From New Wave Cinema to Jean-Paul Sarte, human rights and street photography, if you pick a culture war with France, you’re going to lose.

From New Wave Cinema to Jean-Paul Sarte, human rights and street photography, if you pick a culture war with France, you’re going to lose.

As people struggled to make sense of the horrific ISIS attacks in Paris, comedian John Oliver opened Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight by firing off a powerful salvo of verbal retribution:

“[It] is important to remember, nothing about what these arseholes are trying to do is going to work,” Oliver proclaimed. “France is going to endure and I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend. You are fucked.”

ISIS claim to be waging a cultural war against what they see as corrupt and decadent Western values, but in taking on France, they’ve singled out the world’s cultural powerhouse. In targeting Paris, they’ve attacked a city that has forever shaped legions of artists, philosophers, musicians, skateboarders, writers, travellers, freedom fighters, who have passed through the City of Light over centuries.

Wikipedia just about any influential cultural figure, from Benjamin Franklin to Patti Smith to George Orwell, and you’ll find they spent their formative years in Paris, or at least lived there for a spell.

As France grieves, we celebrate ten ways French culture has changed how we see the world: from human rights to street photography, feminism and street art.

1. The Enlightenment

France brought us the fucking Enlightenment. The French were the driving force behind the philosophical and scientific revolution in the 18th Century which firmly brought Europe out of the dark ages. The Enlightenment challenged traditional doctrines and dogmas, rejected religious control over society and argued for rationalism, democracy, individual liberty and freedom of expression. It gave birth to human rights, the French Revolution, and the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, whose Enlightenment ideals were imported from Paris by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

2. Henri Cartier-Bresson and the birth of street photography

Cartier-Bresson is the most revered photographer of all time and considered to be the father of street photography and modern photojournalism. He looked at the world with the eye of a painter and his artful compositions still astound. But he’s perhaps most famous for his ability to capture events at the high point of their dramatic arc, coining the phrase “the decisive moment”. Cartier-Bresson has inspired generations of photographers and reminded them of the work ethic required to reach greatness: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” he said.

3. Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

A major work of feminist philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) looks at women’s position in society throughout history and is seen as the starting point of second-wave feminism. It challenged misogynistic attitudes towards women in many spheres, notably in psychoanalysis, and laid foundations built on by Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germain Greer, among others.

4. French New Wave cinema

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959) lead the charge of the French New Wave, which ripped up the cinematic rulebook with style and panache. Oozing with cool, Godard helped usher in a new era of auteur cinema, where the director’s vision is the dominant creative force. “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” he famously said, and Godard never missed an opportunity to experiment in how he told stories. The influence of the New Wave can be felt today in everything from European arthouse to DIY skate videos.

5. Jean Paul-Sartre and Existentialism


Philosopher Jean Paul-Sartre was the leading light in the Existentialist movement, which celebrated individual freedom and creative expression. Existentialism was in dialogue with the Beats, Bebop Jazz, Abstract Expressionism and other avant-garde art movements throughout the late ‘40s and early ‘50s which sought to unshackle creativity through feeling and improvisation, rather than discipline and repetition. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis left racism behind in the US to hang out with Sartre and Juliette Greco in Paris, which he recalled later was one of the defining moments of his life.

6. 1968

mai 1968 La lutte continue

1968 saw revolution sweep the globe as young people took the fight to the powers that be in Washington DC, Prague, Warsaw, Mexico City, Madrid and elsewhere. But the most iconic and influential protests took place in May in Paris, as trade unions joined students in a general strike, battled with police and forced leader Charles de Gaulle to flee the country by helicopter.

7. Serge Gainsbourg

Singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor, and director Serge Gainsbourg reinvented pop, alongside other achievements. A provocative artist, many of his releases created scandal and his dipping into a wide range of genres from jazz to mambo, rock and roll to disco and funk, continues to challenge artists to stretch their creative muscles today.

8. La Haine

Whether in Paris, London or elsewhere, whenever riots break out, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine is the go-to guide for understanding the simmering social and racial tensions that underlie urban unrest. As the years go by, and conflicts continue to erupt, its burning social critique proves more and more prescient. Never forget the film’s warning: “La haine attire la haine!” or “hatred breeds hatred”. Kassovitz long described La Haine as “a curse” and resisted calls for a sequel, but after tensions reached fever peak following January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, he declared the time had come for La Haine 2.

9. French Fred

Progressive skate filmmaker and photographer French Fred’s visionary lens craft has helped elevate skateboard photography and film to an art form. He developed the “Frangle” or “Fred Angle” on Menikmati from És, which involves zooming to get tight shots while rolling on a skateboard, sometimes circling around subjects, to make the background shift and the film more cinematic. Skate filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have followed Fred’s lead and developed ever-more innovative ways to make skateboarding look epic.

10. JR

JR is the leading force in socially-conscious street art. In the wake of the 2005 Paris riots, his Clichés de Ghetto project challenged the negative stereotyping of ghetto kids and their social exclusion by pasting up posters of their smiling faces around some of the city’s most exclusive districts. Inside Out is his most ambitious project yet, and nearly 200,000 people from more than 112 countries have participated, from Ecuador to Nepal, from Haiti to Palestine.

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