French Lessons | The Nation


French Lessons

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

"I feel instinctively that Providence has created France for complete successes or exemplary misfortunes," General de Gaulle declared at the start of his memoirs; indeed, today, of all Europe's major countries, none seems to have succumbed so fully to what Rod Kedward, in his excellent new history of twentieth-century France, calls de Gaulle's streak of "fatalistic melancholy." Confident slogans ("liberté, égalité, fraternité"; a little more vaguely, "l'imagination au pouvoir") have been replaced by a surly Just Say Non-ism, whether to Europe, the United States or any changes in the acquis social--the register of social benefits created by the French welfare state. To outsiders, the French have come to look like a nation of ressentimenteurs, defiantly unwilling to adapt to the demands of a fast-moving world. And the French themselves are gripped by a sense that they are no longer making history; instead they commemorate and Disneyfy their own past, living off historical capital. Corrupt elites circulate in power, unemployment is chronic, violence a popular tool of political strategy, and dark rumination about the nature of France and Frenchness an unavoidable pastime. Internationally, French policy lurches between rhetorical flash and torpid inwardness. It's a country where elected leaders--notably the man who may become France's next president, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy--unabashedly refer to the (largely black and Arab) residents of housing projects as racaille (scum), and second- and third-generation Muslims, many of them of Algerian origin, retreat from involvement in public life, where, as they see it, "liberté, égalité, fraternité" is nothing but hollow words chiseled on the walls of the local mairie, or town hall. As the French have been more prone than others to exalt their ideas, ideologies and intellectuals--all seen as expressions of Frenchness itself--so too are they ready to despair when reality diverges from what their intellectuals wish for and ideologies promise, and to see such divergence as a critical injury to the very idea of Frenchness. And where Frenchness goes, there goes European civilization. As Jean Baudrillard recently put it with typical restraint, "The French can reassure themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole Western model which is disintegrating."

About the Author

Sunil Khilnani
Sunil Khilnani is the author of Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France (Yale) and The Idea of...

Also by the Author

Isaiah Berlin once told his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that "I have a natural tendency to gossip, to describing things, to noticing things, to interest in human beings and their characters, t

If trust in France's political leaders has plummeted, their legitimacy too is eroding: When the number of those who do not vote is combined with those who vote for extremist parties, around 50 percent of the electorate are turning their backs on their political elites. Matters are unlikely to be resolved or clarified in the run-up to the presidential elections in May 2007. The frontrunners have groomed themselves for the age of media democracy, but there is something too mirage-like about them. On the right, Sarkozy bubbles with helter-skelter ideas and initiatives--he spreads about him an air of decisiveness and action, and his hope is that all will hear something to attract them in his contradictory appeals: patriotism for the Gaullists, an embrace of the United States for the liberals, "positive discrimination" (French for affirmative action) for children of immigrants, promises of security to the National Front voters. But he is trapped by a paradox that bedevils the French right: He wants to make France's economy and society more liberal and free of the state, yet he remains a good Gaullist in his belief that only an activist state can bring about liberal ends. The Socialists, meanwhile, after the fiasco of the referendum on the European constitutional treaty in May 2005 (when the party, which had been a prime mover in the European project, split in confusion over the issue of further integration), are without a single new or distinctive political idea--a vacuum into which has entered the Socialist Party's leading candidate for the presidency, the glamorous Ségolène Royal, with her neither-nor, always smiling message: "Desires for the future."

Where do the roots of the present malaise lie? And are things so helplessly dire after all? In a striking two-part essay published in 2004 in The London Review of Books, Perry Anderson sought to explain this hard fall from what he saw as the "apogee of France's postwar revival," May and June of 1968. It was de Gaulle, in Anderson's account, who helped to raise France to this peak: shrewdly taking France out of a colonial war, establishing stable institutions, putting in currency a vocabulary of national grandeur, investing in high technology while protecting French agriculture and striking out from under the umbrella of American power--a choice that made France the only truly independent power in Europe. Then he had the grace to depart in the wake of May 1968, leaving the stage open for further advance.

But what followed 1968, and de Gaulle's exit, Anderson argues, was a sweeping "Cold War liberalism" that has sidelined France ever since. The country's elites, confronted with the possibility that the parties of the left--Socialists and Communists, animated by the radical energies released in 1968 and united by the Common Programme of 1972--might enter government, launched an intellectual coup. To Anderson the late 1970s marked the moment when postwar France's intellectual and political history was hijacked. Intellectuals like the late François Furet, a revisionist historian of the French Revolution, and Pierre Nora, editor of the journal Le Débat, set out to efface 1789 as a living legacy in the French political imagination, and to put in its place a language of rights, individualism and the market. This coordinated campaign achieved a victory so sweeping that it was, Anderson went so far as to imply, a kind of intellectual Vichy, a "democratic version of the outlook of 1940 and after": an ideological occupation of French cultural and political space that drove France to modernize by imitating not the German model, as in 1940, but the American one. Thus were the French politically and intellectually disarmed: deprived of the language of revolutionary collective action and of national destiny--the Jacobin myth and its inheritance, which both de Gaulle and his left-wing opponents had fed upon.

Anderson's analysis, for all its sophistication, turns on a simple polarity between "the palace and the street"; he sees French politics as a sometimes exhilarating duel between the state and a "congenitally restless" electorate, willing to cock a snook at its leaders. "No other country in the West has seen such a level of disaffection with its political establishment" in recent decades, Anderson asserts, and while disaffection with their political establishment may have turned the French away from organized politics, they have not--as in America--withdrawn into privatized spheres. They remain ready to take to the barricades, creating a paradoxical situation where "very low indices of permanent organization coexist with exceptional propensities for spontaneous combustion."

To this provocative account, Rod Kedward's weighty France and the French: A Modern History offers welcome complication and also some grounds for correction. In a study that continuously chips away at the Republic's vision of itself as "one and indivisible," Kedward, like Anderson, places conflict at the heart of modern French history, particularly clashing definitions over what is properly French--over who, exactly, the "people" are. And as Kedward's nuanced account makes plain, these lines of conflict cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy between people and state. Kedward's France is one of multiple and sometimes overlapping conflicts, between groups jostling to lay claim to Frenchness--or, as in more recent times, chafing to escape its grip.

As a historian of Vichy and the Resistance (perhaps the greatest myth of France's recent history), Kedward is sensitive to the conveniences of historical forgetfulness, to the partiality of storytelling and to how, at different points, the French political model has always worked by accommodating some and excluding others. His narrative is baggily inclusive, but it tracks more richly and consistently than previous general histories the shifting positions of women, regional identities, and colonial and immigrant groups within the Republic. Kedward's framing paradox is that while a unitary France is continually and loudly asserted--the Jacobin myth--France actually contains a plurality of histories, and it is "the resilience of a unitary state within a multiform and multilayered society that constitutes the singularity of France since 1900."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size