By ELAINE SCIOLINO
The New York Times
PARIS, July 21 — France is the country that produced the Enlightenment, Descartes’s one-liner, “I think, therefore I am,” and the solemn pontifications of Jean-Paul Sartre and other celebrity philosophers.
But in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, thinking has lost its cachet.
In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their “old national habit.”
“France is a country that thinks,” she told the National Assembly. “There is hardly an ideology that we haven’t turned into a theory. We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.”
Citing Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” she said the French should work harder, earn more and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich.
Ms. Lagarde knows well the Horatio Alger story of making money through hard work. She looked west to make her fortune, spending much of her career as a lawyer at the firm of Baker & McKenzie, based in the American city identified by its broad shoulders and work ethic: Chicago. She rose to become the first woman to head the firm’s executive committee and was named one of the world’s most powerful women by Forbes magazine.
So now, two years back in France, she is a natural to promote the program of Mr. Sarkozy, whose driving force is doing rather than musing, and whose mantra is “work more to earn more.”
Certainly, the new president himself has cultivated his image as a nonintellectual. “I am not a theoretician,” he told a television interviewer last month. “I am not an ideologue. Oh, I am not an intellectual! I am someone concrete!”
But the disdain for reflection may be going a bit too far. It certainly has set the French intellectual class on edge.
“How absurd to say we should think less!” said Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host. “If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the much more splashy philosopher-journalist who wrote a book retracing Tocqueville’s 19th-century travels throughout the United States, is similarly appalled by Ms. Lagarde’s comments.
“This is the sort of thing you can hear in cafe conversations from morons who drink too much,” said Mr. Lévy, who is so well-known in French that he is known simply by his initials B.H.L. “To my knowledge this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases. I’m pro-American and pro-market, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this anti-intellectual tendency is one of the reasons that I did not.”
Mr. Lévy, who ultimately endorsed Mr. Sarkozy’s Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, said that Ms. Lagarde was much too selective in quoting Tocqueville and suggested that she read his complete works. In her leisure time.
The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, meanwhile, mocked Ms. Lagarde for praising the sheer joy of work and quoting Confucius’s oft-cited line, “Choose a work that you love and you won’t have to work another day.” More...