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Unit information: Intellectuals and the Media in France in 2018/19

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Unit name Intellectuals and the Media in France
Unit code FREN30108
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Paul Earlie
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The figure of the Gauloises-smoking, coffee-guzzling, aphorism-spouting intellectual is one of the most persistent images projected onto France from abroad. Yet beyond such clichés, intellectuals have played an undeniably vital role in shaping public discourse in France, from Emile Zola’s passionate dreyfusisme to Simone de Beauvoir’s drive for women’s rights and Michel Foucault’s work to improve conditions in French prisons.

In a time of populism and the apparent irrelevance of the public intellectual, this unit begins by exploring the origins of the figure of the intellectuel engagé in the nineteenth century. It examines the flourishing of French intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century—a time when la French Theory became a global media phenomenon—before turning to the alleged decline of the intellectual in France in recent decades.

In exploring these questions, we will trace the crucial yet shifting role of the media in transforming French thinkers into public intellectuals. We will consider a range of media formats—print newspapers, radio and television talk shows in addition to more recent developments such as personal websites, blogs and Twitter—used by French writers and philosophers to communicate with their reading publics. Particular attention will be paid to how thinkers such as Emile Zola, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Eric Zemmour have used and been used in turn by the mass media. Part of the course will therefore look at the role of the media in fuelling public controversies such as the Dreyfus and Sokal Affairs, the continual polemics surrounding the work of Michel Houellebecq, and the success of Eric Zemmour’s dystopian vision of France in Le suicide français (2014).

In addition to developing skills in analysing the specific rhetorical structure of a range of media formats, students will learn how to relate the particular media and genres chosen by writers to the sociological, political, and technological transformations that have accompanied the development of the media in France, from the magazine to the pulp paperback to the important role of analogue television programmes such as Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophes and the digital revolution represented by the site d’auteur.

This unit will appeal to students interested in pursuing careers in media and there will be ample opportunity for comparative analysis of the development of media in France and the UK. It will also be of interest to those interested in contemporary intellectual life in France and in the traditions that underpin it.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to demonstrate:

  1. Advanced knowledge and understanding of the evolution of the figure of the intellectual in France since the nineteenth century and of the key cultural, historical, and political roles they have played in shaping French public discourse;
  2. Detailed understanding of the development of French media (print, radio, television and film, internet and social media) from the nineteenth century onwards;
  3. An ability to analyse and compare the rhetorical structures of different media formats;
  4. An ability to relate the particular media and genres chosen by writers to the sociological, political, and technological transformations that have accompanied the development of the media in France;
  5. An ability to communicate complex ideas to a general audience and sensitivity to the medium in which these ideas are communicated;
  6. Knowledge of the mechanics of user-generated content websites (e.g. Wordpress) and different strategies for publicising online content in the French- and English-speaking worlds.

Teaching details

1 x Weekly Lecture

1 x Weekly Seminar

Assessment Details

One 3000 word essay (75%) testing ILOs 1-4.

One 1,200-word bilingual blog (25%) to be contributed to an online mini-exhibition exploring the turbulent relationship between French intellectuals and the media, and testing ILOs 5-6. Students will explore a particular media artefact (a radio or TV interview, a newspaper article or book cover, photograph, website, etc.), and they will work together to develop a strategy for publicising their contributions via digital and social media.

Reading and References

A dossier of written, audio, and visual material will be made available in the Arts and Social Sciences Library, in the Multimedia Centre, and on Blackboard.

Fabrice d'Almeida, Histoire des médias en France' : 'de la Grande Guerre à nos jours (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).

François Cusset, French Theory'. 'Foucault', 'Derrida', 'Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats'-'Unis (Paris: La Découverte, 2005).

David Drake, Intellectuals and Politics in Post'-'War France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think': 'An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People (London: Penguin, 2016).

Raymond Kuhn, The Media in Contemporary France (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2011).