed out, France's reputation for intellectualism "is a trademark of our nation." Precisely in matters of economic competition, it's an important "comparative advantage" akin to other forms of branding, adding value to the image of the country and to what it produces by setting it apart from increasingly mindless pop culture. (As the American comedian Bill Maher said with evident appreciation, "They have public intellectuals in France—we have Dr. Phil," a TV talk-show psychologist.)

The debate over whether the French are too intellectual touches on several issues that are not so much about the amount of thinking, in fact, as about who's been doing it and what those people represent, not least in the mind of Nicolas Sarkozy. France's intellectuals may not be action figures, but for more than a century, they've been recognized as activists and, in that sense, as a class apart. Although there were many on the right after the upheaval of a student revolt in France in May 1968 and the increasing radicalization of such towering figures as Jean-Paul Sartre during the same period, the intellectual class has tended to be seen popularly as on the left or far left. When the Soviet empire collapsed and Marxism was discredited in the early 1990s, many French intellectuals seemed to be cast adrift, but still held some influence over the country's political debate and its policies. The 35-hour workweek, founded on the specious intellectual argument that it would somehow reduce unemployment and increase competitiveness, is one example. So is some of the lingering anti-Americanism in French society. During Sarkozy's presidential campaign, he ran against what he described as the '68 mind-set.

But Sarkozy himself is not immune to the demands of France's image as a nation of thinkers. Dartmouth professor Lawrence D. Kritzman, editor of the massive "Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought," published this month, notes that the country's presidents have a long and impressive intellectual tradition. "Charles de Gaulle was quite a remarkable writer. If you look at his memoir, the knowledge of history and literature is astounding," says Kritzman. "Georges Pompidou knew the Surrealists and published an anthology of French poetry that is used in French schools to this day." Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is a member of the prestigious French Academy. François Mitterrand wrote copiously and befriended many writers. Jacques Chirac is a passionate collector of African and Asian art.

Sarkozy may say that he listens to Elvis and Céline Dion instead of anything more classical or esoteric when he goes jogging, but in a smart political ploy, he decided to associate himself with a prominent intellectual. The acclaimed novelist and playwright Yasmina Reza (best known, perhaps, for her play "Art") was allowed to follow him throughout the campaign and write an unexpurgated book about it. Even if she were to massacre him, he said, he'd come out of it with his reputation enhanced. Now a best seller, Reza's "L'Aube le Soir ou la Nuit" is not always complimentary. (In one passage, Sarkozy calls Reza just before a big speech and asks her how to pronounce the last name of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She says he has it right. He's not sure and drops the name altogether.) But Sarkozy was correct about the overall effect of the book. It makes him look like a down-to-earth man of action even as it associates him with a French intellectual world he eschews: a neat trick indeed. Sarkozy may prefer to be seen as a doer rather than a thinker, but as a political tactician, he's never got a shortage of bright ideas.

With Tracy McNicoll and Ginny Power in Paris

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