President discusses ambitions for new French university

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Paris-Saclay’s president discusses why 19 French institutions are stronger as one.

Does Paris have too many institutions with the Sorbonne name?

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The venerable term is now used by three universities and three institutional clusters in Paris.

French government wants academe to work more closely with business

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Government wants academe to work more closely with business. Many academics are dubious.

Essay on debate in France over use of English at universities

In recent weeks, amid all its woes over rising unemployment and a declining economy, France seemed to be embroiled in yet another impending disaster, at least to some French people. The French Assembly was about to vote on a controversial proposal that would ease legal restrictions on courses taught in English at French universities. Watching the positions publicly unfold, I understood the benefits to be gained from more exposure to English particularly for French researchers and students. I further recognized the challenges that France must face in making the new law meet its stated goals. Yet I could not help but lament the potential loss for American and other foreign students studying at French universities.

As this drama played out day after day, it brought to mind my concerns a number of years ago when my son was considering study-abroad programs. I was then taken aback by the fact that Sciences Po Paris was offering courses in English as an option. (That number has now reached one-third.) My son’s American university, to its credit, nonetheless insisted that students take their entire program in French along with the French students. As a parent I was a bit apprehensive. My son, on the other hand, rightly saw this as a reasonable charge that ultimately carried lifelong dividends. His French vastly improved, he learned a new approach to organizing and presenting an intellectual argument, and he developed transatlantic friendships that have endured.

The passions evoked in the French media also brought to mind the words of the French writer Stendahl, that "The first instrument of a people’s genius is its language." Perhaps no people have taken this premise more to heart than the French. And perhaps never have the French felt their language more threatened than from the current rise of English as the global lingua franca. The idea of English replacing French as the language of intellectual endeavors has struck a particularly sensitive nerve for many French leaders and educators. The surrounding debate has plumbed the depths of national identity, cultural pride and the inevitable consequences of globalization. It also has given rise to pragmatic issues that bear on the quality of instruction and the effect on the learning experience for both native French speaking students and those visiting from elsewhere.

A key point of contention is the "Toubon law." Adopted in 1994, the law is a broad sweeping mandate on French usage, including a requirement that education at all levels, other than foreign language classes, be carried out in French (with a few exceptions). From the beginning, various purposes have been ascribed to the law: to insulate French from being overcome by English, to maintain France’s political and economic position in the face of transnationalism, to protect the country’s status as a nation-state within the European Union. Underneath the Toubon law, and the present opposition to weaken its force, lies an unshakeable mindset among many of the French that their language must remain a symbol of cultural preeminence widely recognized in centuries past.

The Assembly, France’s lower house, approved the new measure on May 23rd following hours of rancorous debate invoking the nation’s literary giants. The law permits university courses to be taught in another language (presumably English) if they are part of an agreement with a foreign or international institution or if they have financial support from the European Union. Several amendments (link is in French) were adopted in the course of deliberations: the use of English must be justified by "pedagogical necessities," foreign students must also learn French, and French proficiency must factor into the awarding of the diploma.

According to Geneviève Fioraso, France’s minister of higher education and research, the new law, part of a comprehensive package of higher education reforms, will place the country in a more competitive position on several fronts. It will allow French universities to attract the brightest foreign students, especially from emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil where France has economic interests. France now ranks fifth as a destination for foreign students, behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany.

The law will prepare French students for a job market where English language skills are increasingly a requisite and not merely an asset. And it will enable French researchers to contribute to and gain from a knowledge base, particularly in the sciences, where English is now the common currency.

As the positions unfolded, discordant voices could loudly be heard. The Académie française, the official guardian of the French language, denounced "the dangers of a measure" that favors the "marginalization of our language." The Observatoire européene du plurilinguisme, an organization that promotes linguistic diversity against the forces of English, sounded the alarm (link is in French) that a uniformity of thought in English among scholars would "kill the innovation" tied to the "history of words" embedded in a particular language and culture. Various prominent professors spoke of the project as "suicidal," a "self-destructive impulse," a "war" on the French language, where the stakes were nothing less than national pride and French identity itself.

Those lacking job security, particularly part-time faculty, feared being replaced by native English speakers. Lawmakers weighed in, renouncing the use of French taxpayers’ money to promote American and British interests.

Others, including several Nobel laureates, made public claims to the contrary (link is in French). Noting the dangers of France’s “linguistic bunkerization,” they argued that placing international students in English classes would enhance the ability of French students to communicate and learn in English and offer them access to the global economy. Some chastised the opposition for being out of touch with reality. After all, many of the elite grandes écoles and business schools already offer up to one-quarter to one-third of their courses in English, apparently bending the Toubon law with no questions raised. Some, including the minister of higher education, believed the changes would eliminate these inequities, allowing all French university students and not just the most privileged the opportunity to learn in English.

For still others the debate was pointless since the law merely would allow and not mandate the use of English and only within narrow parameters. The left-leaning newspaper Libération offered the most graphically forceful support in a front page story, totally in English, with a headline reading “Teaching in English: Let’s Do It.”

Surprisingly, throughout the accusations and denials, no one even mentioned the European Union’s repeatedly affirmed goal for every citizen to gain practical skills in at least two languages beyond the mother tongue to promote European integration. The English question seems to have eclipsed that project. Or perhaps the unstoppable spread of English is more efficiently achieving that end, though without the intended multicultural understandings.

As countries like Germany have learned, there is a definite economic and academic advantage in expanding English language courses. With the world becoming smaller by the nanosecond, a common vehicle of communication has become a necessity. For better or worse, depending on one’s view, English has taken that place. While some might rail against the trend with charges of linguistic "imperialism" and cultural "hegemony," this is a course with no end in sight. The shift toward English as the preferred language of scholarly publications and colloquiums worldwide is moving at breakneck speed. Many academic publishers now accept manuscripts only in English.

According to a large-scale study (link is in French) conducted by the Institut national d’études démographiques between 2007 and 2009, 77 percent of French researchers, across disciplines and ages, believed that English had become so dominant that there no longer was a choice. Among those born in the 1980s that figure rose to 90 percent, though 42 percent overall reported being limited in their own use of the language. Younger researchers also were less inclined to equate the use of English with the domination of Anglo-Saxon culture. Within the hard sciences, 96 percent of laboratory directors reported using English in their work. From my own observations, as academicians across disciplines increasingly work in a comparative mode, the trend has moved even further in favor of English in the intervening years.

The problem is that France’s resistance to English has prevented it from preparing its citizens for the change that other countries are now more ready to institutionally embrace. Among native speakers within the 27 European Union countries, France ranks 23rd on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, just barely ahead of Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus and Montenegro (ETS). A 2012 European Commission study of over 50,000 students aged 14 to 15 similarly found France far behind 12 other European countries in mastery of English.

France undoubtedly is on the right track in accepting the utility of English as the common language of academic discourse and commerce. That being said, though the new measure imposes certain limits, there is always the temptation to exceed defined bounds, as the end runs around the Toubon law have proven. Universities must understand the dangers of storming ahead without first addressing the challenges, most notably the lack of English proficiency among French faculty and students. If not, then the project will encounter many snags. Some French professors will struggle to convey their thoughts at a level only commensurate with their weak English language skills, simplifying the content and sapping the material of its emotive meaning.

As one of the law’s detractors put it, it would be like forcing a right-handed person to write on a chalkboard with the left hand.

At the same time, many native French-speaking students will struggle to process merely the letter and not the spirit of what is taught while foreign students likewise will get less than what was promised from the prized French university experience. In the end, whatever gains may be had in competitiveness will be lost in intellectual rigor, classroom interaction, and intercultural growth.

These problems are not unresolvable or unavoidable. For the short run, French universities would be well-advised to move slowly and cautiously, limiting participation to faculty and students with adequate English skills while providing others with intense language instruction to quickly get them up to the task. Judicious use of visiting Anglophone faculty might be an interim solution. Faculty exchange programs with Anglophone universities would further enhance English language skills among French-speaking professors. For the long run, the French education system must make a stronger commitment to teaching English in primary and secondary schools.  The ultimate goal would be to prepare students who can function at a high intellectual level in English by the time they enter the university and, for some, the professorial ranks.

At the same time, universities should continue to offer a sizeable number of courses in French at least as a choice, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and to demand of foreign students a basic competency in French as a requirement for the diploma, as the new law mandates. French professors still can participate in the global academy and even publish in English as they continue to intellectually engage their students in French. Meanwhile, French students will strengthen their English language skills through enhanced offerings in English and contact with foreign students.

The most serious danger, and one that France cannot fully control, is that American and other Anglophone students will become lulled into the false belief that foreign language study is useless or that one can fully appreciate Flaubert or Sartre in translation. To do so would deny the joys of truly accessing a people and understanding its culture, values, and worldview, not to forget the lyrical beauty of the language itself, as only the original allows. Above all, the rise of English should not mean the end of French. Each plays a uniquely important role in the world of scholarship and the exchange of knowledge.

Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law. Her most recent book is True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children (Harvard University Press).

Editorial Tags: 

A French Ivy League

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In a break from egalitarian approach, government is providing billions to select group of universities -- and encouraging them to work closely with businesses.

Potential of the 'Arab Spring'

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At gathering of European university leaders, speakers urge them (and American counterparts) to promote reforms in Middle Eastern higher education.

'Positive Discrimination' at Sciences Po

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Poor and ethnic-minority students selected through what is called "positive discrimination" are thriving at an elite French university, according to a report by one of its academics.

L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris – better known as Sciences Po – was criticized when it announced it would drop entrance examinations for 10 percent of its intake in 2001 to recruit more poor students. Schools in deprived areas put forward their most promising pupils for admission via interview, with those chosen eligible for financial aid to cover fees.


You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Still, it is natural to assume that the title on that cover will give some clue about what is inside. It seems as if a book called Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge might be very interesting indeed, for it will be about ... well, Google and the myth of universal knowledge. Presumably it will start with Leibniz, who, apart from creating a working prototype of the analog computer in the 17th century, also brainstormed the principle of a new kind of language.

This would not be one more lingua franca, but rather something far more powerful. What Leibniz had in mind was a language that would be, in essence, mathematical -- hence, perfectly rational. Just by translating your question into Leibniz-ese, you would already have more than halfway answered it. (For really tough ones, I guess you’d use his computer.) He didn’t get very far beyond sketching the concept for this language in his notes. But the ambition of it is astounding. It makes the Google search-engine algorithm seem, by contrast, kind of wussy.

Anyway, Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge would probably be a great book -- one that would be hard to put down. A volume bearing that title has just appeared from the University of Chicago Press. Alas, it bears no resemblance to the one I expected. The author, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, is president of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. He has nothing to say about Leibniz -- nor, for that matter, about the myth of universal knowledge -- and his book is all too easy to put down.

In fact, I did so many times --  even though the argument is clear, and book itself very short. The margins may be called generous, and the text runs to not quite 100 pages, but only if you include both the forward (by a prominent Canadian librarian) and afterward (by the translator). The author mentions that he wrote it in about three weeks, and I will confess to needing almost as long to read it. Much of that time was invested in seeking the will to go on.

The original version was called Quand Google défie l’Europe -- that is, “When Google Challenges Europe.” (A snappy title in the EU, perhaps, but one understands the need to relabel it for export.) Its arguments came to public attention in a newspaper article by Jeanneny appearing a few months after Google announced its book-digitization initiative.

When his much-discussed article first appeared, some commentary in the Anglophone world rendered “défie” as “defies.” Google defies Europe! Very dramatic. That is semantically wrong, and yet not altogether out of tune with the spirit of Jeanneney’s complaints. He may frame things in terms of Europe facing a “challenge” from Google. But in fact his booklet is suffused with, not righteous indignation, exactly, but rather a sense of cultural lèse-majesté.

The whole thing is structured, deep down, by a persistent and astonishingly trite polarity. On the one hand, there is Europe (deep sense of history; respect for social values; passionate sophistication regarding cultural legacy of humanity). On the other hand, there is the United States (no sense of history; free market in total control; gave mankind the cheeseburger). It would appear that these two monoliths are embodied, respectively, by Charles De Gaulle and George W. Bush.

Surely the one must save us from the other -- even though De Gaulle is dead, and cheeseburgers are strangely appealing. Google is a manifestation of the profoundly un-European (or at least un-De Gaullian) cultural logic of free-market capitalism. The future of humanity now depends on the emergence of an alternative.

The announcement of Google’s plan to digitize some 15 million volumes -- most of them in American research libraries “convulsed our daily lives, our activities, and our imaginations,” writes Jeanneney. It appears to have been particularly disturbing because the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford was also involved.

That, he writes, showed “the familiar Anglo-Saxon solidarity” at work. It is perhaps rare that major developments in the field of library science correspond so closely to tensions in the realm of foreign policy. Rather than see this as an unfortunate but episodic circumstance, Jeanneney finds in it dire signs of cultural imperialism, if not an overt move towards total planetary domination.

The initiative was, for one thing, undertaken by a private company. The algorithms used for Google’s search engines are proprietary, hidden behind a wall of trade secrets. Most of the books to be digitized would be in English -- a situation both reflecting and bolstering that language’s tendency towards global (or at least Internet) hegemony.

This prospect is worrying in ways that the former ubiquity of Latin among educated readers around the world (let alone that of French, until recently) evidently was not. It hardly follows that the dispersion of English automatically yields “Anglo-Saxon,” much less American, domination. It might just as well portend a 21st century of explosive economic and cultural innovation coming from India or the Caribbean.

But I am rude to interrupt the worries of M. Jeanneney. So to continue:

The ranking of search results from Google tends to reflect the popularity of whatever links are followed by the search-engine’s users. That is another sign of Google’s market-like logic. (It would be preferable for results to correspond to the cumulative wisdom of the learned.) But the effects of the profit motive may run even deeper.

“What pays for the digitization of materials,” writes Jeanneney, “are linked advertisements from companies that have an interest in associating their image with old or recent works likely to promote that image. As a result, books will necessarily be hierarchized in favor of those best suited to satisfy the demands of advertisers -- again, according to the principle of the highest bidder.” This conjures a future in which people will be able to search the pages of Proust only thanks to the sponsorship of a manufacturer of madeleines, or read only read a digital Don Quixote amidst pop-up ads from somebody trying to sell you a windmill.

“Am I exaggerating?” he asks. “Can we be sure this won’t occur?”

Well, few things in life are sure. And those that are -- death, for example -- seldom prove encouraging. Be that as it may, the commercial dynamics of Google are nothing compared to the real horror that Jeanneney imagines for the future.

It seems that during an event held in Paris to celebrate the bicentennial of the French revolution, Jeanneney was exposed to a skit by Bob Hope. The details are unclear, but it sounds as if there were a lot of jokes about guillotines. Any American old enough to remember Bob Hope can imagine that the performance could only make you laugh from pity at how lame the whole thing was.

In any case, the experience must have been traumatic for Jeanneney. He is convinced that future generations of the Republic’s schoolchildren will have their minds warped by googling “Jacobins” and getting Anglo-American accounts not much more sophisticated than whatever hilarious hijinks involving a guillotine were performed that day.

One longs to assure Jeanneney that, no, Bob Hope did not reflect anything like an Anglo-American scholarly consensus on the aftermath of 1789  and that the Revolution was never defended more strongly than by, say, the late Morris Slavin, a professor of history at Youngstown State University who died a few months ago.

That’s assuming, of course, that the Republic’s schoolchildren will be using Google to study historiography rather than to keep up with the Eurovision song contest. (You can blame “the familiar Anglo-American solidarity” for a lot of things, but not for the Eurovision song contest. We have no global monopoly on the production of cultural crap.)

Before assuming his current position in charge of the national library, Jeanneney served in a variety of government positions. His booklet is the work of a capable political functionary -- in essence, a memorandum festooned with the occasional erudite quotation. The intent is to persuade people in the European Union to commit to a serious, coordinated development of alternatives to Google, both at the level of digital collections and search tools.

If that means employing rather dumb clichés that will help some readers enjoy an unearned feeling of cultural superiority to their boobish American cousins -- well, so be it. The citations from Plato and Diderot are there strictly to dazzle the rubes. The important thing is to get a budget together.

When he leaves off the bouts of stereotype-laden geopolitical grumbling, Jeanneney does make some good points. “In 2006,” he writes, “we can’t help but be struck by the number of projects Google is showcasing, and this gigantic appetite will only be satisfied if its exceptional profitability continues to satisfy Wall Street. But there’s no certainty whatever that it will continue....”

This is all the more worrisome given the company’s “apparent indifference to the question of long-term preservation and conservation....The instinct to preserve a cultural heritage, by contrast, is intrinsic to public institutions with a lofty mission, for which government funding ensures steady budgets or even, in the best of cases, periodic increases.”

Similar thoughts may form in an American brain. Developing both a digital archives and a non-Google search engine is something scholars in the United States would welcome. Let every important work ever stored in a Bulgarian or Rumanian library be scanned, and fully indexed, and made available to anyone on the planet capable of reading them. And if Jeanneney knows how to harness the brainpower of the EU’s intelligentsia so that only really smart items will result from an Internet search, then more power to him.

Yet one notices certain things about how he appeals to his European readers. He talks about the civilizing mission of the European spirit, etc. But he does not forget what is sometimes called, in the market-crazed world of the Anglo-Saxons, “the bottom line.”

The proposed  European Digital Library would benefit humanity through the sheer force of its non-American-ness. But it would also, he notes, enhance the EU’s economic power.

Nor, it seems, would the initiative be entrusted solely to “public institutions with a lofty mission.” Unless IBM is one of them, that is. He mentions that the company is serving as a consultant to the European Digital Library project – helping to get “competitive bids from those companies that might hope to obtain part of the European market.” For many years, Jeanneney held appointments under Francois Mitterrand. But at times, he sounds quite a bit like what, in the United States, was once called a Rockefeller Republican.   

Scott McLemee
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Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Teaching Abroad With Obama

Among the thousands of students beginning classes this week, a surprising few gained admission to their university by analyzing a speech of Barack Obama. They are students at the flagship public institution for engineering and the sciences in France, the Polytechnique. Entrance requires passing nine examinations, including an oral on general culture. In this competitive research environment akin to that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this exam often proves decisive, opening or closing the door for applicants to the Parisian school. This time around, they were tested on the Philadelphia speech of an American presidential candidate, in French.

The oral is a defining ritual in French education. Students must demonstrate in the moment not only their sharp thinking, but their eloquence. Typically they are given the work of statesmen -- Victor Hugo speaking in favor of Italian independence or Jean Jaurès, the fiery socialist who spoke on behalf of striking workers. Or they square off with that of intellectuals who are not French -- Victor Klemperer writing against totalitarian language in Hitler’s Germany. Yet no matter the culture or the historical period of the text on the table, the challenge remains the same. In less than 30 minutes, improvise an argument about a work that they are receiving for the first time, and field questions about it with aplomb. For the class of 2008, why choose Obama’s political writing?

One of the Polytechnique examiners from the University of Paris system, Jean Delabroy, had heard a singular voice when Obama was introduced on French radio some 18 months ago. Like many, he was intrigued by the senator of African descent, and in the heat of the primaries, began reading his speeches that appeared in translation as well as in their original in the major newspapers. Long before Obama became a European jet-setter in Maureen Dowd’s jargon, he represented, in the view of the French press, an orator standing in the line of a classical tradition. While Democrats clamored for him to substantiate his call for change, Delabroy decided that the American’s language, rich and complex, merited explication.

Choosing Obama for this year’s oral was good pedagogy to my colleague, who directs the department of literature, arts, and film at the University of Paris-Diderot. But to me, and I imagined, to many colleagues outside of France, it was an unusual move, and thought-provoking. When he told me about the long days of questioning the students, I wanted to find out why Obama could serve as a model speaker for them.

The choice had everything to do with the strategic force of his public speaking, Delabroy explained. He’s a reflective thinker, an example for Polytechnique candidates of articulating a political position persuasively. The opaque tones of a young voice made his text an even more interesting case.

What exactly did these students discover speaking about Obama’s speech: “Two hundred and twenty one years ago in a hall that still stands across the street”?

Class entwined with race in the day-to-day bargaining of life in America. They thought about Obama describing in one breath the working and middle class, black, brown, and white. They examined the ways he outlined their similar dilemmas: keeping a well-paying job, educating their children, staying healthy. One student was moved to think further about social class, as a mirror blinding many Americans of different racial backgrounds to what they have in common: poverty. In a piece that was quickly named in America “the race speech,” the students in France found Obama puncturing the illusion of a class-free society, confronting the taboo subject of economic inequalities.

In the process, Delabroy their examiner, recognized a public figure who was critical of his own and loyal. He heard someone who did not silence the contradictions that filled the statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but on the contrary sought to understand them even while he judged them severely. Obama spoke, Delabroy discovered, in order to reckon with the conflicted experience of black activists who spoke out in the 60s and 70s, and he did so on behalf of his generation -- of all backgrounds -- and of the next. Obama’s openness was telling: He took on his personal quandary over his former pastor so as to deepen the analysis of the legacies of slavery and immigration. And he spelled out the record to give the electorate choices: how will you respond now to divisions that are so deep-seated?

Delabroy’s understanding was tinged with longing. Today in France, the Left is made up of an old guard called in mock affection, the elephants, and a new one still searching for its voice. It is hard to identify a well-spoken public figure who is grappling with all the repercussions of race.

The surprise of the Polytechnique oral for many outside France is, precisely, the minor importance given race. There is no more current cliché about the French than their difficulty in working through the tangle of race relations. With the rioting of thousands of young men and women of African and Arab descent in over one hundred urban areas during the fall of 2005, the malaise intensified. The official government commemoration of French slaves the following January 2006 could hardly begin to answer the need for a full debate on the question. And the trompe l’oeil of a rainbow coalition in the present government of Nicolas Sarkozy has something perverse about it. The Polytechnique candidates are coming of age in a political era when their minister of justice is a woman of Moroccan and Algerian descent, and the foreign affairs secretary with the human rights portfolio, a Senegalese woman; but it is also a time when the Right has yet to articulate fully a cogent argument about institutionalized barriers limiting the development of young people of color from Martinique to the neighborhoods of Toulouse.

Studying Obama’s Philadelphia speech makes, then, for a timely lesson. It is tempting to imagine these students in France taking his language as an incitement to consider the situations they encounter. How could his analysis of legal discrimination and the contradictions of racist behavior help to advance debate in their country? When the candidate visited Paris for a day in late July, the French-speaking Internet lit up with hopeful queries whether he could show them something more of liberty, equality, fraternity.

This generation in France is primed to analyze clearly and openly their Republic’s original sin of slavery, the social and economic conflict it continues to create. Perhaps it will present a leader capable of addressing the anger over education jeopardized and jobs blocked in towns that burned across France in 2005.

In June, a few Polytechnique students were glad to have had the chance to think through Obama’s speech. They thanked Professor Delabroy for making their oral such a worthwhile exercise.

For those of us on American campuses, the many possible lessons are different, but no less challenging.

As I prepare to go into the classroom again in the battleground state of North Carolina, I wonder, for one, when will we make the political writing of contemporaries abroad a part of our general culture and debate?

Helen Solterer (with Jean Delabroy)
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Helen Solterer teaches French literature and culture in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University. Jean Delabroy teaches literature at the University of Paris-Diderot.

The Playboy Philosopher

When introduced to American audiences from the podium or by TV interviewers, Bernard-Henri Lévy is always called a philosopher -- a label that says less about the substance of his work than the efficiency of modern public-relations techniques. Like Sartre, he is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure. Unlike Sartre, he was formidably good-looking in his prime, and is aging gracefully. His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. And in the spirit of Andy Warhol and Paris Hilton, Lévy has always grasped -- more profoundly, or at least more profitably, than any mere philosopher could -- an important truth: the media must constantly be fed.

Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French.

His latest opuscule -- called in translation Left in Dark Times -- has just appeared from Random House. Writing about it elsewhere, I failed to note something peculiar about this development. How it is that a volume of afterthoughts on last year’s French presidential election should appear -- in such short order, no less -- from a major commercial publisher in the United States?

It seems counterintuitive, and a matter for concern. Clearly it is time to reinvest in America’s fast-thinking infrastructure. Dependence on foreign sources of ideological methane is just too risky. Besides, as a couple of my far-flung correspondents have recently pointed out, the recent embrace of BHL by the American media is raising questions about just how gullible we really are.

Lauren Elkin, a Ph.D. candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center and the Université de Paris VII, says that the very occasional links to BHL items on her blog tend to bring out the worst in her readers. One mention can be reliably predicted to yield 10 gripes.

“In Paris, it's just the done thing to bash BHL,” she tells me. “Recently I featured an awesome graphic that went along with a BHL piece on Sarah Palin in New York magazine -- an image of Palin getting bopped on the head with a baguette -- and I included a link to the NY mag article, because hey, I re-used their graphic, I owed them a link. The comments that followed amounted to taking the baguette and turning it on BHL!” (Well, at least it wasn’t a cream pie.)

Usually the expressions of exasperation are “all in good fun,” says Elkin. But one item at her blog -- linking to a BHL piece on Simone de Beauvoir -- provoked an exceptionally pompous display of aggravation from a French journalist.

“You and your fellow Americans,” he wrote, “should realize that BHL is not a philosopher but a clown and a buffoon. You want real French philosophy, read Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, Baudrillard, if you are a right winger, read Aron, but please forget about this pompous arrogant shmuck BHL and his unending and shameless self-promotion. As a Frenchman, I am ashamed of BHL.”

The notion that silly Americans are somehow responsible for Lévy’s prominence is a bit rich. By my estimate, his career has spanned more than a third of a century -- yet BHL, Inc., has had a fully staffed U.S. office for barely half a decade. (Note to Wikipedians: This is a figure of speech. No actual office exists, so far as I know.) And it is the work of a long, ill-spent day at the library to try to track down any discussion of his work by American intellectuals who take Lévy seriously as a philosopher. Our culture has its faults. This is not one of them.

“What really got me, as you can probably guess,” says Elkin, “was the ‘you Americans’ bit and the implication that as such we could not possibly tell Derrida from Aron, much less evaluate BHL for ourselves.” All the more galling, perhaps, given that Elkin has never concerned herself with BHL’s books. “I've been too busy reading Derrida and Foucault, so pat me on the head,” she told her blog’s interlocutor.

Given her own neglect of the playboy’s philosophy, Elkin says she “really can't comment on whether the bashing is appropriate.” But she suspects the strong feelings Lévy’s work provokes is a cultural phenomenon. “The French disdain for BHL is reflective of an inherent distaste for blatant self-promotion; as for the non-French who read my blog and write in with these comments, hating on BHL is as good a way as any to fit in.”

In an incisive review published a couple of years ago, Doug Ireland cited a critical analysis of BHL’s oeuvre, characterizing him as “a philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre....”

Yet Lévy swims in the main currents of European culture, and does not sink. If anything, he belongs on the short list of the world’s best-known intellectuals. How is that possible?

It seemed like a good question to pose to Arthur Goldhammer, a canny observer of French politics and culture who chairs the seminar for visiting scholars at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He responded to my inquiry with an e-mail note -- albeit one that amounted to a judicious essay on the mystery of BHL.

“How does he pull it off?” wrote Goldhammer. “First, it must be recognized that he's not a total fraud. Though a wretched scholar, he is neither stupid nor uneducated. His rhetoric, at least in French, has some of the old Normalien brilliance and flair. He had the wit to recognize before anyone else that a classic French role, that of the universal intellectual as moral conscience of the age, had become a media staple, creating a demand that a clever entrepreneur could exploit. He understood that it was no longer necessary first to prove one's mettle in some field of literature, art, or thought. I think that someone once said of Zsa Zsa Gabor that she was ‘famous for being famous.’ Lévy realized that one could be famous for being righteous, and that celebrity itself could establish a prima facie claim to righteousness.”

Righteous or not, BHL is certainly timely. His denunciations of Communism in the late 1970s were hardly original. But they appeared as the radical spirit of May ‘68 was exhausting itself -- and just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese party’s own denunciations of late-period Maoism. BHL developed a knack for showing up in war zones and sending out urgent dispatches. Last month he did a toe-touch in Georgia following the Russian invasion -- filing an article that was impassioned, if, it seems, imaginative.

“He chooses his causes shrewdly,” continues Goldhammer. “He may not have been the first to divine the waning of revolutionary radicalism, but he made himself revisionism's publicist. He has a knack for placing himself at the center of any scene and for depicting his presence as if it were what rendered the scene important.... His critics keep him constantly in the limelight and actually amplify his voice, and why should a ‘philosopher’ of universal range stoop to respond to ‘pedants’ who trouble the clarity of his vision with murky points of detail?”

And so he has acquired a sort of power that survives all debunking. If the topic of BHL comes up at “a typical dinner party of Parisian intellectuals,” says Goldhammer, seven of the guests will be sarcastic. “But the eighth, enticed by the allure of making a brilliant defense of a lost cause, a venerable French oratorical tradition, will launch into an elaborate defense beginning, ‘Say what you will about the man, and I wouldn't contradict a word of it, but still you must admit that for the Chechens (or Bosnians or Georgians or boat people or insert your favorite cause here), he has not been without effect.’

“The French love their litotes,” Goldhammer continues (rhetoric lesson here), “and of course no one can say that BHL has been without effect, that he has probably done more good for someone somewhere than most of us, so the revilers are reduced to sheepish silence for fear of appearing heartless.”

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”

This is savvy. Also, convenient for journalists. BHL has now become “the respectable media's go-to guy whenever a French opinion is needed.” Goldhammer cites a recent article in The New York Times in which Lévy, like the presidents of Pakistan and Chile, was quoted as “as an exemplar of what ‘the world’ wants to know from the next American president.” Get in the right Rolodex, it seems, and you are the embodiment of cosmopolitanism itself.

“To those familiar with the sad nullity of Lévy's work,” says Goldhammer, “this is infuriating, but to protest is only to perpetuate the folly. His celebrity is a bubble that must be allowed to burst, but we can be sure that when it does, no crisis will ensue.”

Scott McLemee
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