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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June 2005, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
French reassess 'iconic' Sartre
By Ann Hepburn
BBC News

Jean-Paul Sartre, right, with his partner Simone de Beauvoir
Sartre used to be a cult figure for France's leftist intellectuals
France is marking the centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre, the controversial modern philosopher whose popularity has been declining in recent years.

Despite a series of tributes to mark the date of his birth, many in France are questioning his legacy.

"France hated him when he was alive and shuns him in death," French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said.

But in his heyday, his radical ideas earned him a following that has been compared to that of a pop star.

Then was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) could not move without being mobbed in the street.

His existentialist ideas made him an icon for a whole generation of intellectuals.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does
Sartre's Being and Nothingness

According to the British philosopher Julian Baggini, Sartre's "point is that freedom is something we're kind of afraid of, and we always want to deny we have, so we always try and make excuses for our behaviour, and say it's not our responsibility".

"And his real point was, no, we do have to choose. And not just about what we do, but what we believe, and the values we hold."

Communist sympathies

Nothing if not controversial, Sartre supported the Soviet regime in the 1950s and later the Maoists.

He also defended the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

And he declined a Nobel prize for literature, rejecting it as a bourgeois prize.

Perhaps not surprisingly, views about him in France are mixed.

But Sartre's biographer says his politics was so unforgivable to some French people that the philosopher is now more studied in America and Britain than he is at home.

And officials at France's National Library are disappointed by the poor visitor figures for a current anniversary exhibition of his work.

But whatever people now think about his philosophy, the image endures - of the man in the black jumper, holding forth in a smoky cafe on the Left Bank with his partner, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir.


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