Why France lionizes the man who challenged everything

From Roquefort cheese to Brigitte Bardot, France can be justifiably proud that many of its national treasures have become celebrated in the United States.

But in terms of sheer influence, few may eclipse the modern mark set by its postmodern philosophers.

France's pride in its heavy thinkers was splashed all over the news this week, as everybody who is anybody in French public life clamored to praise Jacques Derrida, the father of the philosophical theory of deconstructionism, who died last weekend.

Leading the pack was President Jacques Chirac, who lauded Mr. Derrida's efforts "to rediscover the free movement that lies at the origin of all thought."

The prime minister, two cabinet ministers, the mayor of Paris, and the head of the French Communist Party all recorded their reactions on the back of a special 10-page supplement published by the daily Le Monde to mark the philosopher's passing.

Ironically, Derrida's theories are scarcely taught in France, where philosophy departments have long distrusted his global vision of politics and art and the world.

And in America, where Derrida's thought swept through humanities departments coast to coast, his death was noted in The New York Times only as the departure of an "abstruse theorist."

"There is a chasm between the United States and France on this," says Francois Cusset, a philosopher who has written about the influence of French philosophy on America. "In the US, where Derrida's role was absolutely central, his death didn't get much attention. In France, where Derrida was marginalized from Day 1, it is a national trauma."

The French, of course, have a rather particular relationship to thought: They famously cherish ideas more than facts.

The French Revolution was a dramatic example of an idealist uprising, spurred by theories that philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot had expounded in weighty tomes, even if the ideals were not and could not be realized.

Those ideas were also, perhaps, France's most important export to the US, and Derrida's importance in French eyes clearly had something to do with his influence on the other side of the Atlantic.

"In Jacques Derrida," Mr. Chirac boasted in his statement, "France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of the intellectual life of our time."

Derrida's theory is not easily articulated - he once described deconstruction as "a certain experience of the impossible" - but it claims that language inevitably distorts the reality it purports to represent. An obvious consequence, of course, is that no text can be true. This line of postmodern inquiry emboldened a legion of US academics to challenge the established literary canon - indeed, even the founding axioms of Western civilization.

At home, French students may be unfamiliar with Derrida, but they are meant to know a thing or two about philosophy.

Final year high school students in a literary or humanities stream spend eight hours a week studying "philo" - one of the subjects they must pass to earn a diploma.

That means that some of them have at least a clue what philosophers are talking about when they take to the public square.

When Oliver Feltham began working on his doctoral thesis in philosophy, he recalls, his fellow Australians' general reaction was, "You must be stupid. What's the point in doing that?"

So he moved to France, where he was not disappointed. "Here when I explained what I was doing, people were excited", he says. "They'd ask me which philosopher I was studying."

Indeed, nobody is surprised when a French philosopher expresses himself on an issue of public import.

Jean-Paul Sartre took a position on everything; Michel Foucault was vocal in support of prisoners' rights; and Derrida used to give clandestine seminars in Communist Czechoslovakia and spoke in favor of illegal immigrants, after initially shying away from the limelight.

In the US, it's more common to hear a comedian or musician discuss politics. "NBC is not going to ask a philosopher's opinion about anything, and Time magazine is not going to ask one to write a column," says Tom Bishop, a professor at New York University.

But the new generation of philosophers who dominate the French airwaves today spend more time commenting on international affairs than they do philosophizing.

Bernard-Henri Levy (known by the simpler moniker, "BHL"), Andre Glucksmann, and other young(er) Turks who rose up against "French Theory" can be found regularly on television or in the columns of Le Monde or The Wall Street Journal, pontificating about terrorism, the war in Iraq, and other subjects of the day.

"With the 'new philosophers,' intellectual production has been replaced by a moralist stance," complains Mr. Cusset. "They lecture rather than come up with concepts, and they have been absorbed by the media. Their causes are good, but it is not the role of the philosopher just to adopt causes - he should create concepts."

Whether such concepts influence practical politics very much is open to question, regardless of the respect that well-known philosophers enjoy in France.

Mr. Glucksmann and his friend Bernard Kouchner developed "the right of humanitarian intervention" - a humanitarian version of President Bush's preemptive-strike doctrine - which justified European involvement in the Kosovo war to avert ethnic cleansing.

But almost all of the media-savvy French philosophers supported the war in Iraq last year, and nobody in France paid them the slightest heed.

Philosophers do, however, still spark considerable public interest in France.

On Thursday, a new book about Mr. Levy is coming out, "The ABC of BHL," which promises to dish the dirt on France's most famous philosopher.

Its publishers expect a best seller. Only in France.

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