In Other Words

France’s War on Intelligence

Les Inrockuptibles, No. 429, February 18, 2004, Paris As debate rages in the United States over the Iraq intelligence failures, the current controversy in France is the "war on intelligence." But this debate has little to do with weapons of mass destruction or al Qaeda. From teachers to architects and theater workers to jobless Ph.D.’s, ...

Les Inrockuptibles,
No. 429, February 18, 2004, Paris

As debate rages in the United States over the Iraq intelligence failures, the current controversy in France is the "war on intelligence." But this debate has little to do with weapons of mass destruction or al Qaeda. From teachers to architects and theater workers to jobless Ph.D.’s, members of France’s intellectual class are attacking the conservative government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin for neglecting them.

In the past year, part-time performing artists have canceled the country’s top arts festivals and booed France’s culture minister at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) to protest unemployment insurance reforms. Archaeologists complain about their weakened supervision over construction projects, and lab directors lambaste the government’s refusal to disburse scientific funding. But the war’s coup de grâce was orchestrated by the music and culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles, an upscale French version of Rolling Stone targeted at readers concerned with social justice, post-materialism, and hipness. In February, the magazine united France’s malcontents through a petition titled "Appeal Against the War on Intelligence."

"All the sectors of learning, research, thinking, all the producers of knowledge and public debate, are today the target of a massive attack by an anti-intellectual government," stated the magazine’s editors in the petition. They warned of "the development of… a policy of impoverishment and insecurity aimed at everything that is considered useless, dissident or unproductive in the short term." The essay implied that this conflict could threaten France’s sacrosanct policy of exception culturelle (cultural exception), which employs quotas to promote French films and music in an attempt to fortify French culture against a globalized (read: Americanized) world.

Signatures came at the rate of 700 an hour in the petition’s first week of Internet circulation in February and totaled more than 80,000 by April. The appeal was so successful that the magazine published a 50-page list of signatories, including deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, anti-establishment hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard. The mainstream French media publicized the petition through numerous articles and supportive opinion essays.

Meanwhile, a similar movement emerged within France’s scientific community. In January, many top French scientists and researchers created a group called Let’s Save Research to protest the decline of science as a national priority. Their complaints were not unfounded: Though the share of France’s gross domestic product devoted to research and development (2.2 percent) compares with that of technological powerhouses Japan (3 percent) and the United States (2.8 percent), funds are frequently withheld to reduce the budget deficit. In 2002, the government froze public research funds and transformed 550 permanent positions for young researchers into temporary research contracts, forcing an exodus of French scientists. Indeed, France is the only developed country that doesn’t recruit its own graduates: About 3,000 science graduates left in 2000 for the United States alone, where salaries and advancement opportunities are much greater.

Let’s Save Research circulated its own Internet petition, which gathered signatures from more than 70,000 French public-sector researchers and nearly 250,000 from the general public. The researchers threatened to resign if the government did not take their concerns seriously. Polls showed 80 percent of the French public supported the researchers. In a dramatic move two weeks before the March 2004 regional elections, more than two thirds of the 5,000 research and laboratory directors at France’s universities and institutes resigned en masse.

Beyond the theatrics, France’s war on intelligence reveals a nation deeply worried about its identity in a globalizing world. What unites many of the strange bedfellows is a fear that economic liberalism leaves little room for anything not immediately useful — whether a theater production or scientific research. These fears were not assuaged when Patrick Devedjian, the junior minister of industry, recently attacked "French intellectuals who have the habit of signing petitions," while "in the United States, they win Nobel Prizes."

Prizes are not necessarily commensurate with spending, but adequate funds are necessary to make discoveries, file patents, and sustain research. In protesting, scientists expressed their fear that Anglo-Saxon capitalism would encroach upon France’s egalitarian research traditions by exposing them to more competition and bottom-line demands. This model could result in lost jobs rather than improved long-term research prospects, they worry.

In the meantime, the one losing his job may be the prime minister. When Raffarin took office in 2002, he vowed to act on behalf of la France d’en-bas (downstairs France), meaning those who come from modest backgrounds rather than the upper classes. But if the humiliating defeat incurred by his government in the March regional elections is any indication, anti-intellectualism is not a winning political strategy in a country where culture and national identity remain so intertwined.

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