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Opinion |  Is this the end of French intellectual life?


The Debate being dead, its critics on the left shed few tears, having seen the publication less as a place of discussion of ideas and more as an obstacle on the road to social justice. The historian Ludovine Bantigny, questioned on the disappearance of the Debate, had no problem to spare on the market of the ideas. “By repeating that there is an immigration problem in France,” she said, “by waving around this so-called ideologization of human rights to question the legitimacy of new rights and by relaying the arguments of the Manif Pour Tous “- a movement against gay marriage -” as Gauchet did, you end up legitimizing magazines like Causeur or Valeurs Actuelles. “

Ms. Bantigny’s allusion to the “legitimacy” of these two very different magazines is curious. Causeur is a fiery ten-year-old monthly edited by disillusioned anti-multicultural liberals; Valeurs Actuelles is a long-established arch-conservative news magazine based on the Time / Newsweek model. Apparently, we no longer debate things written in magazines. One wonders about the “legitimacy” of the magazines themselves. Where does this very little French attitude come from?

The editors of Debate have an answer: America. A few days after announcing that the journal would no longer publish, Mr. Nora spoke of its closure on Alain Finkielkraut’s radio show. Mr. Finkielkraut spoke of disturbing trends in French intellectual life, but Mr. Nora wanted to take the conversation in another direction: towards the “American movements” that are starting on campuses across the ocean and tend to occur in France. . “What they call,” he says, “following the argument to its logical conclusion, canceling culture, that is, the extermination of culture, the will to. … ”

Here Mr Nora paused before continuing: “Anyway, I dare say that some of us are old enough to have echoes in Goebbels head when he said: ‘When I hear the word “culture”, I take my gun.

Goebbels’ quote may be apocryphal, but it’s worth stopping to ask why Mr. Nora – born in the first half of the 20th century and concerned about the moral legacy of World War II – should recall a such name in mind when considering influence. of American culture on its own country.

“There is a powerful ideological wave coming from the United States”, wrote the philosopher Yves Charles Zarka last fall in an article on the death of the Debate. “It leads to rewriting history, censoring literature, overturning statues and imposing a racist view of society.” It’s also not as iconoclastic as it looks, according to Luc Ferry, a conservative philosopher and columnist. “As anti-capitalist and anti-American as they may think they are,” he wrote last year, “these activists are just faking what has happened on campuses across the Atlantic over the past four years. decades.

The shoe was on the other foot. The United States learned a lot from France. Until a generation ago, at the time of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, one could say that America deferred to France on intellectual questions. This is no longer the case. The demise of the Debate was not marked by any mention in any major American newspaper or magazine.

There are still lessons Americans can learn from France, provided they approach it with the right questions in mind. A good thing to start with might be whether the American academy of recent decades – with the culture it carries and the political behaviors it fosters – has been, in the wider world, a force for intellectual freedom or for its opposite.

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