One of the most poignant, if overlooked, events in France this summer - at least according to the critic Philippe Azoury, writing in the pages of the cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles - is that Le Beverly, the only porno cinema left in central Paris, is preparing to close its doors for the last time. The cinema stands at the top edge of the red-light district of rue Saint-Denis, almost but not quite in the rapidly gentrifying area of Montorgueil St-Denis. Most of the porno cinemas in Paris were swept away in the 1980s, victims of the booming video trade and the regular appearance of hard-core porn on mainstream TV. Le Beverly somehow struggled through the 1990s, always managing against the odds to offer its clientele a regular and varied programme of top-class filth. It was never respectable - the atmosphere in the pitch-black salle de spectacle is tense and fervid, with more than a hint of real physical danger. But, as Azoury puts it, to visit Le Beverly, in all its sleazy glory, is to take a trip to a bygone era. It may not be morally acceptable, he says, but this place does take us back to a time when showing sex in a public space was a real transgression, a genuinely subversive statement of wilful and unrepentant erotic intent.
It is ironic, therefore, that the closure of Le Beverly comes at a time when the French porn industry is coming under heavy fire from both government and media. The real debate, however, is not about flyblown sleazepits like Le Beverly but the role of pornography as an acceptable part of mainstream cultural life. Pornography has long enjoyed near-institutional status in France: it is both a badge of avant-garde daring (the list of elite literary pornographers is extraordinarily long) and an ubiquitous form of everyday entertainment. To be against porn is almost to be against such obvious sources of Gallic pleasure as steak-frites or vin rouge. This makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that some of the sharpest attacks on porn in all its forms came initially from the left, including those veterans of the generation of 1968 who fought hardest and longest for the so-called "emancipation of erotic images" on strictly libertarian terms.
The row began quietly enough a few months back with a series of quite disparate and unrelated media campaigns. The familiar reheated arguments were of little consequence for those on the left until the newspaper Liberation joined the fray, publishing a report on the psychological damage that pornography inflicted on teenagers. This caused immediate outrage in leftist circles inside and outside the Socialist Party, who could scarcely believe that Liberation, which had been founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault among others, and which was entrusted with the specific task of continuing the sexual revolution of the 1960s, could dare to print such a heresy.
The row intensified at the beginning of July, when the Conseil superieur de l'audiovisuel, an influential media watchdog, began to discuss "the suppression of pornographic programmes on French television". The minister of culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, took things one step further by announcing a "Committee of Reflection" (an inquiry body in plain English), to be led by the philosopher Blandine Barret-Kriegel, which would consider the issue. Then, most alarmingly for the pornographers, the politicians really began to get involved. On the left, Segolene Royal, the posh and mouthy former minister for families, declared in the pages of Le Monde that porn was directly related to an increase in violence in the suburbs of Paris and other big cities. On the right, Christine Boutin, a terrifying homophobe, seized back the same territory, calling for a total ban on all televised sex of a "pornographic nature". As public opinion seemed to sway heavily towards the Royal-Boutin axis, as noted in a special report in the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur, it seemed only a matter of time before Serge Gainsbourg, Georges Bataille, Catherine Millet and all the other distinguished members of the French cultural tradition of sexual transgression were permanently marginalised.
The pornographers of France were now running scared. In part, this was because Parisian sex shops had already reported a dramatic fall in profits over the past few years as the internet eroded their customer base. The main threat now to the porn industry was, however, more dangerous because it was more political. More specifically, the television channel Canal+, with its regular hard-core magazine programme Le Journal du Hard and a money-making subscription service to other porn activities, was identified as the main enemy. Canal+ was already reeling in the wake of the near-collapse of its parent group, Vivendi. The fact that the channel was a creation of the discredited Socialist Party in the 1980s only incited its opponents, of all political hues, to further attacks.
This is where the issue becomes complicated. Those who have reluctantly leapt to the defence of the pornography industry have done so out of duty rather than conviction. These include the likes of the distinguished novelist Philippe Sollers, who as an ex-68er and self-styled libertine (and husband of the feminist critic Julia Kristeva) is compelled to defend erotic freedom in all its forms. Yet even Sollers is unable to defend the sex superstores that dominate the trade in rue Saint-Denis or Pigalle. These flashy emporia, with friendly salespeople, lifts and escalators to peep-shows and multi-channel televisions, are the sex-shop operators' response to the increasingly difficult demands of the market. But they are also the opposite of the sexual adventure espoused by Sollers as the fundament of his creed. "I think young people would do better to read the Marquis de Sade," Sollers pronounced recently, in an uncharacteristically avuncular statement. "Or do as I did as a young man, and frequent the whores of Spain, who can teach you so much."
Other younger intellectuals are more direct: "It's about power," declared the film-maker Gaspar Noe in the pages of Les Inrockuptibles, "and it's the abuse of power that stinks, not sex." This is also the bestselling view of Ovidie, the 21-year-old porn star and philosophy student, whose recent book, Porno Manifesto, argues for the liberating power of "real pornography", as opposed to commercialised, mass-produced rubbish.
This cuts to the quick of the argument. For many French people, who have a nationalistic pride in their horror of prudery, the argument over porn is not a question of morality, as the politicians would have it, but rather a question of aesthetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the main threat to French civilisation was "la malbouffe", American fast food, which was resisted by the Asterix-like figure of Jose Bove. Now the talk is of reopening the "maisons closes" ("legal brothels"), which were shut in 1946, and of "la malbaise", bad sex that is offensive because it's, well, not really dirty enough.
It comes as little surprise that one of the cinematic hits of the summer has been Polissons et galipettes ("Naughty boys and somersaults"), a compendium of erotic short movies from the 1920s in which men with large moustaches and rounded smiling women do pretty much the same kind of thing on offer in the sex superstores of the rue St-Denis, except that here it looks human and even fun. The film has even won the approval of Serge Kaganski, the stern editor of Les Inrockuptibles, who denounced last year's feel-good smash-hit film Amelie as a racist travesty of Parisian life. What is more, Les Inrockuptibles, in the old leftist tradition of provocation, has now decided to print every week a page devoted to the virtues of porn. This is why the back page of last week's issue - as I discovered to some surprise and consternation over my lunch of andouillettes - features a tough-looking young man holding a depressingly large erection.
Is there a lesson even here for British media pundits and politicians? If there is, it could well be that the real problem with mixing culture, porn and politics - as Tony Blair and Richard Desmond may find out sooner rather than later - is that its hard to know what's in and what's out.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)