Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950. By Agnès Poirier. Henry Holt; 352 pages; $30. Bloomsbury Publishing; £25.

The End of the French Intellectual: From Zola to Houllebecq. By Shlomo Sand. Verso; 304 pages; $29.95 and £20.

FOR aspiring and often penniless intellectuals, the Café de Flore on the left bank in Paris, with its Art Deco interior and bow-tied waiters, was once, recounts Agnès Poirier, “a university”.

“Conversations were not loud; the air was serious, books stood between glasses, and the lighting was decidedly dim…Men wore corduroy jackets, turtlenecks, dirty trench coats, their hair a little too long, while women wore no make-up. Nobody was dressed fashionably, but everyone had style.”

“Left Bank”—Ms Poirier’s delightful account of the writers, artists and painters who shared beds, cigarettes and column inches on a few streets in the 1940s—returns frequently to the Café de Flore. Simone de Beauvoir used it as her letter-box, its warmth a reprieve from the unheated hotel room she lived in on the nearby rue de Seine. She and Jean-Paul Sartre (pictured), plus their coterie of anti-bourgeois writers and muses, wrote and smoked at its tables, a short step from Sartre’s little apartment on the rue Bonaparte. Manuscripts were edited there, and a radical philosophy born. It was, in short, the epicentre of French intellectual life.

Today, the Café de Flore sits next to a Louis Vuitton store. Outside on the boulevard Saint-Germain on a warm spring morning, a valet-parking attendant polishes a black Mercedes. A couple of retired American tourists eat Caesar salads in silence. Russian teenagers pose for selfies in the sun, then run off without ordering. The waiters, like well-trained extras, shrug.

The Café de Flore still trades on its literary heritage. It runs an annual book prize. The carte is designed to resemble the austere cream book covers used by Gallimard, which published Sartre, de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. But these days the signature apéritif is a glass of champagne with caviar. The only writers who frequent the place, says the day manager, tend to be celebrities with deep pockets. Is it just too pricey for aspiring artists? “Probably.”

Of course, many great cities have seen their former bohemian quarters transformed by inflated property prices and consumerism. Upcoming writers in the French language today are more likely to be found in edgier parts of the city, or in Brazzaville or Dakar, than among the antiques and luxury brands of the left bank. Still, the Café de Flore serves as a metaphor for a recurring concern: the alleged evanescence of the French intellectual.

The latest to turn this topic over is Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian. His book, “The End of the French Intellectual”, begins in nostalgia. Mr Sand confesses to a bygone “idealisation of Parisian intellectuals”, the “heroes” of a youth spent as a doctoral student in the city in the 1970s. Those who now pass for French public intellectuals, he argues, are a pale version of the likes of Emile Zola, André Gide, Camus, Sartre and Michel Foucault. The current cast comprises a second-tier type of on-screen personality, of a sort that Pierre Bourdieu, one of the old school, has described as “fast thinkers who offer cultural ‘fast food’.”

Having dismissed such writers, Mr Sand devotes a lot of space to them. He is particularly exercised by Éric Zemmour, a reactionary essayist, and Alain Finkielkraut, a formerly left-wing philosopher turned critic of multiculturalism. More interesting is the historical context Mr Sand gives to the role of the French public intellectual, the man of letters who is at once literary and engagé. Yet a convincing explanation for this figure’s decline, previously chronicled by historians such as Tony Judt and Sudhir Hazareesingh, is elusive.

One factor may be that in recent decades French thinking has become too introspective, in parallel with society. Parochialism has tended to prevail over universalist ambition. Another, says Gaspard Koenig, a liberal thinker, is that “academia in France has largely closed itself off from public debate,” as it has elsewhere. The public intellectual, at once producer of serious research and participant in a wider conversation, is increasingly a rarity. A further reason may have less to do with impoverished output than outsiders’ expectations. Some of the latest ground-breaking work in France is emerging not in philosophy but in fields English-language publishers watch less closely, such as economics.

The most globally influential French work in recent years has been Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”. Indeed, Mr Piketty, who both challenges economic theory and advised a Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, in last year’s presidential election, may be the closest the country now has to a public intellectual. His book was a worldwide bestseller. Yet it took over a year for an English-language publisher to put out the latest work by Jean Tirole, another French economist and Nobel-prizewinner. Based at the Toulouse School of Economics, far from Paris, Mr Tirole also reflects the more disparate geography of French intellectual life today.

Back at the Café de Flore, as dusk falls, the clientele shifts. Off go the tourists with their backpacks and bottles of water. In steps a woman in a black shift dress, who sits down to read Le Monde at a corner table. Later, a well-known and politically active investment banker takes a seat on the terrace. Fragments of intense conversation hang, along with cigarette smoke, in the air.

The Flore is not Paris, and Paris is not France. But the moment the locals recolonise the café at night is a reminder that this neighbourhood remains home to much of the capital’s elite—a group that continues to shape the country’s intellectual mood. The waifs and radicals may be gone, but the atmosphere in the Flore and beyond is more highbrow than the doomsayers imply. Attendance rose this year at the annual Paris book fair. Regional literary festivals are thriving. Philosophy is still a compulsory part of the school curriculum.

And last year the French elected a president who has a degree in philosophy and can cite Molière by heart. France may have lost its great intellectuals, but it has certainly not lost its intellectualism.