Anne Penketh: The French intellectual still rules, OK

No fewer than two Nobel prizes have just been won by France
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Amid the gripping drama of the market meltdown which dominated the world's television screens last week, this particular couch potato was struck by something no less momentous from the comfort of a sofa in Paris. Dieu merci: the French intellectuals are back.

No more "surrender monkey" talk. These are the new Masters of the Universe of the chattering classes. No fewer than two Nobel prizes have just been won by the French. Medicine was belatedly awarded to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi at the Pasteur Institute for their discovery of the Aids virus, even though the Nobel committee unforgivably failed to mention the third member of the team who inconveniently popped up on TV to say how pleased he was that his colleagues had been recognised. This being France, a support committee has already been set up to petition the committee on the third researcher's behalf.

Then, the reclusive Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio stepped out of the shadows to claim the Literature prize (eat your heart out, Philip Roth), a week after the leading member of the Nobel committee said that Americans were too "insular" to win. I must confess to a personal interest in Le Clézio as I was taught by his brother, although I must add that I struggled to finish the only Le Clézio novel I tackled, Onitsha.

Just as I was digesting the exciting news about Le Clézio, more French intellectuals burst onto my TV screen. It was M. Suave himself, Bernard-Henri Lévy, aka BHL, wearing a freshly pressed white shirt, accompanied by that "bad boy" of French letters, Michel Houellebecq, trotting alongside him like a scruffy little terrier. The pair the French love to hate are flogging their new book of soul-searching correspondence, Public Enemies, through an unusually savvy publicity campaign.

But there was more to come: the latest edition of the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur brought a whole delivery (collective noun: a vanity?) of French intellectuals to my sofa. In their cover story they identified 50 members of the intellectual power elite in the country, starting out with the surviving big beast himself, Claude Lévi-Strauss, now aged 100.

The magazine recalled that only a year ago, Time magazine had stung the French nation to the quick with an article on "the Death of French culture" which described the French as "a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace". That hit the French sensitivities so hard that even Le Clézio was asked about it when he surfaced last week. Not surprisingly he said there is "no risk" of decline.

That's the thing about French intellectuals. You might think their existence is utterly pointless. But they have a confidence missing in our self-deprecating culture where philosophy is a minority subject at school, and, let's face it, most of us would run a mile from a self-proclaimed intellectual. How many philosophers have you seen recently on Newsnight? Yet everyone knows that Houellebecq is such a nasty piece of work that even his own mother has repudiated him. Maybe if philosophy became part of the mainstream in this country, we might win a few more Nobel prizes ourselves. This year, in the Nobel stakes, the score was France – 2, UK – nuls points.