Jean-Paul Sartre: The Press, Prisons and Politics

An exploration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with the French Press in the aftermath of May 1968

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Prolific writer and leader of existential philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre held a dominant position in twentieth century French intellectual life. His desire to become a ‘revolutionary intellectual’ (Drake, 1997), championing the rights of oppressed groups, aroused his very own love affair with the French press – he became what we might think of as an intellectual superstar. Yet he was nothing if not controversial. He expressed radical opinions on violence, freedom, and revolutionary politics in the public sphere which, in turn, led to run ins with French authorities.

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Fig. 1. © AFP/File | Security forces confront protesting French youths in Paris in May 1968

Understanding Sartre’s relationship with the media requires engaging with the socio-political climate under Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, during the beginning of the Fifth Republic.

May 1968 represents a moment of social unrest and revolutionary zeal. In true French Revolutionary spirit, students took to the streets of Paris in protest. They were involved in violent clashes with the forces of law and order as they attempted to unsettle and overthrow what they saw as a profoundly unequal, conservative society. Students and those who sympathised with them, namely Jean-Paul Sartre, denounced the unprecedented closing of the Sorbonne University, and, more broadly, capitalism and sexual oppression. Yet, the events of May 1968 represent more than just youthful rebellion, France also bore witness to the largest general strike of the twentieth century, where more than eight million workers are reported to have taken industrial action (Wheeldon, 2018).

The unprecedented wave of protests and strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s was coupled with the changing face of media consumption, as national and international events were discussed on a growing number of media platforms. It is important, then, to consider how perceptions of current affairs can be influenced or distorted by the narratives that are disseminated through the mass media.

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Satire and Sensationalism

The cartoon at the centre of this discussion (Fig 2.) is a visual satire of news production at successful French newspapers. It featured in the thirteenth edition of the French satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in 1971. Far from being a discursive space, the mainstream media is depicted as a commercial entity, generating sensationalist narratives, rather than engaging critically with topical events.

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Fig 2. Charlie Hebdo n. 13, 15th February 1971

The cartoon mocks an autocratic editor-in-chief’s excessive attempts to control the content of the newspaper. When asked « alors quoi de neuf? », the news stories reported by the journalists mirror the major socio-political concerns at the time of the cartoon’s publication. The editor’s response, « dis donc, mon coco! », is nonetheless scornful and condescending as he reminds his team that they write for mass consumption at a lucrative newspaper.

Satire and hyperbole are employed as tools to question the authority of institutions where power resides at the top. The aggressive dismissal of repeated reports of hunger strikes is depicted not only through violent language, « on s’en fout des grévistes de la faim ! Qu’ils crèvent ! », but also through the abundance of exclamation marks, and the visual prominence given to the editor-in-chief’s mouth as he shouts. Through the ambiguous use of the pronoun « on » there appears to be a satirical allusion to Pompidou’s government, who refused the hunger strikers the status of political prisoner.

In defiance of state censorship of the media and the prosecution of members of the Maoist militant organisation, La Gauche prolétarienne, Sartre became the new editor-in-chief of La Cause du Peuple in April 1970. The direct allusion to the paper in the cartoon is a humorous dig at both the government and other major publishers.

The cartoon draws our attention to the hypocrisy of an institution that advocates justice but denies the voice of Les gauchistes. In his attempts to silence unwanted or subversive discourse, the editor-in-chief becomes an agent of symbolic violence. The focus of the hunger strikes is shifted away from those currently striking, towards famous figures of the past: they are sensationalised and simplified. The cartoon, a storyboard, satirizes the superficiality of how popular narratives are constructed.

There is thus an allusion to the media’s moral responsibility, namely its ability to uphold certain values about what beliefs and behaviour are appropriate in society. The incongruity between the newspaper’s private and public discourses render its claims to moral principles, « nous sommes pour la justice », dubious, if not ingenuine.

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Subversion and Stardom

Fig. 3. Sartre in 1968, handing out copies of “La Cause du Peuple”, the newspaper of the Gauche Prolétarienne. Simone de Beauvoir is on the right. (© ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Sartre stressed the importance of intellectual freedom and independent press as he campaigned for political existentialism and authenticity in writing (Scriven, 1993).  He acknowledged the power of the media to influence public opinion and as such disseminated his ideas through both printed and audio-visual forms in order to extend and diversify his audience.

How, then, did Sartre differ from the mainstream press depicted in the cartoon? Sartre’s interventions in La Cause du Peuple not only provide an insight into his values as an intellectual, but they also facilitate an understanding into his complex relationship with the media.

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As editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Sartre retained his subversive aura. He would report the political struggles of those who are oppressed by a bourgeois society, namely left-wing organisations, workers and students. Yet Sartre did not just give these causes credibility through his writing, importantly, he gave them visibility.

The photograph in Fig. 3 depicts Sartre and a group of intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, handing out copies of La Cause du Peuple. During their subsequent arrest, Sartre comments directly on the political persecution of independent press. Ironically, they are arrested for selling « un journal qui n’est pas interdit car le Président […] a refusé de l’interdire » (Ina Politique, 2012, 01:05). Recorded behind the bars of a police van, the visual imagery is emotive, and his discourse is defiant. Sartre reveals the inconsistency of the government who quickly arrested the previous directors of the paper but who were reluctant to arrest a national celebrity.

Sartre is, then, the antithesis of the editor depicted in Fig. 2. who is outraged at the prospect of doing “la publicité à ces merdeux de gauchistes!”. Indeed, he allows his position as a public intellectual to provide a voice for those who are continuously denied one.

Sartre used his status to propagate a dialogue with those in positions of power, responding explicitly to events such as the prosecution of left-wing journalists and, in doing so, Sartre paved the way for independent press.

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Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual superstar, played a crucial role in the dawning of free and independent press. As Sartre became increasingly overtly political, his refusal to be confined to a political party gave him the distance and the freedom to provide critical analysis of events. His countless interventions in the major political issues of his time, were achieved not only through extensive literary and journalistic texts, but also through speeches, interviews and subversive acts such provoking the government to arrest him. Thus, Sartre was able to exploit the technical transformations that were taking place during a time where French Intellectuals enjoyed remarkable prestige. Sartre’s stardom was, then, intimately linked with his ability to promote radical views on a variety of media platforms.

 

Further Reading: 

(Fig. 1.) France 24., © AFP/File | Security forces confront protesting French youths in Paris in May 1968, 20 March 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20180320-1968-year-uprisings-dashed-hopes

(Fig. 2.) Collection J.-C. Vimont., Charlie hebdo n°13 15 février 1971, http://journals.openedition.org/criminocorpus/docannexe/image/3044/img-25.jpg

(Fig. 3.) O,Brien, Robert., Sartre in 1968, handing out copies of “La Cause du Peuple”, the newspaper of the Gauche Prolétarienne. Simone de Beauvoir is on the right (© ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images), May 2018, http://standpointmag.co.uk/features-may-2018-robert-o-brien-jean-paul-sartre-1968-evenements-marxism

Bragg, Melvyn., (2004), “Sartre”, BBC Radio 4: In Our Time, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y25x [Last accessed 13 November 2018]

Burleson Mackay, Jenn., (2017), What Does Society Owe Political Cartoonists?, Journalism Studies,18:1, 28-44, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2016.1218297

Drake, David., (1997), “Sartre and May 1968: The Intellectual in Crisis.” Sartre Studies International, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 43–65. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23511087.

Laurent, Martin., (2008), « La « nouvelle presse » en France dans les années 1970 ou la réussite par l’échec », Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, (n° 98), p. 57-69. DOI : 10.3917/ving.098.0057. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-vingtieme-siecle-revue-d-histoire-2008-2-page-57.htm

Lennon, Peter., (2018), “Paris students meet with brutal repression – archive, 1968”, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/29/paris-students-meet-with-brutal-repression-archive-1968 [Last accessed 13 November 2018]

Scriven M. (1993), “Initial Considerations”, Sartre and the Media, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Vimont, Jean-Claude., « Les emprisonnements des maoïstes et la détention politique en France (1970-1971) », Criminocorpus [En ligne], Justice et détention politique, Le régime spécifique de la détention politique, mis en ligne le 06 octobre 2015, consulté le 06 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/criminocorpus/3044

Wheeldon, Tom., (2018), “Today’s French strikes ‘lack vital ingredients’ of ’68 and ‘95”, France 24, https://www.france24.com/en/20180422-french-strikes-protests-lack-vital-ingredients-1968-1995-macron-de-gaulle-chirac-juppe [Last accessed 13 November 2018]

Whittam Smith, Andreas., (2018), “The Paris riots of May 1968: How the frustrations of youth brought France to the brink of revolution” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/may-1968-paris-student-riots-demonstrations-sorbonne-nanterre-de-gaulle-a8335866.html

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