French Lessons

French Lessons

The history of twentieth-century France depicts a struggle between the republican ideal of a unitary state and the shifting concerns of a pluralistic society.


“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 Confident slogans (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”; a little more vaguely, “l’imagination au pouvoir”) have been replaced by a surly Just Say Non-ism, whether to Europe, the United States or any changes in the acquis social–the register of social benefits created by the French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.”

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.”

As the twentieth century began, France was an empire, in control of 10 percent of the world’s surface. To its imperial possessions it offered entry into the ideal of the Republic through assimilation, although the Republic was never as unbounded as it liked to portray itself and always resistant to the claims of its North African Muslim subjects, to whom assimilation through full citizenship was denied. The Republic saw its authority as resting on more than the mere numbers of democratic acclaim. It was a moral and even an epistemic project, a vehicle of Enlightenment reason and French–that is, universal–civilization. And Africans, indeed all the world’s citizens, were potential beneficiaries of France’s “civilizing mission.” Kedward cites Ferdinand Buisson, Sorbonne professor and advocate of the republican tradition of secular rationalism, who in 1903 was promising Tunisians, living as they were on “this African extension of the soil of France,” that secularism would soon be coming to them too. But Kedward also recovers a less brittle strain of republican self-conception, represented by Socialist Jean Jaurès. Jaurès accepted the Republic as “the definitive form of French life” but urged extension of its values beyond politics to economic and social relations: “The workshop, work itself, production, property: these must be organized according to republican principles.” This Jaurèsian view is a touchstone in Kedward’s account, and the spirit of Jaurès–assassinated in 1914–hovers over the book.

With World War I, the Republic was both affirmed and perturbed. At the war’s end, although the Republic could lay claim to the nation, that nation was itself divided. Some saw the war as a victory of republican ideals; others viewed it as pointless, a grotesque unmasking of republican and bourgeois hypocrisy. These divisions redoubled as the country’s population changed. Already a destination for Italians, Belgians, Poles, Czechs and Russians, France in the postwar years experienced further waves of immigration, so that by the early 1930s “the French working class, alongside the world of the arts and the intellect, was the most cosmopolitan in Europe.” But 3 million adult immigrants remained outside the pale of citizenship. With neither the vote nor security, they manned expanding factories in areas like Boulogne-Billancourt and elsewhere; they tenanted the slums of Bobigny and Saint-Denis. Yet while the Republic ruled over an increasingly diverse society, it continued to claim to speak as if for a homogeneous community and entrenched its assimilationist ideals.

Economic depression made the Republic the focus of sharpening ideological conflict between left and right during the 1930s, in ways that evoked memories of the Dreyfus Affair–a clash, precisely, over who was truly French and what kinds of loyalties this entailed, with the right wishing to exclude Jews and communists, the left wanting to expel Catholics and capitalists. The electoral victory of the Popular Front in 1936 brought the left to power, only to face a country in which half of the citizenry had a very different France in mind. But, as Kedward tries to show, the divisions and conflicts of these years in fact ultimately broadened and opened new possibilities for the French.

Whereas Stanley Hoffmann and his followers take Vichy and the Resistance as the pivot that turned the republican stalemate of prewar France into the modernizing drive of postwar France, Kedward contends that the Popular Front experience was equally determining. The Popular Front embarked on “government interventionism on a scale not seen in peacetime,” and in just two years had vivid achievements to show for it. Under the owlish Léon Blum, a Jewish Socialist vilified by the anti-Semitic right and inspired by the vision of men like Jaurès, the Republic moved from a purely political definition toward “a social democracy of humanist conviction”: Laws were enacted for collective bargaining, the forty-hour week and paid holidays; the school-leaving age was raised; right-wing militias were disbanded; the armaments industry was nationalized; grain prices were raised; and for the first time women were appointed as ministers.

But within a few years the Republic, as ideological project and as territorial state, had collapsed in the debacle of 1940–the “strange defeat” inflicted by the Germans. Kedward details the range of French responses to the division of France into Occupied and Vichy sectors: While some signed on to Pétain cults, others dissented, resisted or took up arms in revolt (distinctions Kedward insists on, as a counter to the myths of resistance and collaboration that dominated postwar France). Such acts were invariably local in scale and diverse in character: There “was no photo-fit resister”–indeed, people in the Resistance “were constantly surprised to find who their contacts and co-resisters were,” especially since they were often foreigners, refugees and immigrants.

Yet again, the obsession with unity meant that after the war these new identities were slighted, as older, more purely ideological definitions were asserted. Immediately after the war, a hardened Nationality Code was introduced: “Failure to assimilate” was made a reason for exclusion, while the return to Jacobin centralism squeezed out other forms of civil dissent and refused to recognize actual social differences. Reinvigorated Jacobinism also defined France’s attitude to its colonies. Liberation at home in 1944 and the restoration of the Republic came with reaffirmation of empire and oppression abroad–in pointed contrast to Britain, where victory in Europe brought an acknowledgment of the imperative to withdraw from empire. After 1944 the Republic’s fate was threaded to the empire in ways that unraveled both. As Kedward underlines, on the very day the war ended, May 8, 1945, the French began to crush Algerian nationalist protests in Sétif and Guelma with bloody force; tens of thousands of Algerian civilians were killed. The end of the war in Europe did not in fact mean the end of war for France–campaigns in Indochina (1946-54) and then Algeria (1954-62) followed, keeping France at war in its colonies for virtually two decades.

Only with the arrival in power in 1958 of de Gaulle, a man whose nationalist credentials could not be doubted and who was able to sidestep the prevailing ideologies, was the republican state rescued from its colonial illusions. De Gaulle took charge when the prosperity of what came to be called “les trentes glorieuses”–the three decades that transformed France’s economy and society–was flowing, and in a France that had seen more than twenty governments come and go since the end of the war. He swiftly inverted the previous relationship between Republic and nation, gave primacy to the nation and made the Republic a vehicle for national grandeur. De Gaulle’s skill was to plant himself above interests and ideology so as to personify principles and values, to which he lent popular prestige by recourse to referendums and plebiscites–instruments whose dangers and rewards are never entirely predictable in France.

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.”

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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