The End of a Political Identity: French Intellectuals and the State

Natalie Doyle

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Starting with a discussion of the crisis of French national identity that became fully apparent in the 1980s, this article examines the historical paradigm that conditioned the birth of French universalism and ultimately spelt its demise. Identifying as the determining experience the reification/deification of power performed by monarchical absolutism, it examines the evolution of what can be termed after Marcel Gauchet the French political-intellectual system, with its exclusive emphasis on the ideological legitimacy of power, and highlights the crucial role played by intellectuals in its formation, be it on an oppositional mode. Looking back to the 17th century, it thus identifies in Montaigne's essays and their complex dialectic of order and revolt the fundamental paradox within which French intellectual culture evolved right up to post-structuralism, which, whilst it attempted a most radical critique of the French intellectual mystique, ultimately remained prisoner to its underlying statism. Post-structuralism is thus to be seen as the first manifestation of a profound crisis of French intellectual culture, triggered in the 1970s by the crisis of French republicanism, in the wake of the worldwide decline of national sovereignty. What characterized French political and intellectual culture from its inception was indeed the reductive absorption of the notion of society into that of state, and the concomitant belief in a rational vanguard. However, whilst post-structuralism belongs to a tradition of resistance to the republican legacy of the French Enlightenment, it remains deeply conditioned by the pessimism of its distant Augustinian and Jansenist origins: unable to conceive of any effective social action outside of the state, it condemns itself to the marginality of counter-culture. Rather than a total deconstruction of French universalism, post-structuralism must thus be identified as its last, contradictory manifestation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-68
Number of pages26
JournalThesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1997


  • absolutism
  • France
  • ideological manichaeism
  • intellectuals
  • republicanism
  • state

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