Sartre, Meet Sarkozy

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey; With Tracy McNicoll and Ginny Power in Paris

The French president is exhorting his countrymen to philosophize less and work more. But are the French really too cerebral? Hmm, let's give that some thought.

September is the month of La rentree, that time of year when the French return to work or, anyway, to their jobs. And hyperkinetic President Nicolas Sarkozy has set such a blistering pace for his ministers ("Like your Energizer bunny," a weary bureaucrat tells an American reporter) that memories are fading fast of those languorous holidays on topless beaches where the French whiled away the last days of summer. But one subject for passionate debate that emerged in the heat of August still lingers: do the French as a people discuss, contemplate, cogitate -- in fact, think -- altogether too much?

The calculated impression given by Sarkozy and his cabinet is that, yes, indeed, they do. Since long before his election in May, Sarkozy has talked about the need "to move from incantation to action." And the discussion was opened in earnest when Finance Minister Christine Lagarde fired a shot across the brow of French intellectuals in July. "It's an old national way of doing things: France is a country that thinks," said Lagarde, who as a young woman studied briefly at a prep school in the United States and later headed the major U.S.-based law firm Baker & McKenzie. "In our libraries we have enough to talk about for centuries to come. That's why I'd like to say to you: enough thinking already. Let's roll up our sleeves."

The aim, of course, is to pull the French out of that supposed citadel of intellectualizing where they retreat to opine with lofty superiority about the global competitors that are passing them by. As journalist Gilles Delafon says in his recent book, called "Hello Earth? It's France --," this is a "curious country that perceives every change as an attack, every evolution as a regression, and all adaptation as surrender."

Sarkozy's relentless call for aggressive efforts to energize the population and his suspicion of academic blather sounds perfectly common-sensical to American ears. There is, after all, an "old national way of doing things" in the United States that disparages "eggheads," a term used by supporters of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, and denounces "pointy-headed intellectuals," in the phrase made famous by the late Alabama demagogue George Wallace. "All talk and no action" is a well-known American put-down.

But the context in France is profoundly different. This, remember, is the country of 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes. "Cogito ergo sum," he wrote -- I think, therefore I am -- and that idea is as deeply ingrained in the French psyche as the pioneer spirit is in the American. "Instead of deploring this, I think we ought to congratulate ourselves," says author Pierre Assouline, who writes the widely read Le Monde blog La Republique des Livres. "The idea that thought and action are opposites is so puerile there's nothing to discuss." And when it comes to talking, well, "the French have made conversation one of the fine arts," says Assouline. "I suppose Madame Lagarde doesn't have time to waste on conversation -- the real thing. Too bad for her."

Perhaps more to the point in today's world of global commerce, as political science professor Thierry Leterre has pointed out, France's reputation for intellectualism "is a trademark of our nation." Precisely in matters of economic competition, it's an important "comparative advantage" akin to other forms of branding, adding value to the image of the country and to what it produces by setting it apart from increasingly mindless pop culture. …