Lost In France?

We swooned when their intellectuals spoke, marvelled at their couture, and believed them when they said we couldn't cook. But now? Well, who'd want to be French?
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The Independent Culture
Pierre Is leafing through the livres section of the newspaper Liberation. "Just look what we have here," he says, wearily. "An article about a French creator of comic strips who died 20 years ago. A feature on a novelist from Djibouti; an interview with a Greek novelist; an interview with a Haitian novelist who writes in Spanish; an article about a Cuban writer exiled in Sweden; a study of a Georgian philosopher writing in the tradition of Descartes; an interview with a young American thriller writer

The speaker is not a frustrated French cultural nationalist, protesting against the unpatriotic adulation of foreigners. He is Pierre Briancon, the arts editor of Liberation, complaining that there are few contemporary French writers worth writing about.

"The fiction scene is especially bleak. For 10 years now, maybe 15 years, there hasn't been a novel written in France which is worth reading. Whenever I try to read one I slump back and the book falls from my hand. You have the impression that French fiction writers are writing to themselves, or at most, 15 people that they know in Paris. Where is the French Martin Amis? Or the French Salman Rushdie? They don't exist."

This Is Not - or at least it is not meant to be - another French-bashing article. Even those who love France, and wish it well, cannot help feeling that the country has lost its way creatively in the last few years. French political-philosophical thought, which impressed the world in the Fifties and Sixties, is moribund (having led itself into a cul-de-sac of the pretentious and the incomprehensible). Only two or three French painters are known outside France. French haute couture is importing British designers by the Eurostar-load. French cuisine, although superlative at its best, and often still wonderful at cafe-level, is criticised by international food philosophers as fussy, heavy and unadventurous, compared to the best in, say, New York or London.

French cinema, both the popular and the more ambitious, is doing reasonably well in France, with the help of generous government subsidies. But it is years since a French movie became as successful abroad as, say, Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Full Monty or Il Postino. The problem, say the critics, is that the subsidies tend to reinforce the "Franco-Frenchness" of the French cinema.

And what of French television? It has lurched in recent years from a Reithian state-controlled earnestness to a privatised creative wasteland. There are still lengthy literary chat shows, and current-affairs programmes and documentaries which match the best of anything done in Britain. But the entertainment output is dominated by ageing US series (Colombo is very popular), cringe-making game shows and mediocre home-made costume dramas and flic series. There is no such thing as a French TV soap opera or a French sit-com. One channel recently sent a team to the US to discover how sit-coms are made ...

Where are the heirs of Moliere, of Balzac, of Cezanne, of Sartre, of Berlioz? Of Edith Piaf? Even of Johnny Hallyday?

There is MC Solaar, the French rap artist, who is increasingly popular abroad. But he is a rare exception: French rock or pop has never travelled well. The French pop charts consist of international unknowns and the Spice Girls.

French classical music has been dominated for 30 years by the challengingly avant-garde "organised delirium" of Pierre Boulez. Boulez is a musical composer and theorist of international importance. But in France his approach, once so revolutionary, has ossified into a kind of state- approved mainstream, deafening most attempts to create something more classically melodic.

Benoit Duteurtre, a musical journalist and festival organiser, who has campaigned for a more open-minded approach, says this is typical of what has afflicted the French creative spirit, not just in music but across the board. "Our artistic milieux are enclosed in their own certainties. The movements which were once avant-garde have become institutions, subsidised by the Ministry of Culture. If you try to do anything else, it's as if you are being unpatriotic, Francophobe."

In terms of musical performance, there are scores of very good (and legendarily awkward) French musicians, but few virtuosos. Monique Devaux, who runs the musical auditorium within the Louvre, was asked recently why she chose so few French performers. She replied crushingly: "My only criterion is the level of quality, not nationality. You don't put just anyone alongside the Mona Lisa." There have since been strident calls for her resignation: but, typically, no debate on why there are so few French virtuosos.

And what has happened to the French intellectual, who once terrorised the world from his table at the Deux Magots or the Cafe Flore in St-Germain- des-Pres? St-Germain, like much of Paris has, famously, been taken over by the tourists and the well-heeled bourgeois. The thinkers are now scattered, both geographically and intellectually.

Guy Sorman, with his black polo-neck sweater and wavy, greying hair, is many people's image of the French intellectual. He can be found nowadays at the town hall of Boulogne Billancourt, an industrial suburb of which he is assistant mayor, or at his stunning Thirties home, a corner-kick away from the Parc des Princes. Sorman is not a typical French intellectual because he has always defended liberalism and the free market from the once all-encompassing left-wingery and relativism. He now bemoans the fact that his old adversaries on the French intellectual left have sunk into a tedious pragmatism.

"All the sources of inspiration for traditional French intellectual thought - the Revolution, Communism, Heidegger - have dried up, or become poisoned, all at one time," he said. The French Revolution is no longer seen as the beginning of modern times but something more messy, even reactionary. The Soviet Union has collapsed. Heidegger, who heavily influenced Sartre, has become associated with Nazism. Finally, the everything-is-relative, Post-Modern movement, which had enormous influence on both sides of the Atlantic, has proved to be an intellectual dead end. A recent book, Intellectual Impostures, by Alan Sokal (a Francophile Amer-ican) and Jean Bricmont (a Belgian), makes a devastating critique of the fake scholarship and meaningless obscurities of some of France's best-known post-war, Post- Modern thinkers.

The central accusation is that many French writers are bullies who use garbled scientific knowledge to intimidate, rather than enlighten the reader. Sorman agrees and adds that French inspiration has run dry precisely because there is not enough genuine - i.e. humble, open-minded and patient - cross-fertilisation between intellectual disciplines in France. "They all live in their little sects. They repeat their dogma about other disciplines, or other countries, without ever feeling the need to discover whether they are true. In a time which demands fluidity of thought, this is a great handicap." It is one of the reasons, Sorman says, why France seems at a loss in the modern world.

At a loss? The country which is leading the world's second largest space programme? The country which is at the cutting edge of technologies, from the TGV to the Airbus? The country with a huge surplus trade balance?

France does remain successful - and creative - but its successes tend to fall into two broad categories: the great, state-driven projects; and the traditional products, prized precisely because they have never changed.

France is a cultured, intelligent, educated country, a country with an enormously high level of "commonplace civilisation" as someone described it, but it does have problems with the modern Zeitgeist. Foreigners tend to think of the French as mercurial, unpredictable, emotional and perverse. The French, more accurately, see themselves as methodical, rational and obedient to accepted standards of taste and behaviour; in France there is a great belief in the one way of doing things (generally the French way).

French rationality and the love of sweeping projects has served the country well in the past: for instance in the rapid reconstruction after the war, while Britain floundered. But Sorman is not the only person to suggest that it may be a handicap in a higgledy-piggledy, bewildering modern world, which is precisely about the dispersion of power, the dismantling of elites and the yoking together of disparate influences (in fields as different as cooking, fashion and literature).

The same point is made by Stephane March-and in his book French Blues, a study of the Gallic condition. (It is also a very funny book, which is itself a rarity in French writing.) He describes French centralism, single- mindedness and self-absorption as the "Cartesian Handicap".

"The problem starts when you need to change direction," he writes. "The Cartesian Handicap blocks the steering wheel, bringing serious risks of running into the wall ... In these circumstances, blowing your horn with a haughty expression on your face does not help very much."

Part of the problem is that France, like the US, regards itself as a nation with a universal mission: but France has become a universal nation without a universe. The American paradigm, American market values and American culture have triumphed all over the world - even, increasingly, in France. In these circumstances, blinkered resistance to outside influence is easily portrayed as defence of the true civilisation.

This is the essence of the French creative dilemma: a mixture of arrogance and loss of nerve. On the one hand, there is the understandable fear of losing Frenchness; on the other hand there is the serious danger of lapsing into tasteful mediocrity, even provincialism. French cultural heritage has become a burden and an obstacle more than an inspiration. French people, as a whole, remain open to the world. Just look at those book pages in Liberation. But French artists tend to remain inward-looking and, in some cases - cinema, music - they are rewarded for being so by subsidies from the government.

A French friend, told of the theme of this article, said half-angrily, half tongue-in-cheek: "It is true that you in Britain are more creative. It is because you have no taste. Anything goes. If anything goes, you can stumble on new things. In France we have so much taste that we daren't do anything new. If you look at people on the streets, most people in France are dressed very beautifully, and elegantly. They know how to dress: but they all dress the same. In Britain you don't know how to dress but it means you dress more adventurously ... that's why young French people love to go to London; it gives them an enormous sense of release from the strain of being French the whole time."

This, writ large, is the attitude which is crippling French fashion. Young French designers say that the Gallianos and the McQueens and the McCartneys are not necessarily more creative than young French people. But they get the chance to experiment and succeed (or fail) in Britain. If they become established, they are brought to France. The people who run the big fashion houses will not risk their own careers by trying out a relatively unknown French person.

Marchand believes that some things are already changing. For example, younger French people are no longer so obsessed with the idea of France as the ultimate cultural arbiter, sufficient unto itself. Nor, on the other hand, do they slavishly accept everything which comes from Hollywood - or London.

"It is painful for France because France is a country of very effective central power," says Marchand. "It is also, crucially, a country which is very bad at communications, a country of elites which regard themselves as all-knowing and self-sufficient. In the modern world, outside France, communications - making connections between things - are central. We are resistant to this fact. But we will catch up, because we have no choice. And then we will start contributing again, instead of complaining."

In other words, French genius is sleeping, not dead. Let's hope so. There is no need for British smugness. These things go in waves. Remember the British Seventies? We need France to open the French windows; not in order to be further invaded by the worst of American culture, the "McMonde" as Guy Sorman calls it, but to join the battle against global dumbing down. This can only happen if French genius learns to express itself once again in a way which speaks to the rest of the world.

There are signs of life. The big movie release this autumn, by the 75- year-old director Alain Resnais, is called On Connait La Chanson (The Same Old Tune). The movie, which has had rave advance reviews, projects the thoughts of its characters through snatches of French popular songs. Sound familiar? It should. The director acknowledges that he snitched the idea from the TV plays of Dennis Potter, such as The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven. This is an all-too-rare example of French culture refreshing itself from abroad, while remaining implacably French. !