The future of French culture

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Date: Winter 2010
From: French Politics, Culture and Society(Vol. 28, Issue 3)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,919 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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The evolution of French culture from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century is described as a succession of three "cultural configurations": humanist (or literary/philosophical), scientific/organic, and industrial. The transformation of the culture is linked to changes in the educational system in response to France's altered place in the global order after 1945. French attitudes toward, and internal critiques of, the shifting cultural hegemony are examined as both causes and consequences of these evolving configurations.

Keywords: France, culture, hegemony, humanism, education, Andre Gide


When it comes to the future of their culture, the French are of two minds. On the one hand, a vociferous, if outnumbered, "declinist" school believes that everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. * On the other hand, a plurality holds that although everything else has gone to hell in a handbasket, French culture remains a beacon to the world.

For proof, one has only to consult a recent CEVIPOF survey, which shows that only 8 percent of the French believe that the country is making progress in general, versus 52 percent who believe that it is not. Nevertheless, a full 36 percent believe that France's cultural influence is increasing, as against only 23 percent who believe the opposite. And yet these same French who maintain faith in their culture insist, by a margin of 48 to 19, that their schools and universities are declining in quality, and by a margin of 46 to 19 that their country's influence in areas other than culture is on the wane. (1)

It is as though culture, like religion, serves as consolation for a fall that has engulfed everything else. And as if culture, like religion, somehow survives miraculously in dark rimes, without institutional support, taking refuge in remote caves and isolated hermitages such as the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre and the Romance language and sociology departments of American universities; for these, according to Donald Morrison's screed entitled (in its original magazine incarnation) "The Death of French Culture," are among the few places where anything identifiable as French cultural influence currently survives outside the Hexagon. (2) "Culture," to quote Edouard Herriot, "is what remains when everything else is forgotten." (3)

I come neither to bury nor to praise French culture but simply to describe it. Of course, this begs the more primordial question: What is "French culture" anyway? The culture of a nation? The culture of a dominant class or influential status group? A system comprising a number of interacting subcultures? A sign of distinction that entices even those who do not possess it? Or, on the contrary, a meretricious signifier of unearned superiority that fosters resentment in the envious uncultivated?

Gaul Is Divided Into Three Parts

For the purposes of this essay I propose to adapt Sartre's definition of the Jew. A Jew, Sartre said, is one who is a Jew for the Other. (4) So let us say that Culture is that which is Culture for the Other. And let us stipulate...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A248904498