Balliol politics lecturer Sudhir Hazareesingh presents his history of France's intellectual flair from Descartes to Asterix the Gaul.  

Cafe society: The French, Hazareesingh explains, are passionately attached to discussing abstract ideas

By Helen Massy-Beresford

“There’s no equivalent in French to the expression ‘too clever by half’,” says Sudhir Hazareesingh, politics fellow at Balliol, and author of How the French Think. “In France, cleverness is something that everybody wants to have more and more of – there’s no limit to it.” 

That embracing of ideas is just one of the traits that sets the French apart from their more pragmatic cross-channel neighbours. It is part of the reason Hazareesingh concludes his grand tour through the history of French thought, from Descartes to Derrida, on a note of optimism: “One thing is certain … as they face the challenges of the twenty-first century, the French will remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition”.   

Catherine Helie

Francophile: Balliol politics lecturer Sudhir Hazareesingh

First he explores thought through the preceding centuries and addresses why France in 2015 – still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks when the book appeared, and now in even deeper shock after the 13th November –  has come to be so mired in pessimism. France is finding itself asking serious questions about national identity, immigration, religion and its role in society and what the principle of secularism really means.

“One of the striking things about the French is that they have this extraordinary intellectual and cultural unity, this extraordinary history of centralisation – all the big philosophers, all the great systems of ideas, all the great publishers, everything comes from Paris,” he tells Oxford Today, explaining that is this quality which makes it possible to make sense of French thought as an overarching structure. 


Thought-provoking: French philosophers such as Descartes have been pioneers in providing philosophical systems that have capture people’s imaginations

After four decades as an outsider observer of French life  – Hazareesingh was born in Mauritius – he felt the time was right to explore the history behind the universal appeal of the French, their the contradictions and the fascination they and their ideas hold for the rest of the world. 

The French, he explains, are passionately attached to abstract ideas as well as being contradictory – they are fiercely committed to rationalism but still fascinated by mysticism and the occult (François Mitterand, who consulted an astrologer, was just one of many French leaders to demonstrate a belief in supernatural forces). They are proudly secular but still influenced by their Catholic tradition, keen to view life through the prism of universal ideas, argumentative and drawn to metaphysical concepts and to a binary view of issues. 

“For at least the last four centuries the French have been pioneers in providing philosophical systems, political ideas, ways of thinking which have captured people’s imaginations. The French have had this capacity all the time – it’s one of the themes I discuss in the book – to be very passionately self-centred but at the same time to have this kind of universal appeal. I think that’s why they continue to fascinate even though they’re increasingly becoming inward-looking,” he says. Sartre

Legacy: Hazareesingh explores how bold and influential French thought remains

While the broader economic crisis that has engulfed Europe and, closer to home, terrorist attacks and the debate they have fuelled on integration and secularism, a vital pillar of French society, explain some of the current gloom, the roots of France’s crisis go deeper, says Hazareesingh. 

The country’s dwindling influence in a Europe it helped to construct is one factor. 

“Up to the late twentieth century there was an intelligibility about the world and France’s place in it made sense. That isn’t there any more and I think that’s really rattled them,” he says. 

SudhirHazareesingh notes in How the French Think that the “Cartesian aplomb” with which then Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin delivered his speech to the United Nations in 2003 against the use of force in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime may have been a “last piece of French bravado, the dying echo of a tradition of confident universalism whose constitutive elements have slowly dissolved.”

The real triggers for French decline date back to the late 1990s, Hazareesingh argues: the emergence of the truth about what really happened under the Vichy regime and the violent end of the French empire, played out in Algeria and Indochina. 

“The French have a way of talking a lot about certain things and not talking at all about others, sweeping certain things under the carpet. I think those two big things that they didn’t really talk about enough have come back to haunt them,” Hazareesingh adds. 

The end of the empire – from the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to the bloody war for Algerian independence – was “a very wounding moment for French national pride”, Hazareesingh says. Similarly “by the sixties the French saw themselves as a nation of resisters and the truth of what happened in Vichy when it came out was a big blow.”

The two episodes are still affecting French society and thinking today.

The country is gearing up for regional elections that are likely to be a big success for Marine Le Pen’s Front National as the changing definition of secularism is played out in debates about Muslim women wearing headscarves and school canteens serving pork. 

The Front National’s rhetoric has, Hazareesingh believes, influenced the country’s dialogue about immigration and national identity to a disproportionate degree because it taps into those old wounds. 

“The Front National, indirectly in one case and directly in the other speaks to those two events by saying there are too many immigrants in France and that France is not a great nation any more – that’s the pillar of its ideology. Its influence is now much wider than its political representation. It’s managed to kind of capture and shape the way the French think about a whole host of issues.” 

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People by Sudhir Hazareesingh is published by Allen Lane, £20


By Chris Miller

I'm strongly reminded of a French cartoon I once saw (in Le Canard Enchaîné?) portraying two Énarques. The caption read:
"Your idea is absolutely fine in practice, but it could never work in theory."

By Christopher Wintle

Thank you - an appetizing piece, and I shall surely acquire the book! If Paris (=France) is in decline,
or reinventing itself, might it be good to look at a similar story across all the arts? People used to go to Paris, say, to study music (with the late Olivier Messiaen): but would they go now, and to whom?
A new collection of essays, perhaps, edited by SH?

By Michael Carpenter

Mr Hazareesingh is wrong, it is possible to transmit the sense of "too clever by half" into French. However this pushes the problem to yet another level of epistemology, which consists of defining the concept of clever in a particular context. The French "malin" can be translated in many different ways, all depending on what we wish to convey. Confronted with a French-speaker, I would say "trop malin" to express my disdain in an ironic way. But these generalizations lead us into dangerous stereotypes about national identities and stereotypes. It is true that most French consider themselves as Cartesian, while at the same time holding superstitious beliefs. They also believe the English to be "more pragmatic", having disdain for intellectuals. In the massively multicultral society of Europe, we need hold high the standard of free debate and tolerance - the particular tradition of secularism of the French put them in a very difficult position today, when they are the target of intolerance and obscurantism that grows up in their midst. There again, the French believe that "laïcité" cannot be translated into English, since we/they were never able to separate Church from State.

By W.Pull

"all the big philosophers......everything comes from Paris". Descartes' most fruitful years were spent in the United Provinces.

By Charles Watkins

"He's too clever by half": to adapt a popular scatalogical expression denoting pretension, intellectual or otherwise: "Il pense plus haut que son crâne" would do the trick quite nicely It might even take... I'll try it at my next conseil de classe.