Hywel Williams: So Sartre Barely Made the French Poll of the Top 100

Roundup: Talking About History

Hywel Williams, in the Guardian:

The idea that the French respect their intellectuals dies hard among the British. And when you wander around the streets of any French city it's easy to see why. Rues Voltaire, Hugo and Racine tend to recur just round the corner from the equally conventional Rue Bonaparte. At municipal and state level, French government likes to claim its cultural reputation by acclaiming the glorious cultured dead. La terre et les morts , happily, includes les intellos as well as the cavalry.

London's geographical centre, by contrast, records no Shakespeare Square, Milton Street or Dickens Place. Instead, we have Trafalgar Square - and nearby Waterloo Place. War and bloodshed - preferably of a Frog-bashing kind - is what the official mind of Britain has traditionally gone for when it wants to claim some public space for its own values.

Both France's British admirers and her critics can seize on this fact and use it to support their case. Sensitive Francophiliacs intuit that things would go differently for them if only they could relocate away from the land of fog, mist and state-sponsored philistinism. But our sceptics reckon that in France an intellectual is another name for someone who sleeps around, and suspect that the intellectuals' public influence explains the hypocrisy, cruelty and inconsistency of French governments.

Now comes the news that France's most famous 20th century intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, has been relegated from the premier league by French public opinion. The poll to discover the country's 100 favourite national figures, conducted by the television channel France 2, puts him at 96 - just behind anti-globalisation hero Jose Bove at 87. La Grande Sartreuse herself, Simone de Beauvoir, fails to appear at all. When it comes to its taste in intellectuals, the French, it seems, are as vulnerable as the rest of the west to showbiz values.

This year is the centenary of Sartre's birth as well as the 25th anniversary of his death. And for most of his life he was box-office material. Small, ugly and smelly, he was the supremely useful French intellectual of the 20th century because he seemed to confirm so many prejudices about the breed. Some who met him thought the odour that emanated was goat-like. And the sex life certainly inclined in the same direction. De Beauvoir, so much the purer writer of good prose, thought her partner "had a diabolical side to him: he conquered young girls by explaining their souls to them".

But if Place Sartre seems some way away from arriving in Paris, the philosopher retains his importance as the last great French intellectual - the one who operated right across the waterfront in plays, essays, novels and more technical philosophical works....

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