How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh, book review: The theoretical construct is all

In this nation of arrogant intellectuals even the beggars make eloquent speeches - but why are the French like this, asks John Lichfield
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There is an old Brussels joke. How do you tell the difference between a British official and a French one? The Briton says: "This idea works fine in theory but will it work in practice?" The Frenchman says: "This idea works fine in practice but will it work in theory?"

Some things are characteristically and eternally French: the odour of the Paris Metro; the way that French women wear their jeans; the taste of Roquefort cheese. There is also an unmistakeable intellectual odour and taste in France; a style of the French mind.

The French love abstraction. They love theorising. They adore universal explanations. They value intellectuals. All French sixth-formers, even those majoring in hairdressing, have to study philosophy. Beggars in France make eloquent speeches when they seek a hand-out. French footballers often speak lucidly on TV. They are seldom "aussi écoeuré qu'un perroquet" (as sick as a parrot). The French – or some of the French – dislike the anti-intellectual, market-driven world created by their old anglo-saxon shopkeeper enemies. The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has revived allegations (by the Australian writer Peter Carey among others) that the French are an "arrogant nation", which suffers from an intellectual superiority complex.

What makes the French so different to the rest of us? If they are so damned clever, why is their country struggling? Why are they so permanently unhappy? Or rather why do they cultivate pessimism en masse while they fling themselves individually into their art de vivre?

Sudhir Hazareesingh, fellow and tutor in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, has written a wonderful book – scholarly, penetrating and sometimes very funny – which tries to explain "How the French Think". The book elucidates many things in today's news: the French ban on muslim headscarves in state schools; the European Union's French-devised notion of "ever closer union"; the Bonaparte complex of Nicolas Sarkozy; and why the French (or many French) have an instinctive loathing of the markets.

Starting with René Descartes 400 years ago, Hazareesingh maps the genome of the French mind through Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre, the 19th-centuries philosophers such as Auguste Comte and the influential existentialists, challenging structuralists and annoying deconstructionists of the 20th century.

He explains the French intellectual love affair with Stalinism. He points out how politicians, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Charles de Gaulle and (less successfully) Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were molded by – and exploited – France's sense of destiny and its love of the sweeping gesture. He might have added that President François Hollande's problem is that he is so fundamentally unsweeping and therefore so unFrench.

Hazareesingh was born in the island of Mauritius, where French and British traditions intertwine. He defines the characteristic French mental landscape as: "The presentation of ideas through overarching frameworks; a preference for considering questions in their essence, rather than in their particular manifestations; a fondness for apparent contradictions; and a tendency to frame issues around binary oppositions."

In other words, the French like to construct a theory and then use it to explain the facts; the British and others like to examine the facts and then construct theories. But why? Why do the French think differently? Hazareesingh traces the phenomenon to the eureka moment of the great 17th-century philosopher-mathematican Descartes. By concluding that the only certainty was the consciousness of the individual – "I think, therefore I am" – Descartes created one strand of the modern, humanist intellectual tradition. The other strand was the "empiricist" British line of Hobbes, Locke and Hume.

The British thinkers believed in starting with observable facts; Descartes believed the human senses of touch or sight or smell were unreliable. He trusted only the deduction capacity of the mind. The second founding father of the French intellectual tradition was Rousseau. His utopian vision directly influenced the Revolution and later French theorists of both Left and Right. (Those political definitions were themselves a typically "binary" French invention.)

Hazareesingh traces, often brilliantly, the influence of Descartes and Rousseau on French thinking and French politics to this day. The theoretical construct is all. The "overarching framework" of the secular French state is inviolable. Thus, a muslim girl wearing a headscarf in a state school is a threat to the survival of the Republic.

It is a little frustrating that the book fails to explore other possible explanations for France's thought patterns. Descartes cannot be blamed for everything. His contemporary, André Le Notre, also preferred the neat lines of his own imagination to the annoying facts of the natural landscape. Could there be something fundamental – something in the structure of the French language – which predisposes the French mind towards the abstract? This, much simplified, is the belief of Professor Michael Edwards, the bilingual poet who recently became the first Englishman to be elected to the Académie Française.

Hazareesingh makes no attempt to go down this road. He sticks to his title – How the French Think. He leaves aside the "Why?" There is another gap. The book examines the surprisingly mystical side of French rationalists, from Rousseau to François Mitterrand, who consulted an astrologist daily while in the Elysée Palace. Hazareesingh attributes this to a subliminal Catholic influence on many secular French thinkers and politicians. He fails to address in detail the separate Catholic tradition in French conservative thought and politics.

This is a marvellous, and marvellously readable book, for all that: by turns illuminating, affectionate and exasperated. The final chapter suggests that contemporary France, binary as ever, has fallen into two halves. One part has adjusted to a globalised world which has rejected the French way of thinking. The other half, including parts of both the Left and Right, has plunged into permanent mourning.

That is about right but the traditional French way – abstraction trumping the apparent but treacherous facts – may not always be wrong. Hazareesingh starts his book with the former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin's celebrated speech to the United Nations in 2003 opposing the Iraq war in the name of the "ideals" of international law and peace. Hazareesingh describes the speech as a "last piece of French bravado, the dying echo of a tradition of confident universalism". He also points out that the airy-fairy theories of Villepin look better than the hard facts paraded by Tony Blair and George W Bush.