In the NYT, Elaine Sciolino explains “New Leaders Say Pensive French Think Too Much.” “Pensive” isn’t the right word, since it implies the French have unexpressed thoughts, but it is pretty funny:
In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their “old national habit.”
“France is a country that thinks,” she told the National Assembly. “There is hardly an ideology that we haven’t turned into a theory. We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.”
To graduate from college in France, you have to pass a test that consists of writing a three hour essay on a philosophical topic such as “Being or nothingness: which is more ineffable?” I may have a few details wrong about this, but the general point is that the ability to philosophize fluently off the top of one’s head at great length is a status marker that shows you are a college graduate and thus important to cafe flirtation. Michael Blowhard explained:
Hard though it is for an American to believe, the French wake up in the morning and look forward to a full day’s-worth of Being French. …French philosophy is, IMHO, best understood as a cross between a hyperrefined entertainment form, and an industry for the supplying of fodder for cafe-and-flirtation chatter. Take French philosophy straight and you’re likely to wind up doing something stupid like destroying a department of English, or maybe even ruining your own life. The French would never make such a mistake; after all, nothing — not even philosophy — can distract them from the pursuit of Being French. In fact, part of Being French is enjoying philosophical chitchat, the more fashionable the better. We may not have much patience with it, but the French love the spectacle of radical posturing. We tend to engage with the substance of a radical position. For the French, this kind of attitudinizing is enjoyed. It adds spice to life; it’s sexy intellectual titillation… French philosophy? Well, it gives the French something sophisticated-seeming to say (and to gab about) as they go about the genuinely serious business of Being French.
The NYT continues:
Citing Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” she said the French should work harder, earn more and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich.
Ms. Lagarde knows well the Horatio Alger story of making money through hard work. She looked west to make her fortune, spending much of her career as a lawyer at the firm of Baker & McKenzie, based in the American city identified by its broad shoulders and work ethic: Chicago. She rose to become the first woman to head the firm’s executive committee and was named one of the world’s most powerful women by Forbes magazine.
So now, two years back in France, she is a natural to promote the program of Mr. Sarkozy, whose driving force is doing rather than musing, and whose mantra is “work more to earn more.”
Certainly, the new president himself has cultivated his image as a nonintellectual. “I am not a theoretician,” he told a television interviewer last month. “I am not an ideologue. Oh, I am not an intellectual! I am someone concrete!”
But the disdain for reflection may be going a bit too far. It certainly has set the French intellectual class on edge.
“How absurd to say we should think less!” said Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host. “If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.”
Indeed, sweat is pouring from my brow as I try to think up something smarter to say about this than “Indeed.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the much more splashy philosopher-journalist who wrote a book retracing Tocqueville’s 19th-century travels throughout the United States, is similarly appalled by Ms. Lagarde’s comments.
“This is the sort of thing you can hear in cafe conversations from morons who drink too much,” said Mr. Lévy, who is so well-known in French that he is known simply by his initials B.H.L. “To my knowledge this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases. I’m pro-American and pro-market, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this anti-intellectual tendency is one of the reasons that I did not.”
Mr. Lévy, who ultimately endorsed Mr. Sarkozy’s Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, said that Ms. Lagarde was much too selective in quoting Tocqueville and suggested that she read his complete works. In her leisure time. …
Here’s Garrison Keillor’s well-known review of BHL’s insufferable American Vertigo.
Indeed, the idea of admitting one’s wealth, once considered déclassé, is becoming more acceptable. A cover story in the popular weekly magazine VSD this month included revelations that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable: the 2006 income of leading French personalities ($18 million for soccer star Zinedine Zidane, $12.1 million for rock star Johnny Hallyday, $334,000 for Prime Minister François Fillon, $109,000 for Mr. Sarkozy).
Johnny Hallyday is 64 years old. How do you make $12 million per year when you are 64 as a rock star, especially one who is utterly unknown in the English-speaking world? I guess maybe the reason is that M. Hallyday is the only French rock star. Perhaps an emphasis on rationalism prevents the French from developing rock stars more often than once every 40 years?
And do you want to guess that Mr. Sarkozy lived a little better than $109,000-worth?
Still, the French devotion to Cartesian rationality has served the French fairly well. The French don’t score any higher in IQ than Americans or other Europeans, but they sometimes seem to think things through better than others do, as in nuclear power or health care. Unlike the Marines, the French tend to believe that there are two ways to do anything: the wrong way and the right way, which should be the French way.