Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The "Intellectual" French Politicians.

In September, France will really be in full gear for the campaign for the presidential elections to be held in May. The most likely contenders at this point seem to be Nicholas Sarkozy (majorty leader on the right) and Ségolène Royale (on the left), even if the competition for leadership is hard in the Socialist Party.

Right now, as The Economist pointed out last week, it is the season of the books. It seems that every French politician who wants to be someone and play a role in the campaign has to publish a book about their ideas or themselves.

I appreciate the angle taken on by The Economist article, Publish or Perish on this subject. They find two explanations for this uniquely French phenomenon of the literary ritual of publishing books for French politicians – culture and language.

Unlike the British [or the Americans] for whom the word “intellectual” is an insult, the French cherry theirs, inviting them on television talk-shows and clearing space for them on op-ed pages. One poll found 36% of French claiming to read political books at least occasionally.

That’s a huge number, but it makes sense in a country that has always revered its intellectuals and continues to do so. It is even believed in France that the French Revolution was before anything else a revolution of bourgeois intellectuals, and that' s the very foundation of modern France.

The second explanation, language is also an interesting note. It is true that “the elite consider the command of the French language as an expression of national identity”. I think it is far deeper than just the elite. France is obsessed with culture and its medium, language. While this is a good thing in many ways, the downside is that the love of one’s national language (it is more than “love” since it is considered a crucial element of the national identity) makes it harder for people to be willing to learn a foreign language - especially if you consider as the French often do that all languages are somewhat sacrosanct. How can you learn a foreign language if you’re not ready to butcher it at some point? And to butcher it, you need to see it more as just a means of communications than as an art form, which is not something that most French people learn to do.

Those last few lines of course comes straight from the bottom of the heart of a somewhat frustrated teacher of English in France.

NOTE: J2T might be off for a few days... As we said before, the summer is a complicated time since we go travel and there are sometimes other more important things to do than blogging. But we'll be back very soon...


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