All nations claim a special mission. For France, that mission has been culture. The nation’s role on a global scale since 1789 is complex but has rested on a commitment to cultural dissemination rather than mere military and administrative imperial conquest. The French state, first the monarchy and then the Republic, developed a sense of its relative importance vis-à-vis other powers, based on the idea that cultural influence really matters and that attraction and seduction rather than coercion are vital qualities in establishing international influence. For France, culture had to be disseminated. France has regarded itself as having a “civilizing mission,” which included being charged with propagating the idea of a world cultural heritage while putting things French at its apex.
The Revolution inherited many ideals from the Old Regime it overthrew. The nature of the cultural project and its importance has a long history in which France cast itself as the inheritor of the greatness of Rome. From the time of France’s Renaissance king, Francis I, the court tied itself to that classical achievement and, in fact, imported many antiquities from Italy. It also imported artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, into its network of patronage. This is how the Mona Lisa came to reside in France. During the reign of Louis XIV, the French court became the height of classical taste. The king created the French art academy in Rome and had copies of many of the great sculptures made and brought to his court in Versailles, which then became the best single place to contemplate the heritage of antiquity. This project would later be extended in the establishment of the Louvre as a public museum in 1793. If the French state saw itself as bearing the mantle of Western civilization generally construed, it also promoted the notion that its language would come to explain and transmit that heritage around the world. To disseminate such a heritage, the world would need to learn perfect French.
The French obsession with the value and meaning of the written word has served as the basis by which France disseminated its culture, an especially canny strategy in a world of increasing literacy. Since the Enlightenment, many proponents of France suggested that the French language had an innate clarity and rationality that made learning it an ideal unto itself. On the eve of the Revolution, European aristocrats, even as far away as Russia, were already linguistically under the spell of France. By the eighteenth century, Russian aristocrats learned French from birth, taught by their governesses, while they learned Russian from the servants. Frederick the Great of Prussia was said to speak German like a coachman (to his horse) but French with his family and social equals.
French culture has been as embodied in language and the dissemination of the written word as it has been in political ideas or material objects. The durability of France is based upon its fixation on language, its focus on the importance of writers and intellectuals, and the development of institutions associated with the power of the word. These elements, joined with a notion that French culture was, in fact, universal, made France not just an imperial power in formal terms but enabled and continues to enable France to play a role in the world that extends far beyond the borders of the nation and its former empire.
The writer Albert Camus declared, “My homeland is the French language.” These words, by a writer born to French parents living in Algeria, suggest that Francophonie constituted its own universe. Camus’s status as a Frenchman in Algeria also underscores the imperial aspects of such a notion. French is the only language other than English to be taught in every country where there is foreign language instruction, and it trails only English as the second language of choice at the dawn of the twenty-first century. French is one of four languages (English, Spanish, and Arabic are the others) that has official status in more than twenty countries. It is fair to claim that French is still the “other” global language after English.
Language as a touchstone of cultural life predates the modern period. When François I issued the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 that concerned the powers of the French state against the papacy, he also struck a policy in which all official documents would be produced in French, rather than Latin. The Renaissance king may have been deeply influenced by Italian culture, but his policy was designed to promote the use of French and thus his kingdom. The fact that he ruled early in the history of the explosion of publishing made possible by the invention of the printing press also contributed to the vast number of works written and circulated in French. His reign also coincided with the rise of Protestantism, which favored the use of the vernacular French, since Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church.
By the time of the Enlightenment, French had become the language of diplomacy as well as the lingua franca of court societies throughout Europe. The spread of the French language was aided by the odd notion, especially for a living vernacular, that it had a pure form. French seemed to have an authentic source in the region of Paris. The creation of the French Academy in 1635 by the Cardinal de Richelieu institutionalized this idea. Like many Old Regime French innovations, the cardinal modeled his institute after an Italian one: the Accademia della Crusca in Florence. In particular, the new academy made French the first European language to have an official dictionary and a fully developed system of spelling and grammar, for which forty appointed “immortals” are still charged with updating. Such codification made it much easier for non-native French speakers to learn the language. The Académie française served as the first but certainly not the last institution that has maintained a close tie between France and French, despite the global spread of the language ever since.
In 1782 the Berlin Academy asked, “How has French become the world’s universal language?” suggesting what a given the ubiquity of French had become on the eve of the Revolution. As France became an increasingly powerful and wealthy nation, the French language also became associated with those qualities. Within France, the development of the salons, social gatherings outside of the court, which prized the clever use of language above all, contributed to the association of linguistic skill with social status. Aristocrats and social climbers throughout Europe imitated this form of sociability, including speaking in French. The salons were tied to the Enlightenment movement through wealthy female patrons who provided the new thinkers known as the philosopheswith financial support. Notably, the great publication project of the late eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie, received financial backing from the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and the Russian empress, Catherine II, the latter of whom sustained the project by buying the library of its editor, Denis Diderot, which she allowed him to keep until the end of his life. The singularity of the twenty-eight-volume work alone helped associate French with the most novel and systematic thought in the world. At the time, because literacy was relatively limited and because few projects reached that scale, a single language could appear to monopolize the great written works. That such a storehouse of seemingly universal knowledge was written in French helped associate France with a vision of universal rather than the particular culture, as is often the case with powerful nations and their cultures.
Civilization and empire
The idea of civilization itself developed in the eighteenth century because intellectuals sought a way to define the triumph of ideas such as reason. Civilization as a unitary concept came to mean the opposite of barbarism, which had once simply been used to define non-Christians. On the eve of the Revolution, the French more or less already believed the rest of the world needed civilizing and that they had the universal culture ready-made for such work.
The Revolution helped tie the civilizing mission to language. Within France the revolutionaries sought to eradicate local languages such as Breton; the French military campaigns of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras “freed” people to think and learn in French. As the French Empire expanded, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the notion of the civilizing mission became part and parcel of French imperial expansion. Inspired by the Revolution’s universalizing principles, the civilizing mission surely became a tool of imperial expansion.
The system of French imperial expansion dates back to the sixteenth-century French explorations in Canada and mid-seventeenth-century colonization and commerce in Martinique, Senegal, and India. As a system that is inherently unequal and whose existence was maintained by the idea of the French civilizing mission, it came under scrutiny during the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 forbade slavery in France but did not extend this liberation to the colonies until slavery was abolished everywhere by the Convention in 1794 for pragmatic and ideological reasons. French law was extended to French colonies in 1795 as part of liberating peoples from Old Regime tyrannies and inequality everywhere.
With a sense of both right and duty, the French nation continued to expand outward throughout Europe and the wider world. The French conquered Algeria, the first Arab territory annexed by the West (1830), islands in the Pacific (especially New Caledonia, 1853), Senegal (1854–65), the short-lived Mexican misadventure (1861–67), Cochinchina (Vietnam, 1862), and Cambodia (1863). The French Third Republic managed the last major French colonial expansion into the Maghreb (Morocco and Tunisia were added), Syria, and Lebanon as well as French West and French East Africa, Laos, Madagascar, Togo, and Cameroon. By the end of World War I, the French Empire spanned 11 million kilometers and had 100 million inhabitants, about twice the size of the population of metropolitan France.
If all European countries colonized in the name of their cultural superiority, the French not only colonized in their language but also in its name. Colonial policy may have changed over the course of the development of the French empire, but one issue was never in doubt: the French language would be taught and learned—not simply to ease communication between colonizer and colonized but because it was a cornerstone in the development of civilization. After all, if all the courts of Europe were already speaking French, how could it not be central in the transformation and improvement of the peoples they encountered in the colonial arena?
The value of the French language was bolstered in the nineteenth century by the creation of a national education system, first under the historian and statesman François Guizot in the mid-century and then under Prime Minister Jules Ferry, who helped lead the Third Republic in creating mandatory and secular public education. Since France still had enormous linguistic diversity, one of the primary goals of the new French schools was to teach all French people residing in France to speak “proper” French. Through the course of the century the focus on the instruction of French produced books of grammar (Le Bescherelle, as the handbook named after its author came to be known) and methods for teaching the language, perhaps the best known of which were designed by Pierre Larousse, who also authored a major dictionary.
As the French bureaucracy and the state itself expanded, the Académie provided the standard French on which the new government exams would be based. This created an idealized form of French: no matter how many native Francophones there were outside France in such places as Canada and Louisiana, the notion of a pure and true French, disseminated from France, remains to this day. The notion of an ideal French also helps explain the obsession with dictation, meant to weed out imperfections and faults in the written language. It is also why we can still dispute whether using the feminine for a female teacher or minister (Madame/la professeur; Madame/le ministre) is correct. In French, professeur is a masculine noun, irrespective of the individual who occupies the post. (The government now endorses gender consistency as in “Madame, la professeur,” but the French Academy does not.)
Educational policy and the teaching of French also formed a cornerstone of successful imperial expansion. Jules Ferry, who had a hand in empire as well as education, believed French expansion was meant to spread French language, customs, and genius. Yet one of the great ironies of French colonial education rested on the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, the object of the Republic’s greatest scorn, was charged with a great deal of the transmission of its values in the colonial arena. Bilingual missionaries were among the most effective teachers of French in the colonies. In some places, such as Lebanon, the French took responsibility for the Christian community, whose presence dated back to the Crusades in the twelfth century. In the nineteenth century, the French negotiated with the Ottoman Empire to establish a special protected territory on Mount Lebanon for the Maronite Christians. After World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, France was given the geographic area covering Syria and Lebanon because of the already successful linguistic colonization. In Algeria, where a European population of mixed nationality of French, Italians, and Portuguese, along with a relatively sizable Jewish population formed approximately 1.5 million of a population of 4 million, French succeeded in becoming part of the linguistic landscape. Although only 25 percent of the Arabic-speaking population attended the French school system that developed there over the course of the nineteenth century, the indigenous population learned French in part because of work and in part because, as a department of France, French served as the language of administration.
The linguistic and cultural influence of France, its “rayonnement,” (influence or radiance) has far exceeded any specifically imperial project. French terms pervade in many languages from the use of the term “cinema” to “denim” (from “De Nîmes,” the place where the blue cloth originally was made). In short, the French legacy of cultural influence is as significant as its formal imperial influence. On the eve of World War I, French was the most spoken Western language in the Middle East, having replaced Italian and Greek after 1860. The building of the Suez Canal by a French company, opened in 1869, also helped develop French influence in the region. In Romania, where the inhabitants already spoke a Romance language, educated people also started to learn French, and it became the language with which they spoke to Russians and Greek administrators of the Ottoman Empire.
French influence extended to many places far outside the boundaries of the French Empire. For example, Simón Bolívar, the democratic liberator of much of Latin America, turned to France for inspiration. Buenos Aires even became known as “Little Paris.” In these cases and unlike in the colonies, locally powerful families introduced French culture and associated it with legitimating their own local superiority and rule over “uncultured” and primitive indigenous populations. As had been the case in the eighteenth century, French became the second language of countries such as Argentina, and many French teachers moved there to help with this effort of language instruction. In classrooms in Buenos Aires, students absorbed lessons that instructed them that “Paris is the capital of the civilized world,” and they were encouraged to visit. Beyond Algeria, which technically was part of France, more French nationals lived in Argentina than anywhere outside France. Despite French cultural influence, the British remained the economic powerhouse of informal empire in Argentina. What this suggests is that influence and power come in many forms, and for the French, culture and language have always played a predominant role.
The French education system also spread far beyond the colonies with the implantation of French junior high and high schools that follow a French curriculum and usually employ French nationals to teach in them. In the Ottoman Empire, more than five hundred French schools enrolled approximately 100,000 students by the turn of the twentieth century. Hoping to spread the French language as a universal glue, private individuals created the Alliance française in 1883. The system, which now consists of more than one thousand branches operating in 136 countries, was modeled on a mid-nineteenth-century Paris-based Jewish project, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which sought to uplift (and Europeanize) the world’s Jewish populations through education and acculturation in French. The Alliance française also published books for teaching French as a foreign language. In the 1953 introduction to one such book, readers were informed that “French uplifts and serves.” By virtue of the success of the Alliance françaisesystem, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs added the position of cultural attaché to its foreign postings, the first among major powers to envision a position dedicated to spreading a national culture in foreign locations.
The French government developed a robust set of institutions of cultural diplomacy, among them the Association Française d’action artistique, Unifrance Films, and finally the Ministry of Culture in 1958. President de Gaulle selected the writer André Malraux to head this newfangled organization. De Gaulle was opposed by the leftist intellectuals of the day such as Jean-Paul Sartre, but he craved the participation of a writer and intellectual in his government. The Ministry of Culture had as its mission, according to its own foundational literature, “to make humanity’s greatest masterpieces, and especially those of France, accessible to the greatest possible number of French people; to reach the largest possible audience with our cultural heritage, and to promote the creation of works of art and of the intellect which will further enrich it.” Malraux’s ministry directed theater, the Opéra, the cinema, and French museums, and was responsible for literary promotion. His ministry created “Houses of Culture” throughout France to assure the continued internal cultural colonization of their own country. When de Gaulle said, according to Malraux, that “Every man who writes . . . and writes well, serves France,” he was not only explaining why he might have appointed a writer such as Malraux to revitalize French culture under the government’s supervision. He laid bare another truism about France: a long-established respect for writers and intellectuals.
Writers and intellectuals
Writers enjoy a special status in France. If under the Old Regime, literature became part of the eminence of the king’s brilliance, words also became central to imagining the world in opposition to the king. Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau were read with great ardor as revolutionary creed, but the Revolution also made clear that writers could use the pen as others had used the sword. Jean-Paul Marat, the revolutionary journalist whose legacy lives on in David’s remarkable painting of his murder by Charlotte Corday(Death of Marat), was assassinated in response to the poison of his pen. Much of the great literature of the nineteenth century for which France is well known was also part of political and social engagement, and was understood as both powerful and dangerous. During authoritarian regimes, social critics such as the Romantic writer Madame de Staël fled and sought exile because she had criticized Napoleon as a tyrant in her writings. The playwright and novelist Victor Hugo, a former Royalist turned ardent Republican after 1848, moved to the British island of Guernsey during the Second Empire, and there had the freedom to write the novel considered his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Hugo maintained a critical assault through literature, but his physical distance from France also assured his physical safety.
Writers were not always on the margins looking in. The emergence of the novel as a literary form and Realism as its aesthetic made novel-writing the key to the new bourgeois social order. Honoré de Balzac sought to use literature to both chronicle and critique the new France. His monumental project of La Comédie humaine with its ninety-five volumes left the writer dead from exhaustion at the age of fifty-one, calling at his deathbed for Dr. Bianchon, a character from his series, to come and save him. The elision of reality and representation also led to such notorious incidents as the obscenity trial of Gustave Flaubert in January 1857. It was not just the adulterous affair at the novel’s center that offended contemporary sensibilities: prosecutors claimed that the novel would encourage adulterous behavior in wives. The notion that the male writer could get inside the mind of his protagonist, Emma Bovary, also troubled the prosecution. Flaubert was acquitted but the case is proof of a heightened sense of the continuity between art and life.
Novelists became more and more devoted to documenting their own world. Authors such as Emile Zola began to write in a French which until that time was primarily used only in speech. Zola introduced not only the language of everyday life but also its “argot”—the slang of the working classes. This slang was in and of itself a novelty for bourgeois readers for whom such language allowed them to peer into the lives of those who often merely served them.
The importance of French literature, and the canonical stature of so many French novels from Stendhal to Marcel Proust, cannot be uncoupled from the political importance of France for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The belief in the quality of these novels also attached universal excellence to French place and culture. Yet French authors are also responsible for some of the most translated and popular works of literature based in imaginary worlds. During the Old Regime, Charles Perrault’s fantastic stories “Puss in Boots,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Sleeping Beauty” established the genre of the written fairy tale by introducing peasant tales to a reading public. They are among the most translated, adapted, and retold literary works.
France proved a cradle for futuristic fiction as well. Along with H. G. Wells, Jules Verne is considered one of the founders of science fiction, and his tales featured an international array of globetrotting characters. His novels have sold three times as many as have Shakespeare’s plays. Verne’s status as a global author is part of a French tradition of thinking in universal terms that made the work so eminently exportable.
If the global concerns of Verne’s tales positioned them well for cultural dissemination, it might be fair to say that the planetary concerns of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’sx The Little Prince (1943) have helped it become one of the most read books of the twentieth century, with more than 80 million copies sold and translations into more than 180 languages. The author, an aristocratic pilot, wrote it during his New York exile from occupied France during World War II. This small book, illustrated by the author’s watercolors and aimed simultaneously at adults and children, focuses on the universal themes of love and responsibility cultivated through caring relationships (between the prince and the pilot, the prince and the fox, the prince and his rose).
The narrative unfolds across the entire universe. Set on a series of planets that are merely stars in the great desert where the pilot and the prince meet, it offers lessons about the enormity of the earth and its relative importance in relation to the humans who inhabit it but rarely see it. The story suggests that what is invisible is most important and emphasizes sentimental attachment. Although the disappearance of the prince at the story’s end can be thought to teach lessons about loss, the reader is also finally urged to see him or herself as connected not just to people but also to the physical universe itself. The book’s final image represents the empty desert, with the prince potentially returned to his planet. Rather than the experience of an exiled man longing for home, Saint-Exupéry instead traces the contours of a world in which we might not see everyone or everything but that we care about it anyway. A universal message produced in a war-torn world, The Little Prince is a French-language book that captures the humanistic elements of the French civilizing mission.
Whether read in translation or in French, exemplary works by French authors attest to their broad impact. The complexity of the notion of the civilizing mission, with its dual aspects of imperial arrogance and utopianism, has also resulted in the creation of “Francophonie”—the brainchild, in some measure, of those as touched by the French linguistic obsession and the civilizing mission as the French themselves.
Francophonie is a complex term. A distinction can be made between lower case “f” and capital “f” Francophonie. The term was originally coined in 1880 to refer to the worldwide community of French speakers and clearly became relevant during imperialexpansion. As the socialist Jean Jaurès explained in 1884, “Our colonies will only be French in their understanding and their heart when they understand French. . . . For France above all, language is the necessary instrument of colonization.” Today an estimated 200 million people are thought to be “francophone.” The term’s current use can be attributed to Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet, co-founder of the Negritude movement, and first president of Senegal. In a 1962 issue of the journal Esprit, he explained that “‘Francophonie is a complete Humanism, weaving its way around the world: a symbiosis of the ‘latent energies’ of all the continents, of all the races.” Senghor envisioned a postcolonial condition in which newly independent countries could use the language as a tool of nationalization. He reasoned that it might give new nations the ability to relate to other countries not only within their own region but also as far-flung as Switzerland, Canada, and Belgium, and the host of other majority French-speaking countries or nations. For him, then, French as a second language would be a choice rather than an imposition. An articulate adherent of the notion of the importance of the French language, he explained, “In the rubble of colonialism, we have found this wonderful tool—the French language.”
The term with a capital “F” is also used to denote the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF), whose most recent title derives from 1998 but which was founded in 1970. Since 1987 the organization has met every two years and consists of fifty-six members, three associate members, and fourteen observers who constitute an international organization of the French-speaking world. Francophonie consists of countries where French is native; countries that have been colonized by France or Belgium; or countries such as Romania and Bulgaria that have chosen affiliation. While some associated members such as Cyprus have only 12 percent French speakers, Algeria, where at least 50 percent of the population speaks French, is not a member for political reasons. One could even say that Algerian independence has been founded on the disestablishment of French, despite its widespread use. The OIF endorses a notion of the French language as liberated from its connection with the nation of France, a notion that in principle makes sense but is also ironically consonant with the way the French approach their language: as a universal one, detached from the physical place of France.
Francophonie also stands for cultural diversity through linguistic pluralism in its adherence to French in the face of the growing dominance of the English language. The organization works, for example, to continue the use of French at the United Nations. France itself initially had a rather chilly relation to francophonie because it smacked of neocolonialism, but since the 1990s the country has become a major player in the organization. This about-face has produced tension as France now presumes that it should play a leading position.
The successes of foreign-born authors writing in French in literary competitions within France has led to another new twist on francophonie. In 2006 such writers won five of the country’s major book awards, including the Prix Goncourt, the highest award, which went to New York–born author Jonathan Littell for his Holocaust novel The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes). Other winners that year hailed from Canada, Congo, and Cameroon. This was not the first time a foreign-born writer had won the Prix Goncourt (for example, in 1987 the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun won), but the particularly rich crop of non-French literary talent writing in French gave inspiration to those who declared they were part of the movement for a “world literature in French.” In March 2007, forty-four authors published a manifesto in the newspaper Le Monde proclaiming the dissociation of writing in French with France as part of a Copernican moment, by which they meant a moment of radical discovery and breakthrough. They subsequently proclaimed the death of francophonie, “No one speaks francophone, and no one writes francophone. Francophonie is the light of a dead star.” They declared that Francophonie was outdated and insisted that where once France functioned as a cultural center, “The center is from now all over, in the four corners of the world.” In a celebratory move of post-postcolonial consciousness, the signatories declared that what had been divested was “all powers other than poetry and the imagination, which has only the spirit as its frontiers.” The irony of this declaration is that although it may move France beyond the model of rayonnement culturel (cultural influence), it sounds awfully like the Enlightenment ideas of the Republic of Letters.
Because of the importance of the written word and as a result of the many outlets for the publication of ideas, intellectuals have played a special role in French society. In addition, because of the French educational system of elite grandes écoles (admission, however, is through a national exam) researchers could compete to be assured a salary for life to function as intellectuals; France has been an ideal breeding ground for them. Although every society has its share of philosophers and thinkers, in modern France intellectuals became part of an engaged, social group. Their activism was known, of course, before the Revolution, especially in the case of Voltaire’s defense of the Huguenot Jean Calas, who had been wrongly accused of murdering his son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism. Voltaire’s intervention in the case led to a retrial and a reversal of Calas’ conviction. Centuries later, when asked why he did not clamp down more on Sartre and his friends’ opposition to the government, Charles de Gaulle replied by saying you “do not imprison Voltaire.” Much happened between the Calas case and de Gaulle’s era; yet when it comes to the social contribution of intellectuals, the Dreyfus Affair played a pivotal role.
The affair revolved around the 1894 accusation and imprisonment of a Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus, for spying and treason. There were many inconsistencies in the initial trial and subsequent re-trial. The writer Emile Zola intervened in 1898 when the newspaper L’Aurore published his open letter, now known as “J’accuse,” denouncing the French Army for a cover-up and the French judicial system for irresponsibility. The following day, the paper printed a “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” in which the group of writers and artists demanded the reopening of the case. The signed petition, in which individuals also claimed a collective identity as intellectuals, helped establish the role of the public intellectual. At the time it unleashed an unprecedented public debate in which artists, writers, academics, and newspapers of all kinds divided into camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. The former consisted of those who were antiestablishment in general while the latter clung to the authority of the military. Yet the pro-Dreyfus intellectuals also made the case that they had a special role to play because their academic training made them more rational and thus less likely to bend to the will of authority. By virtue of the lively and growing mass press, it seemed all of Paris had chosen a camp.
Zola’s involvement triggered a libel trial against him. He was convicted but sought exile in England for a year. The tide of the initial case had, with Zola’s help, turned in favor of Dreyfus; Zola returned and was pardoned; Dreyfus was eventually exonerated. The affair is often seen as proof of the overwhelming anti-Semitism in France at the time because so much of the anti-Dreyfus rhetoric and imagery dealt in Jewish stereotypes. It also led the Viennese journalist Theodore Herzel to advocate for Zionism on the grounds that even in the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Jews were persecuted. Yet, the system did eventually right the wrong against the defendant while, one could argue, strengthening the French tradition of defending the rights of man in a very public way.
The French press has fashioned a significant role for intellectuals since the affair. For example, the best-known intellectual of the era after World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre, founded Les Temps modernes, a journal that propagated the notion of the committed intellectual. In the wake of the street demonstrations for social and cultural reform in May 1968, Sartre also helped to found the left-of-center newspaper Libération.
3. In 1898 Caran d’Ache published this witty cartoon, “A Family Dinner,” during the Dreyfus Affair, pointing out the deep and broad divisions in French society due to the Affair. The caption reads: “Especially! Don’t talk about the Dreyfus Affair.” “They did.”
The term “public intellectual” is a form of redundancy in France where books still have an audience, and writers and scholars are asked to opine on matters far from their area of expertise. Academics have their own newspaper columns and also direct series at influential presses. In perhaps one of contemporary mass society’s strangest pairings, intellectuals in France have also been a steady presence on television. Books constituted the center of such programs as Lectures pour tous, Apostrophes, and Bouillon de culture.
While French intellectuals reached a broad public at home, such luminaries as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida also managed to dominate theory in the humanities and social sciences in the 1970s and ’80s, both in France and abroad. French culture became associated with complex theory in the highest of academic circles. For scholars, to know French continued to be a key to accessing the most important intellectual trends and theories in addition to an important literary tradition.
If intellectual life became part and parcel of what was “civilized” about France, the wide dissemination of the language did not simply rest on an agenda of required schooling, brilliant prose, and the geopolitical power to force culture down the throats of unequally powerful recipients. France has developed a robust set of outlets for the spread of information in French. For example, in 1841, Charles Havas created the first news agency. Today, known as Agence France Presse, it remains the third largest news agency in the world behind Reuters and the AP. The television network, TV5, a cable channel founded in 1984 that agglomerates the best of French-language programs by repackaging three French-language stations, is a major player in cable television on a global scale.
The dissemination of information from France also helped eventually bring people to France. One of the remarkable achievements of the nineteenth century was that Paris became the most visited place in the world—and that remains the case to this day. The French dedication to visual spectacle has made all roads lead, again, back to Paris. Although Paris took up more than the lion’s share of the oeuvre of a writer such as Balzac, the capital city has also played a unique role in constructing the myth of France through images and a sense of place. The power of the French language is fundamental but does not sufficiently explain French influence in the modern world. As the American World War I song asked, “How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”