France is Not as Special as it Thinks

How The French Think book review
Bernard Henri-Lévy, who is featured on the book's cover, giving a speech at the UN. Twitter
How The French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh

In 2011, the French army intervened in Libya on the advice of a man who was neither a politician nor an expert on the Middle East. Bernard Henri-Lévy describes himself as a philosopher, and that seemed to be enough for the French government. Why is it that intellectuals seem to be so important in France?

Sudhir Hazareesingh's latest book, drawing from years of expertise on French political traditions, answers this question with a whirlwind tour of intellectual history from Descartes to Derrida. Jumping from Napoleon to postcolonial immigration, the narrative is brimming with fascinating tidbits. Who knew that socialist president François Mitterrand, who believed in horoscopes, let his astrologer decide the date for the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty?

How The French Think book

Many people in France like to tell themselves that their intellectuals are the most important in the world, but they worry this influence may be waning. Contemporary intellectuals are not at the peak of influence that thinkers like Sartre were in the postwar period. Hazareesingh is optimistic that French thought is not dead yet. Yet he still encourages the idea that French thinking is uniquely separate from the rest of the world. Instead of a decline, maybe "French thinking" never existed in the first place.

Descartes published in the Netherlands and died in Sweden, Zola had an Italian immigrant father. Rousseau, Swiss and intensely patriotic about Geneva, makes for a strange icon of French thought. Foucault and Fanon became more popular in the United States than in their home country.

This is a book about how some French people think. Hazareesingh's book is a lively introduction to a French elite that likes to tell itself it has a unique mission to save the world. But beyond the boulevard Saint-Germain, there is a France where people do get fat, where misbehaving kids cry in McDonald's while parents read about Kim Kardashian rather than Voltaire. This not-so-intellectual France has always been there, but unlike Bernard Henri-Lévy it rarely makes it onto book covers.

The narrative of French exceptionalism can get overblown. This sensitive and detailed book is so passionate about it, it can sometimes feel like French people have completely different brains, like Frenchmen come from Mars and Britons from Venus. Maybe, disappointingly, the French think just like everyone else.