When I was in high school in Newburyport, MA, I was thrilled to have my first taste of learning French under earnest Mrs. Waltz, mesmerized by its nasal intonations and lilting cadence. What can be more beautiful than telling your loved one, “Je t’aime avec tout mon coeur?”
Yes, I confess to being a Romantic, filled with passion, a love for all things beautiful, and a fondness for hard-thinking, attributes I associate with France. Besides, I’m three-quarters French.
I studied French on my own for many years, devoured Hugo, Flaubert, Maupassant, Proust, and Camus, been to Québec, sojourned a summer in France, taken students there, walked Paris streets, been to Provence, adore Aix-en-Provence, home of Cézanne and picnicked in the shadows of his beloved Mt. Sainte Victoire. And the food, I still remember that Menton garden-setting with its salade delicieuse washed down with Chardonnay.
But the France I have known is changing rapidly, symbolized by the recent demise of Le Débat, France’s leading journal of intellectual exchange in the spirit of the Enlightenment. Though founded by Leftists, appropriately on the day of Sartre’s funeral in 1980, and at one time edited by influential literary critic Michel Foucault and associated with anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, it allowed for open debate, but is now a casualty of France’s import of America’s cancel culture wave of identity politics with its revisionist history, infiltration of college campuses, abridgment of free speech, resultant censorship, threats of boycott, vigilante violence, and libelous personal attacks via social media. Le Débat has ceased publication.
Despite President Macron’s pledge that France “will not erase any trace or name from its history. It will not forget any of its works. It will not topple any statues,” the fate of Le Débat, France’s foremost intellectual journal, signals the hollowness of such a claim.
It used to be said that when France sneezed, all the world caught a cold. Alas, France is but a shadow of its former self and with its demise, tolerance for free exchange of ideas is everywhere diminished and social fracture its consequence. C’est dommage!