French Lessons | The Nation


French Lessons

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De Gaulle has found unlikely admirers on the left in recent years, including Perry Anderson and former Guevarist Régis Debray. It is true that de Gaulle's was a remarkable performance, not fully appreciated at the time (especially, it might be noted, by his current left-wing fans): He gave the French state a placid authoritarian stability while overseeing rapid social and cultural changes and successfully developing a tous azimuts international policy. But Kedward takes a more measured view of the General. De Gaulle "perpetuated the paternalism of right-wing nationalists...a state-people dualism in which the state had always to lead the people." He increased bureaucratic centralization and flouted Parliament, and even Raymond Aron criticized him for having "considerably worsened structural defects in French society." Kedward's judgment is that "de Gaulle's republic reproduced in a more extreme form the recurrent paradox of France in the twentieth century: a society which was highly differentiated and full of independent ideas and actions, yet one in which difference and self-management (autogestion) were suspect and denied."

About the Author

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

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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

That paradox exploded in the events of 1968. The ideological grip of the statist, Jacobin program of national reconstruction--embraced both by de Gaulle and by his Communist opponents--was broken, replaced by local and single-issue politics. The oil shocks of the 1970s hit particular regions (home to steel, textile and other industries) hard--and locality no longer took second place to identities shaped by class, religion, party, republicanism, education and patriotism. Similarly, antimilitarist, antinuclear and ecological movements coalesced around specific places--the army camp at Larzac, for instance, or the site for a nuclear plant at Plogoff, inaugurating a kind of radical politics of terroir.

Difficulties over the Republic's relation to more particular identities gathered during the 1980s as a politicized society pushed feminism, racism and gay rights onto the public screen. The debates gained a larger frame in the run-up to the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989, which prompted declarations that French exceptionalism had run its course. As the revolutionary project collapsed across the world, intellectuals sought to revise the identity of the Republic and find new ways to register France's evident plurality. Yet in practice no coherent alternative model has emerged. The Republic, faced with what it sees as bewildering claims to particular treatment, reaffirms faith in a unitary culture--admirably consistent in its universalist logic but with increasingly confused and unhappy results in practice. France's large communities of African descent and Muslim belief, underrepresented in the arenas of republican politics and society, and largely excluded from its pockets of economic success, have exited into their own microcosms, beyond and often against republican law. Their compatriots have chosen their own ways to return the compliment: A recent study of French attitudes notes that two-thirds of the French have anti-immigrant attitudes, and one in three avows racist feelings. It is difficult to hold to the view that in France today there is one central line of division and conflict, that between "the palace and the street."

In the end, Kedward's view of recent French political culture is less bleak than Anderson's, in part because Kedward takes a less romantic view of its earlier history. While neither man has much sympathy for François Mitterrand (Kedward sees his fourteen years in office largely as a betrayal of the project outlined by Jaurès), Kedward emphasizes that Mitterrand's government enshrined in law several of the impulses of 1968: in education and women's rights, in the decentralization of the state and in environmental protection. And where Anderson sees a vacuum in the domain of civil life, Kedward notes a proliferation of social movements and agencies, some of which have challenged the authority of the state and checked its powers. He also reminds us that the Plural Left government of Lionel Jospin had real achievements, obscured though they were by the circumstances of Jospin's defeat in the 2002 presidential elections, when he was pushed into third place by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jospin's government tried to regulate capitalist enterprise, based on a new relation between state and market. The minimum wage and income were increased as a thirty-five-hour workweek became law, tax policy became more progressive, free healthcare was provided to the very poor, civil alliances were introduced for same-sex couples, the claims of regions like Corsica were given greater attention and the Constitution was altered to give men and women equal access to elected office.

Such values and choices do not add up to anything like a coherent view of France's role in the world today--something that both increasingly frustrates France's allies and belies the French republican sense of universal mission. And, needless to say, they are increasingly at odds with the Anglo-Saxon model. They are also considerably less ambitious than the fertile, wilder ideas of 1968. Kedward sees such differences neither as economic self-sabotage nor as imaginative sellout but as part of France's distinctive and continuing project of humane modernization. It is this humanist vision contained within the republican model--often overshadowed by its rationalist or revolutionary flamboyance--that is the unifying focus of Kedward's book, and what he sees as one of France's most distinctive contributions to the history of the past century. One would like to share Kedward's optimism about France's continuing ability in this respect--not least because his own judgments have an attractive sobriety and modesty to them. But the republican model will need more imagination, flexibility and a willingness to learn how to compromise--a more pragmatic humanism--if it is to weather and absorb the vexed conflicts it faces today.

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