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When Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel in 1964,it wasn’t a stunt of one kind or the other.

Written by Sudeep Paul |
March 20, 2009 11:56:34 pm

When Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel in 1964,it wasn’t a stunt of one kind or the other. Many felt that Sartre,above all,had the moral authority to do so,such was his stature as France’s foremost public intellectual. And that stature wasn’t the least affected,one way or the other,by the embarrassment of the Swedish Academy or the irrevocability of its decision. That invincibility of the writer-thinker mattered,for France was the one nation-state that had built its identity almost wholly on culture. It didn’t need to be legitimised by anybody. France was an exception to the rule,the closest realisation of the European ideal after World War II. The “French Exception” didn’t begin and end in the political and strategic sphere — it didn’t begin with a self-dramatising Charles de Gaulle’s exit from NATO’s military command in March 1966. Nor is it ending in Nicolas Sarkozy’s march back. The French Exception ended years ago,over time,with a dying fall.

When Sarkozy stands accused of betraying de Gaulle’s legacy by the old guard Gaullists or Socialists,he should tell them that La Grande Nation had betrayed the Fifth Republic’s father long ago. France is but a shadow of its former self,and he,Sarko the American,its obvious child. The fact about the NATO business is this: Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner,the French foreign minister,are right. French misgivings of the ’60s about losing independence to a US-dominated alliance are irrelevant — lock,stock and barrel — in a post-Cold War world with new geopolitical concerns and threat perceptions. What’s more,France has for some time now been the fourth-largest contributor of troops and the fifth-largest of funds to NATO. It has troops stationed in as news-making and critical a place as Afghanistan. Sarko makes perfect sense when he says that it’s foolish to send your boys to war without having a say in what they should do and how.

To allay Gaullist-Socialist fears further,it’s the backdrop of the 60th anniversary celebrations in Strasbourg,France and Kehl,Germany (poignantly,just across the Rhine),that’s adding to their sense of a new Fall of France. Take that anniversary out,and one sees the real import of Sarko’s betrayal: little more than symbolic,with France already having reintegrated with NATO in phases since the early ’90s,even advising NATO’s political bosses on strategy at the military committee it rejoined in 1995. It will still retain its discretion on troops and its nuclear arsenal,and perhaps make the US accept the European Defence Pact.

It’s hypocritical for the Lionel Jospins,Dominique de Villepins and Laurent Fabiuses to decry France’s loss of guts to stand up to the US,to lament becoming “a clone of Great Britain”. Because,whatever Sarko’s doing now lies under the umbrella of France’s greater fall; in fact,it’s the inevitable culmination of a process that began soon after the tumult of May 1968 subsided.

While the British believed in the early years of this century that they were undergoing a sort of national renaissance,thanks to the fruits of Thatcherism on Tony Blair’s table,Britain had produced nothing in the realm of ideas in the post-WWII decades to avoid a terminal decline,so quiet that no one noticed. Post-war France however was a defeated nation. It would almost erupt in civil war over Algeria. Its collapsing Fourth Republic had to be aborted and the state resurrected in the Fifth. While De Gaulle managed that bailout,and not without his dreams of French “grandeur”,it was the frenetic,world-conquering intellectual activity in that very troubled Fourth Republic and in the early days of the Fifth that made France the exception it was. The French,much like their ur-European language of civilisation,knew their own universality. And thus,the exception they were. De Gaulle’s idea of a France for and by itself was born of a national disposition to original thinking as much as cultural pride.

By the time Francois Mitterand came to power,France had already capitulated. It wouldn’t produce a writer-thinker of the stature to refuse a Nobel. Its newspapers and educational institutions had already changed course. (Only its cinema held out for a while.) The post-war renaissance that the French really had,unlike the British,was over. France is where the West arrived long ago. Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy only followed that arc of logic — more tragic for a country built on words and ideas when rhetoric and thoughts run dry. For all the allegations of Sarko “selling out” to the US,it helps remembering that the France that opposed the Iraq war soon offered airspace and support for the course of events. At least,Sarkozy is more honest. One would be tempted to conclude sardonically that the one thing that hasn’t changed about France is the strikes that made the non-French squirm. But then,there’s a real crisis on.

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