The European scene

The Paris intelligentsia disengage from real life

There has been a chill wind blowing through Paris recently. The city has been plagued by strikes that look likely to continue for months - as long as unions and the government are locked in a stand-off. In the suburbs, gangs of rioting immigrant youths are once again setting fire to cars and fighting running battles with the police.

Unlike in the riots of 2005, which nearly brought the government down, the gangs are armed this time, mainly with cheap hunting rifles and air pistols. They move in small, predatory packs with the stated aim of shooting policemen - who are themselves tooled up in paramilitary gear. The violence is sporadic, but there is no real end in sight: there are now parts of the city's outskirts that look more like Gaza than Paris.

It is all the more apposite that the biggest literary event of the Parisian festive season is the publication of the memoirs of Philippe Sollers, a vain, gossipy but undoubtedly talented novelist who is the epitome of snobbish, bourgeois, mondain Paris (Sollers's Maoist youth is only further proof of this pedigree). At the age of 70, Sollers is seeking to establish himself once and for all as the greatest writer of his generation with Un vrai roman: Mémoires.

He sets out with waspish attacks on the great writers of his vintage (Julien Gracq, Patrick Modiano and Le Clézio all come in for a battering), an account of his love affair with Julia Kristeva and of the "cultural terrorism" that he launched on the world with the journal Tel Quel in the 1960s (which introduced the likes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault). Above all, Sollers sees himself as a libertine in the 18th-century tradition, arguing against medi ocrity and in favour of intellectual dandyism. Reading Sollers's Mémoires is like a visit to a bygone age when polo-necked post-structuralists ruled the (Left Bank) world.

If Sollers is largely unknown in the anglophone world, this is simply because French writers no longer occupy the central place they did in the days of Sartre or Camus. Nonetheless, in France, Sollers is a force to be reckoned with - no victim to false modesty, he ranks himself beside Mozart, Voltaire or Nietzsche as one of the thinkers who have changed the very substance of their age.

I once interviewed Sollers in the 1990s. He was friendly, avuncular and witty - much as he seems on the telly. The only thing that worried me was his lack of sympathy with popular culture or ordinary people. When I asked him about the cultural significance of the Sex Pistols and rap music I met a genuinely blank face: he had literally never heard of either of these phenomena.

This perhaps tells you all you need to know about the vaulting gap between the Parisian intelligentsia and the real world, which has, since then, only grown wider. One of the most interesting facts about the riots of 2005 and 2007 has been the absolute silence of Parisian intellectuals on the subject - presumably because it doesn't fit in with their idea of the real world.

Meanwhile, somewhere not too far beyond the cafe tables of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, sirens blare, the police vans tear up the ring roads to the banlieue and another evening of car-burning and violence begins.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007