The English revile philosophers, the French fete them. But is France's capital still the place to go to contemplate life, the universe and everything?
SOME OF the words we use to describe the idea of an intellectual in England are downright nasty: boffin, wonk, egghead. These are all mocking, purgative and onomatopoeically hard, slugging terms. In Paris, just a smooth Euroride away these days, they do things slightly differently. There, the idea of the intellectual has a prestige and an emotional gravity that are quite foreign to the pragmatic, phlegmatic and anti-theatrical English temperament. But is this still the case - even after the death of Communism?

I have been in Paris to do a little Eurosleuthing. First stop was the news-stand at the Gare du Lyon. Lots of serious literary fiction, published by Gallimard, dominated the displays. Regis Debray's autobiography, Pour L'Amour de L'Art - Une Education Intellectuelle, a long-winded exercise in quasi-philosophical self-questioning, was being pushed heavily. As was a book-length interview with the humourist Pierre Desproges, whose shoutline on the front cover read like a pure Cartesian re-hash: "La Seule Certitude Que J'ai c'est d'etre Dans Le Doute" (The only certainty is that I am in doubt). Would any English publisher have considered that a strong sales pitch?

I bought issues of Le Monde, Paris' most information-stuffed daily. Le Monde is visually severe, relentlessly serious-minded and self-assuredly prescient - so confident in its prescience, in fact, that the following day's edition is always available by the afternoon of the day before.

Recently, the papers included a prominent article about 35 cineastes who joined a demonstration to show solidarity with those without legitimate rights of residence. Would anyone in England give two hoots for what a bunch of film-makers thought? Other articles reported on how bitterly French intellectuals were divided over the Algerian question, and attacked the Albanian novelist, Ismail Kadare, for being misguided about Kosovo. "A great literary talent has lost his political passion," snapped the columnist.

That loss of temper is pure Jean-Paul Sartre, who once said that for a writer, political engagement was a fundamental moral necessity. In fact, to be politically quiet was an act of treachery. How more un-English can you get than that?

Why do cineastes man the barricades in this way? I asked the poet, Marc Delouze, over a solidarity-inducing bottle of Cote de Bourg in Montmartre. "To practice the art of film," he replied, "requires both money and collective organisation. It cannot function without either. Poets and novelists can happily practice their art as solidarity individuals, whereas the cineastes cannot..."

Then I ask him how Sartre is regarded these days. Not well, he says, because he got washed up on the wilder shores of Maoism in his old age. Albert Camus, who didn't believe in the idea of the politically engaged writer, has fared better.

And what do people in general think about the idea of the intellectual? Mistrust, he says. It's a bourgeois, Parisian phenomenon. The idea of the purity of ideas is perhaps a nonsense. So many of them had their faces in the soup... Which means? "They were seduced by the idea of power. Now ideology is dead. We have nothing left but capitalism and the market."

Last year, French intellectuals were under attack in the book Impostures Intellectuelles by two physicists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who were particularly unhappy at the wholesale appropriation of scientific terms. "They spout scientific theories of which they have, at best, a slender grasp. They display superficial erudition by tossing words at the reader ... They show a profound indifference, if not contempt, for facts and logic." The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, philosopher Regis Debray and semiotician Julia Kristeva came out of the book particularly badly.

I ask Delouze about Philippe Sollers, novelist, biographer, penseur, sometime husband to Kristeva, and one of the "Grands Intellectuels" of the present moment, a man who frequently pontificates on cultural matters on French television.

"Tres, tres, tres, brillant," says Delouze, triumphantly emphatic, "but a little slippery, too. A man who once dined with Giscard D'Estaing and more recently identified himself with the Balladur camp. I, for my part, refused an invitation to the Elysee after the Gulf War." He pauses for another glass or two and sighs heavily. Aragon, that great, unreconstructed Communist intellectual, once described Delouze as the "Rimbaud De Nos Jours".

Later, I go on the trail of the places that Sartre and other intellectual celebrities haunted. First off, Sartre's last port of call: Montparnasse cemetery. Sartre got a terrific send-off when he died in 1980 - 50,000 people thronged the Boulevard Montparnasse. There they lie together now, he and Simone de Beauvoir, much more consistently so than in life, in an unadorned grave, without religious iconography, a fittingly simple resting place for two virulent atheists. Fresh bunches of tulips have been flung across the tombstone. Not entirely unloved and forgotten, then.

Ten minutes away is La Closerie des Lilas, a restaurant once used by the likes of Picasso, Leger, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald... as I sit down amid its plush splendour, I wonder how they all afforded it. Just then I spot him, a few feet away, writing with a slender tortoiseshell pen in an expensive black leather notebook.

My steak tartare arrives, together with the bottle of house red. The wine is terrible. I tell the waiter what I think without mincing a single word of my polished French: "C'est affreux." The waiter, stung, tells me it's as good as it ought to be for the price I'd agreed to pay.

Then the writer, who has been observing this theatrical performance, chips in. You should have chosen St Emilion, he says, pointing to the bottle in front of him. I give him a thin, plastic smile and chew stolidly on. The steak tartare tastes like warm grit. Maybe that's my mood. Moments later, a bottle of St Emilion arrives at the table, courtesy of Monsieur. The waiter mutters, staring into the middle distance.

Then we get prattling, this Monsieur and I, two Parisian intellectual songbirds, about the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine, which had united the thrones of England and France. About the fact that he himself was from Bordeaux. About art - and how, in his opinion, art without Catholicism was almost an impossibility. Well, almost.

When he leaves, there is a general stirring in the restaurant. A man leans towards me. "Did you know that was Philippe Sollers?" he says.

I return to the apartment, a little light-headed, and pluck one of Sollers' most recent books from the bookshelf. It is a biography of that 18th- century adventurer, Vivant Danon, painter, engraver, soldier, and the amateur egyptologist whose rich plunder adorns the Louvre.

But what interests me more is Sollers' manner of writing. Not dry-as- dust like so much Anglo-Saxon biography, but conversational, intimate, witty, as if addressed to some small, highly selective salon of one's fellow intellectuals. He writes almost as though he is a contemporary, and has the broad intellectual compass of a Rousseau, a Voltaire, those great spirits whose ideas helped to shape the making of the French Republic 200 years ago.

That was an age when the writer/ philosopher really had clout; when it was still just possible to believe that the sum total of human knowledge was attainable, and that human beings were perhaps even perfectible if you thought hard and long enough...

But especially so when helped along by a bottle or two of half-decent St Emilion. Some hours - or is it days? - later, I wonk back to London. I am greeted by a fine, mean, intellectually disparaging drizzle.

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