The figure of the Gauloises-smoking, coffee-guzzling, aphorism-spouting intellectual is one of the most persistent images projected onto France from abroad. 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 online exhibition, curated by students at the University of Bristol, begins by returning the origins of the figure of the intellectuel engagé in the nineteenth century; it explores 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, the exhibition aims to trace the crucial yet shifting role of the media in transforming French thinkers into public intellectuals. Our aim is to 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. How did thinkers as diverse as Emile Zola, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Eric Zemmour use the mass media? And how, in turn, were they used by the media? In seeking to provide answers to these questions, this exhibition will 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 Amazon.fr-topping success of Eric Zemmour’s dystopian vision of France in Le suicide français.

In addition to analysing the specific rhetorical structure of a range of media formats, individually authored posts will 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.