Asked to defend France’s reputation on the global stage, a French diplomat once told the International Herald Tribune, 'If Germany has Siemens, we have Voltaire.' In this vision lies something very obviously French: a single-minded belief in superiority grounded not in the future but in the glorious intellectual past. Schooled in the tradition of exception culturelle or cultural superiority, the French truly believe that their cultural capital is the finest in the world. Think Diderot, Condorcet, Sartre and Camus and you can see why.
It is in this context that we should understand actress Corinne Masiero’s ineffably Gallic striptease at the Césars. Casting off a donkey outfit and a blood-stained dress – what else - to reveal the message 'no culture no future' scrawled across her bosom and 'give us art back Jean' across her behind, Masiero made no bones about who she had in her sights, namely the Prime Minister Jean Castex (she also cleverly elided 'l’art Jean' with the French word for money 'l’argent' making us think about false homonyms; oh to be French). Add to this the recent occupy protests staged at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris by artists in the spirit of May ’68 and you can feel the anger France’s culture sector radiates towards Macron’s government over the pandemic. To allow shops and offices to stay open but to keep the arts shut up is, they argue, nothing short of an assassination of the French soul.
But why is the French soul so interwoven with its culture? Soul might be a good place to start. As card-carrying secularists, French intellectuals engage in ardent anticlericalism upheld in such publications as Charlie Hebdo and parsed through acrimonious debates about the place of Islam and Judaism in its national fabric. Yet since nature abhors a vacuum, intellectuals take on the status of saints; even the modern French word for intellectual is clerc or clergyman. Lasting tropes of Frenchness play on the mystical role of writers and philosophers, smoking in Parisian cafes and waxing lyrical in terms such as faith and commitment. And yet secularism cannot wholly account for the French urge, nay obsession, to subject everything from literature to loo roll to a rigorous theoretical and existential stress-test. Call it centuries of rupture crystallized, famously, in the revolution or two world wars waged on its soil, but the French love to theorize, mainly in grand abstractions. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité could just as well be a Republican slogan as it could an explanation of how the French queue for their morning baguette.
We no-nonsense pragmatic Brits, grounded as we are in empiricism, have little truck with this form of theorising. As a British Army manual issued in 1944 explains: 'By and large, Frenchmen enjoy intellectual argument more than we do'. Go to a British dinner party and you will be given a tour of the side-return conversion before being asked to share the sofa with a dog and discuss your children’s sporting interests. Attend a French soirée and you will be asked to quote sections of Michelet’s histories and make witty repartee about Barthesian structuralism over the salad. This may in part be down to schooling. In the grand old Republican tradition, citizenship is associated with learning. French schoolchildren are primed for a lifetime of philosophizing over lunch thanks to the Bac Littéraire, a philosophical assault course in which you must master what are vaguely termed notions and swallow Descartes whole with your croissant. Fail the philosophy and your entire Bac is compromised. British schoolchildren on the other hand, would be hard pressed to name any British philosopher and think the Enlightenment is a series on Netflix.
Corinne Masiero’s visceral spectacle evoked that national symbol Marianne gone slightly wrong. Her protest tapped into a deeper anxiety and pessimism about the loss of French influence on the world stage: the prestige of France's intellectualism is intertwined with its global dominance, as evidenced by Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac’s famous quip (often wrongly attributed to Napoleon) that Britain is a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. We often wear this gallic insult as a badge of honour. We like to mock the French and double down on our own pragmatism. But, in these humdrum times when we are all so tired of the domestic, the French's indomitable love of culture is surely something to be admired and emulated. Lord knows we need French intellectuals now more than ever.