Union Sucrée

Perry Anderson

  • Le Rappel à l’ordre: Enquête sur les nouveaux réactionnaires by Daniel Lindenberg
    Seuil, 94 pp, €10.50, November 2002, ISBN 2 02 055816 5
  • Esquisse pour une auto-analyse by Pierre Bourdieu
    Raisons d'Agir, 142 pp, €12.00, February 2004, ISBN 2 912107 19 9
  • La République mondiale des lettres by Pascale Casanova
    Seuil, 492 pp, €27.50, March 1999, ISBN 2 02 035853 0

The first part of this essay is also available online at: www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n17/ande01_.html

In Britain, the early 1990s saw the breakdown of Thatcher’s rule and the passage to a less strident neo-liberal agenda, under the atonic stewardship of Major. In France, the trend was in the opposite direction. There, the dominance of a market-minded consensus reached its height in the early years of the second Mitterrand presidency. The gains of the arc of opinion represented by François Furet and his friends were there for all to see. France was finally delivered of its totalitarian temptations. The shades of the Revolution had been laid to rest. The Republic had found its feet in the safe ground of the centre. Only one heritage of the past had yet to be thoroughly purged of its ambiguities: the Nation. This task fell to Pierre Nora. In his editorial on the tenth anniversary of Le Débat in 1990, Nora had hailed the ‘new cultural landscape’ of the country, and within another couple of years, he completed his own monumental contribution to it. Originating in a seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in 1978-80 – the same conjuncture as Le Débat itself – the first volume of Les Lieux de mémoire came out under his direction in 1984. By the time the last set appeared in 1992, the enterprise had swollen to seven volumes and some 5600 pages, mustering six times as many contributors as the Dictionnaire critique de la révolution française, from a more ecumenical range of scholars. His aim, Nora declared in his initial presentation of the project, was an inventory of all those realms of remembrance where French identity could be said to have symbolically crystallised.

Under this capacious heading, 127 essays – most of high quality – surveyed a bewildering potpourri of subjects, ranging from such obvious items as the Tricolour, the Marseillaise and the Panthéon, through the forest, the generation and the firm, to conversation, the industrial age and medieval lineages, not to speak, obviously, of gastronomy, the vine and Descartes. What united them, Nora explained, was that ‘unlike all the objects of history, realms of memory have no referent in reality’ – they are ‘pure signs, that refer only to themselves’. The postmodern flourish is not to be taken too seriously. For what these signs actually referred to were, variously, the Republic, the Nation or just Frenchness at large. But since these too were symbolic, the exploration of them that Les Lieux de mémoire offered would be a history of France ‘to the second degree’ – one concerned not with causes, actions or events, but rather effects and traces.

That did not mean it was less ambitious than its predecessors. The Annales had sought a total history, in reaction to the narrowness of traditional political narratives. But since symbols united material and cultural facts, and the ultimate truth of politics could well lie in its symbolic dimension, the study of realms of memory converted politics into the register of a history paradoxically more totalising than the Annalism it might now be replacing. What had made this possible was the abandonment of visions of the future as a controlling horizon for interpretation of the past, in favour of a consensual support for institutions of the present. At a time when the French were no longer willing to die for their country, they were ‘unanimous in discovering their interest and affection for it’, in all the diversity of its manifold expressions. It was as if ‘France was ceasing to be a history that divides us to become a culture that unites us, a property the shared title to which is treated as a family inheritance.’ Escape from traditional forms of nationalism, such as that regrettable pair, Gaullism and Jacobinism, far from weakening sentiments of national belonging, had strengthened them as the French entered into the healing domains of common remembrance.[1]

Les Lieux de mémoire was an enormous critical and public success, and in due course became the model for several imitations abroad. But it was always plain that it must count as one of the most patently ideological programmes in postwar historiography, anywhere in the world. It was Renan, after all, who had famously pointed out that a nation was defined as much by what it had to forget – the slaughter of 16th-century Protestants and 13th-century Albigensians were his examples – as to remember: a caution one might have thought all the more difficult to ignore a century later. Yet Nora could cheerfully introduce his enterprise with the words:

Even though tolerably well thought out – in keeping with the required typology, the state of scientific knowledge of the issues, and the competences available to deal with them – the choice of subjects contains an element of the arbitrary. Let us accept it. Such complaisance in our favourite imaginaries undeniably involves a risk of intellectual regression and a return to that Gallocentrism which contemporary historiography fortunately endeavours to transcend. We should be aware of this, and on our guard against it. But for the moment, let us forget it [sic]. And let us wish, for this handful of fresh and joyous essays – soon to be followed by armfuls more – a first innocent reading.

The effect of these convenient protocols, as a number of Anglophone historians pointed out, was to repress memories, not just of social divisions, but even, largely, of such inescapable symbols of the political past – their monuments literally astride the nation’s capital – as Napoleon and his nephew: figures presumably no longer relevant in the ‘decentralised, modern’ France, at rest within a ‘pacific, plural’ Europe, celebrated by Nora. More widely, the entire imperial history of the country, from the Napoleonic conquests, through the plunder of Algeria under the July Monarchy, to the seizure of Indochina in the Second Empire and the vast African booty of the Third Republic, becomes a non-lieu at the bar of these bland recollections. Both Nora and Furet had been courageous critics of the Algerian War in their youth. But by the time they came to embalm the nation thirty years later, each eliminated virtually any reference to its external record from their retrospections. One would scarcely know France had a colonial empire at all in Furet’s history of the 19th century, let alone that his particular hero Jules Ferry was the Rhodes of the Third Republic. Nora’s volumes reduce all these fateful exertions to an exhibition of tropical knickknacks in Vincennes. What are the lieux de mémoire that fail to include Dien Bien Phu?

Wrapping up the project eight years later, Nora noted criticisms made of it, and sought to turn them by complaining that although conceived as a ‘counter-commemoration’, his seven volumes had been integrated into a self-indulgent heritage culture, of whose vices he had always been well aware, but which would remain pervasive as long as France had not found a firm new footing in the world. This ingenious sophistry could not conceal that the whole enterprise of Les Lieux de mémoire was elegiac: the antithesis of everything that Roland Barthes, no less fascinated by icons, but more concerned with a critical theory of them, had offered in Mythologies (1957), deconstructing the emblems of francité – a coinage Nora at one point even borrows, divested of its spirit – with a biting irony remote from this erudition of patriotic appeasement, published with expressions of gratitude to the Ministry of Culture and Communications. All too plainly, the underlying aim of the project, from which it never departed, was the creation of an union sucrée in which the divisions and discords of French society would melt away in the fond rituals of postmodern remembrance.

The intellectual limitations of an undertaking are one thing. Its political efficacy is another. The orchestral programme of which Nora and Furet were the lead conductors in these years is best described as the enthronement of liberalism as an all-encompassing paradigm of French public life. In this contemporary design they could draw on the legacy of the great French liberal thinkers of the early 19th century: above all, Constant, Guizot and Tocqueville, whose works were waiting to be rediscovered and put to active modern use. This was not the least important labour of the antitotalitarian front, and good scholarly work resulted, in the service of constructing a perfectly legitimate pedigree. Still, there was an ironic contrast between forebears and descendants. Under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, France produced a body of liberal political thought substantially richer than England, let alone America in the same period. But as a political force, liberalism was incomparably weaker. The mishaps of its leading minds – the repeated contrast between noble ideas and shabby actions – were the symptom of that discrepancy: Constant the turncoat of the Hundred Days, Tocqueville the hangman of the Roman Republic, two champions of liberty who connived at successive Napoleonic tyrannies; Guizot the frigid mechanic of exclusion and repression, chased from the country amid universal reprobation. The discredit of such careers was one reason for the neglect that befell their writings after their death. But even in their own time, they never caught the imagination of their contemporaries. Classical French liberalism was a fragile bloom, in ungrateful soil. A hundred and fifty years later, matters were very different. The comprehensive rehabilitation of liberal themes and attitudes that set in from the mid-1970s onwards produced no political thinkers to compare even with Aron. But what it lacked in original ideas, it more than made up for in organisational reach. The phrase la pensée unique, coined twenty years later – though like all such terms, involving an element of exaggeration – was not inaccurate as a gauge of its general dominance.

The international conjuncture formed a highly favourable environment for this turn: the global ascendancy of Anglo-American neo-liberalism offered a formidable backdrop to the French scene. But no other Western country saw quite so decisive an intellectual victory. The achievement was a national one, the fruit of a co-ordinated campaign waged with skill and determination by Furet, Nora and their allies across two decades. It combined institutional penetration and ideological construction in a single enterprise, to define the acceptable meanings of the country’s past and the permissible bounds of its present. Here, as nowhere else, history and politics interlocked in an integrated vision of the nation, projected across the expanse of public space. In this respect the Communist Party Historians Group in Britain, though its members were to be no less politically active, and produced much more innovative history, were tyros beside their French contemporaries. There has rarely been such a vivid illustration of just what Gramsci meant by hegemony. He would have been fascinated by every nook and cranny of Les Lieux de mémoire, down to its entries on street-names, a favourite subject of his, or the local notary; and he would have admired the energy and imagination with which the legacy of the Jacobins, his heroes, was liquidated: feats of a ‘passive revolution’ more effective than the original Restorations of the 19th century themselves, around which so much of his theory in the Prison Notebooks was built. As if on cue, indeed, Furet ended his career with an obituary of Communism as the rule of capital was restored in Russia, closing the century’s ‘socialist parenthesis’.

By comparison with the rest of Furet’s work, Le Passé d’une illusion – flirting with the ideas of Ernst Nolte in its linkage of Bolshevism to Nazism, topics with which he had little prior acquaintance – was a pot-boiler. Appearing in 1995, it rehearsed so many Cold War themes long after the event that one wit remarked it read like the intellectual equivalent of a demand for reimbursement of the Russian loan. But this in no way affected its success in France. Acclaimed as a masterpiece by the media, it was an immediate bestseller, marking the height of Furet’s fame. With this sensational copingstone in place, the arch of anti-totalitarian triumph seemed complete.

Nine months later, France was convulsed by the largest wave of strikes and demonstrations since 1968. The Juppé government, attempting to push through a standard neo-liberal restructuring of social security arrangements, had provoked such popular anger that much of the country was brought to a halt. The resulting political crisis lasted six weeks and split the intellectual class down the middle. Virtually the entire anti-totalitarian coalition, Furet in the van, endorsed Juppé’s plans as a much needed initiative to modernise what had become an archaic system of welfare privilege. Ranged against it, for the first time a consistent alternative spectrum of opinion materialised. Led by Bourdieu and others, it defended the strikers against the government.

Politically speaking, the confrontation between the palace and the street ended with the complete defeat of the regime. Juppé was forced to withdraw his reforms. Chirac jettisoned Juppé. The electors punished Chirac by giving a majority to Jospin. Intellectually, the climate was never quite the same again. A few weeks later, Furet, playing tennis at his country-house with Luc Ferry, fell dead on the court. He had just been elected to the Académie française, but had not yet had time to don the green and gold, grip his sword and be received among the Immortals.

But well before the end he had begun to express misgivings. Certainly, Gaullism and Communism were for all practical purposes extinct. The Socialist Party had abandoned its absurd nationalisations, and the intelligentsia had renounced its Marxist delusions. The Republic of the centre he wished for had come into being. But the political architect of this transformation, whose rule had coincided with the ideological victories of moderate liberalism, and in part depended on them, was François Mitterrand. Furet’s judgment of him was severe. A genius of means, barren of ends, Mitterrand had destroyed the PCF and forced the PS to accept the logic of the firm and the market. But he had also abused the spirit of the constitution by installing the simulacrum of a royal court in the Elysée; he presided over a regime whose ‘intellectual electro-encephalogram is absolutely flat’; and he had signally failed to rise to the world-historical occasion when Soviet Communism collapsed. It was impossible to feel any warmth for a presidency so cynical and void of ideas. Barre or Rocard, admired by the Fondation Saint-Simon, would have been preferable.

Behind this disaffection, however, lay a deeper doubt about the direction that French public life was taking. Already by the late 1980s, Furet had started to express reservations about the discourse of human rights that was becoming ever more prominent in France, as elsewhere. Impeccably liberal though it might seem – it had, after all, been the pièce de résistance at the ideological banquet of the Bicentenary – the ideology of human rights did not amount to a politics. A contemporary surrogate for what had once been the ideals of socialism, it undermined the coherence of the nation as a form of collective being, and gave rise to inherently contradictory demands: the right to equality and the right to difference, proclaimed in the same breath. Its enthusiasts would do well to reread what Marx had said on the subject. Increasingly, the cult of human rights was narrowing the difference between French and American political life.

Closer acquaintance with the US sharpened rather than lessened these anxieties. Furet remained a staunch champion of the great power that had always been the bastion of the Free World. But from his observation post in Chicago, much of the scenery of Clinton’s America was off-putting, if not disturbing. Racial integration had paradoxically undone older black communities, and left ghettoes of a sinister misery with few equivalents in Europe. Sexual equality was advancing in America (as it was in Europe, if mercifully without the same absurdities), and it would change democratic societies. But it would neither transform their nature nor produce any new man, or woman. Political correctness was a kind of academic aping of class struggle. Crossed with the excesses of a careerist feminism, it had left many university departments in conditions to which only an Aristophanes or Molière could do justice. Multiculturalism, as often as not combined with what should be its opposite, American juridification of every issue, led inevitably to a slack relativism. In the desert of political ideas under another astute but mindless president, the peculiar liberal variant of utopia it represented was spreading.

Furet’s final reflections were darker still. His last text, completed just before he died, surveyed France in the aftermath of the elections called by Chirac that had unexpectedly given the PS a legislative majority: in his view, an almost incredible blunder by a politician he once thought had governed well. But Jospin offered little that was different from Juppé. Right and left were united in evading the real issues before the country: the construction of Europe; the tensions around immigration; the persistence of unemployment, which could be reduced only by cutting social spending. Under Mitterrand, French public life had become a ‘depressing spectacle’, amid a general decomposition of parties and ideas. Lies and impostures were the political norm, as voters demanded ever new doses of demagogy, without believing in them, in a country that stubbornly ‘ignored the laws of the end of the century’.

What were these laws? Historically, the left had tried to separate capitalism and democracy, but they formed a single history. Democracy had triumphed since 1989, and with it capital. But its victory was now tinged with malaise, for it was accompanied by an ever greater disengagement of its citizens from public life. It was impossible to view that withdrawal without a certain melancholy. Once Communism had fallen, the absence of an alternative ideal of society was draining politics of passion, without leading to any greater belief in the justice of the status quo. Capitalism was now the sole horizon of humanity, but the more it prevailed, the more detested it became. ‘This condition is too austere and contrary to the spirit of modern societies to last,’ Furet concluded. He ended in the spirit of Tocqueville, lucidly resigned to the probability of what he had resisted. ‘It might one day be necessary,’ he conceded, ‘to go beyond the horizon of capitalism, to go beyond the universe of the rich and poor.’ For however difficult it was even to conceive of a society other than ours today, ‘democracy, by virtue of its existence, creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond capital.’

Inadvertently, then, the passing of an illusion had itself been the source of a disappointment. Victor of the Cold War it might be, but actually existing capitalism was an uninspiring affair. It was understandable that utopian dreams of a life without it had not vanished. In his last historical essay, Furet even forgot himself so far as to write once again of the ‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’ that had carried France out of the Ancien Régime, almost as if he now saw merit in the catechism he had so long denounced. Two centuries later, the dénouement he wished for had come, but it lay like so much clinker in his hands. A liberal Midas was left staring at what he had wanted.

Of the two sources of his final disarray, capitalism and the condition of his own country, it was the second that posthumously scattered his following. There had always been a tension within the new French liberalism between its political loyalty to America and its emotional attachments to France. Its project envisaged an ideal union of the principles of the sister republics of the Enlightenment. But e pluribus unum and ‘one and indivisible’ are mottoes at war with each other. For liberals, what counted more? An atomistic individualism with no logical stopping-place, breaking the nation into so many rival micro-cultures, whose unification must become ever more formal and fragile? Or a collective identity anchored in common obligations and stern institutions, holding the nation resolutely – but perhaps also oppressively – together?

It was over this dilemma that the anti-totalitarian front fell apart. The first skirmish occurred in the early 1980s, when Bernard-Henri Lévy announced that there was a generic French ideology, stretching from left to right across the 20th century, saturating the nation with anti-semitism and cryptofascism. This was too much for Le Débat, which demolished Lévy’s blunders and enormities in two blistering pieces, one by Le Roy Ladurie and the other by Nora (‘un idéologue bien de chez nous’), rebuffing attempts to discredit the Republic in the name of the Jewish question. The next occasion for dispute was, predictably enough, posed by the Muslim question, with the first affair of the foulards, in the late 1980s. Could head-scarves be worn in schools without undermining the principles of a common secular education founded by the Third Republic? This time the split was more serious, pitting advocates of a tolerant multiculturalism, American-style, against upholders of the classical republican norms of a citizen nation.

Eventually, simmering ill-feeling over these issues burst into the open. In 2002, Daniel Lindenberg, a historian close to Esprit, unloosed a violent broadside against the authoritarian integrism, hostility to human rights and contempt for multiculturalism of so many former fellow fighters for French liberalism – notable among them, leading lights of Le Débat and Commentaire. Such tendencies represented a new rappel à l’ordre, the eternal slogan of reaction. Lindenberg’s pamphlet, although a crude piece of work, recklessly amalgamating its various targets, not only received a warm welcome in Le Monde and Libération. It pointedly appeared in a series edited by Furet’s colleague Pierre Rosanvallon, fellow architect of the Fondation Saint-Simon, co-author of La République du centre, and recently promoted – many eyebrows had been raised – to the Collège de France. This was the signal for virtual civil war in the liberal camp, with a standard Parisian flurry of rival open letters and manifestos, as Marcel Gauchet – Nora’s colleague at Le Débat – and his friends hit back in L’Express and columns of the press closer to them. The disintegration of the comity of the late 1970s was complete.

By then, however, a much larger change in its position had occurred. Furet’s misgivings at the upshot of modernisation were a murmur against the background of more menacing sounds from the depths of the country. Among the masses, neo-liberalism à la française had not caught on. From 1983 onwards, when Mitterrand made the decisive turn towards the logic of financial markets, the French electorate has unfailingly rejected every government that administered this medicine to it. The pattern never varied. Under a presidency of the left, Fabius – the first Socialist premier to hail the new ‘culture of the firm’ – was turned out in 1986; Chirac, who launched the first wave of privatisations for the right, was rejected in 1988; Bérégovoy, Socialist pillar of the franc fort, was ousted in 1993; Balladur, personifying an Orleanist moderation in the pursuit of economic liberty, fell at the polls in 1995. Under a presidency of the right, Juppé – the boldest of these technocrats, who attacked social provisions more directly – was first crippled by strikes and then driven from office in 1997; Jospin – who privatised more than all his predecessors put together – thought after five self-satisfied years of government he had broken the rule, only to be routed in the elections of 2002. Today Raffarin, after two years of dogged attempts to take up where Juppé left off, has already lost control of every regional administration in the country save Alsace, and sunk lower in the opinion polls than any prime minister in the history of the Fifth Republic. In twenty years, seven governments, an average of less than three years a piece. All devoted, with minor variations, to similar policies. Not one of them re-elected.

No other country in the West has seen such a level of disaffection with its political establishment. In part, this has been a function of the constitutional structure of the Fifth Republic, whose quasi-regal presidency, with its (till yesterday) seven-year terms of office, has both encouraged and neutralised continual expressions of electoral ill-humour within an otherwise all too stable framework of power. The Fourth Republic combined instability of cabinets with rigidity of voting blocs: the Fifth has inverted the pattern, uniting apparently immovable policies with congenitally restless electors. Such restlessness has not just been a by-product of institutional overprotection. More and more plainly as the years went by, it reflected disbelief in the nostrums of neo-liberal reform that every government, left or right, unvaryingly proposed to its citizens.

These did not remain mere paper. Over twenty years, liberalisation has changed the face of France. What it liberated was, first and foremost, financial markets. The capital value of the stock market tripled as a proportion of GNP. The number of shareholders in the population increased four times over. Two-thirds of the largest French companies are now wholly or partially privatised concerns. Foreign ownership of equity in French enterprises has risen from 10 per cent in the mid-1980s to nearly 44 per cent today – a higher figure than in the UK itself. The rolling impact of these transformations will be felt for years to come. If they have not yet been accompanied by a significant rundown of the French systems of social provision, that has been due to caution more than conviction on the part of the country’s rulers, aware of the dangers of provoking electoral anger, and willing to trade sops like the 35-hour week for priorities like privatisation. By Anglo-American standards, France remains an over-regulated and cosseted country, as the Economist and Financial Times never fail to remind their readers. But by French standards, it has made impressive strides towards more acceptable international norms.

Such progress, however, has done nothing to allay popular suspicion and dislike of Anglo-Saxon ideas about them. The 1990s saw the runaway success of literature attacking the advent of a new unbridled capitalism, with one bestseller after another: Pierre Bourdieu’s massive indictment of its social consequences in La Misère du monde (1993); the novelist Viviane Forrester’s impassioned tract L’Horreur économique (1996); the weathercock Emmanuel Todd’s L’Illusion économique (1998), an onslaught against laissez-faire from an intellectual once an ardent warrior for the Free World. By the mid-1990s, the rising tide of disgust with neo-liberal doctrines was so evident among voters that Chirac himself, seeking election in 1995, made denunciation of la pensée unique and the fractured society it had created the centrepiece of his campaign. When – like all his predecessors – he then readopted it in office, the result was, almost overnight, the industrial tremors that shook Juppé down. Looking around amid the debris, a chronicler at Le Débat concluded gloomily: ‘The liberal graft has not taken.’

But in the divorce between official policies and popular feelings there was another element as well, more social than political. Since De Gaulle, the rulers of the Fifth Republic have become the most hermetic governing caste in the West. The degree of social power concentrated in a single, tiny institution producing an integrated political, administrative and business elite is probably without equal anywhere in the world. The ENA accepts only 100-120 students a year – in all about five thousand persons since its foundation, out of a population of more than fifty million. But these not only dominate the top rungs of the bureaucracy and the management of the largest companies: they furnish the core of the political class itself. Giscard, Fabius, Chirac, Rocard, Balladur, Juppé and Jospin are all énarques; as were 11 out of 17 ministers in the last Socialist government; both main rivals – Strauss-Kahn and Hollande – for Jospin’s succession on the left; not to speak of Chirac’s dauphin on the right, Dominique de Villepin, recently foreign and now interior minister.

The inbreeding of this oligarchy has inevitably spawned pervasive corruption. On the one hand, the practice of pantouflage – high functionaries gliding noiselessly from administration to business and politics, or back again – gives many an opportunity for the diversion of public, or private, funds to partisan purposes. On the other, since the main political parties lack any significant mass memberships, they have long depended on milking budgets and trafficking favours to finance their operations. The result is the morass of jobbery that has, no doubt only partially, come to light in recent years, of which Chirac’s tenure as mayor of Paris has been the most flagrant example to appear before the juges d’instruction.

But no matter how crushing the evidence, the judiciary has so far been unable to put any significant politician behind bars. Chirac secured immunity from prosecution from a tame Constitutional Court, and is currently shielding Juppé; Roland Dumas, Mitterrand’s foreign minister – himself a former member of the court – has been acquitted after a trial, and Strauss-Kahn cleared even without one. Few French citizens can have much doubt that all these figures, and many more, have broken the law for political advantage, or – in the spirit of Giscard’s diamonds – personal gain. But since left and right are equally implicated, and close ranks against any retribution, the venality of the political class is proof against consequences within the system. There is little moralising strain in French culture, and less vocal indignation at corruption than in Italy. But this has not signified mere indifference. What it has fed is a deepening alienation from the elite running the country, and contempt for its revolving cast of office-holders.

Electoral abstention, rising to levels well above the EU average, has been one symptom of this disenchantment, even if Britain under New Labour has recently beaten all comers. Another has been more distinctively, indeed famously – or infamously – French. From the mid-1980s onwards, the Front National attracted at least a tenth of the electorate, climbing to nearly 15 per cent for Le Pen in the presidential contest at the end of the decade. At the time, the size of this vote for an openly xenophobic party, organised by veterans of the far right, set France apart from any other European country. Widely thought to be fascist, the FN appeared a peculiar national stain, and a potential threat to French democracy. What could explain such an extraordinary recidivism? In fact, the initial conditions for the FN’s success were perfectly intelligible and local. No other European society had received such a large settler community from its colonial empire: a million pieds-noirs expelled from the Maghreb, with all the bitterness of exiles. No other European society had received such a large influx of immigrants from the very zone once colonised: two and half million maghrébins. That combination was always likely to release a political toxin.

The Front could also count, beyond its original base in the pied-noir communities, on pockets of nostalgia for Vichy – TixierVignancour’s voters in the 1950s, a diminishing asset – or loyalty to the liturgy of Cardinal Lefebvre. But the conditions of its real take-off lay elsewhere. Le Pen’s electoral breakthrough came in 1984, a year after Mitterrand had abruptly jettisoned the social vision of the Common Programme and embraced orthodox monetarism. The neo-liberal turn of 1983 did not lead the Communist Party, which had four unimportant seats in the cabinet, to break with the government. Rather, as it would again under Jospin, it clung to the crumbs of office, regardless of the political cost of doing so, let alone considerations of principle. Its reward for adding to the follies of the Third Period those of the Popular Front – first, blind sectarianism in 1977-78, then feeble opportunism – was self-destruction, as more and more of its working-class electorate abandoned the Party. It was the gap created by the resulting compression of the political spectrum that gave the FN its chance, as it picked up increasing numbers of disgruntled voters in decaying proletarian suburbs and small towns. For many, the system of la pensée unique had left only this acrid alternative.

The arrogance and self-enclosure of the political class did the rest. Excluding the Front from any presence in the National Assembly by eliminating proportional representation, and shielding itself against any settlement of accounts with corruption, the establishment merely confirmed Le Pen’s denunciations of it as a conspiracy of privilege, delivered with an oratorical flair none of its suits could match. The more left and right united to treat the Front as a pariah, the more its appeal as an outsider to the system grew. Overt racism against Arab immigrants and a somewhat more muffled anti-semitism took their place in its repertoire alongside a generalised, raucous populism. The two stresses that eventually cracked liberal hegemony apart, the tension pitting multiculturalism and republicanism against each other, and the resistance of opinion to the virtues of the market, were exactly the terrain on which it could flourish, at the most sensitive intersection between them.

The limits of the Front as a political phenomenon were at the same time always plain. Shunned by the right, after initial furtive overtures by Chirac, overdependent on the personality of Le Pen, it lacked any professional cadre and never acquired administrative experience, vegetating between polls in a resentful subculture. Its brawling style at the hustings alarmed as much as it attracted. Above all, its main calling card – the immigrant issue – was inherently restrictive. The appeal of Fascism between the wars had rested on massive social dislocation and the spectre of a revolutionary labour movement, a far cry from the tidy landscape of the Fifth Republic. Immigration is a minority phenomenon, virtually by definition, as war between the classes was not. In consequence, xenophobic responses to it, however ugly, have little power of political multiplication. Aron, who had witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany and knew what he was talking about, understood this from the start, criticising panicky overestimations of the Front. In effect, from the mid-1980s onwards its electoral scores oscillated within a fixed range, never dropping much below a national average of 10 per cent and never rising above 15 per cent.

In 2000, the political system underwent its most significant change since the time of De Gaulle. Chirac and Jospin, each manoeuvring for advantage in the presidential elections of 2002, colluded to alter the term of the presidency from seven to five years, Giscard brokering the deal between them. Ostensibly, the aim of the change was to reduce the likelihood of ‘cohabitation’ – possession of the Elysée and Matignon by rival parties, which had become increasingly frequent since 1986 – and so give greater unity and efficiency to government, too often compromised by strains between president and prime minister. In fact, what the revision amounted to was a massive increase in the power of the presidency, promising a thorough-going personalisation of the political system along American lines, since it was clear that if elections for the executive and the legislature were held in the same year, in France’s highly centralised society, a victorious president would almost automatically always be able to create a tame majority for himself in the National Assembly, in the immediate wake of his own election, as had happened on every occasion since 1958. The result could only be to weaken a legislature already fainéant enough, and further to accentuate that excess of executive power Furet had termed a national pathology. A referendum was held to ratify this reduction of checks and balances in the constitution. Just 25 per cent of the electorate turned out for it, of whom four-fifths voted for a change trumpeted by the establishment as a great step forward in French democracy, bringing it into line with advanced countries elsewhere.

But there was still a potential glitch. The existing electoral calendar required elections to the Assembly to be held by the end of March 2002, and the presidential election in April-May, so reversing the intended scheme of things, and introducing the possibility that the vote for the legislature would determine the vote for the executive, rather than the other way round. Jospin, confident that he enjoyed the esteem of the electorate, rammed through a three-month extension of the life of the Assembly, to clear the way for conquest of the Elysée. Few self-interested constitutional manipulations have backfired so spectacularly.

In the spring of 2002, the campaign for the presidency starred Chirac and Jospin as leading candidates, running on platforms whose rhetoric was almost indistinguishable. When the results of the first round came in, dispersion of the vote of the gauche plurielle – Socialists, Communists, Greens and Left Radicals – between its constituent candidatures, all symbolic save the premier himself, knocked Jospin out of the contest with a humiliating 16.18 per cent of ballots cast, leaving Le Pen, with 195,000 votes more, to go through to the second round against Chirac, who himself got a miserable 19.88 per cent, a nadir for any incumbent president. Had the legislative elections been held first, Jospin’s coalition would almost certainly have won – the combined left vote he could have counted on, if the scores in April were an indication, was up to 10 per cent higher than that of the right – and in its wake he would have taken the Elysée.

The most startling feature of the presidential poll, however, lay neither in the gross miscalculation of the PS, nor in the fact that Le Pen overtook Jospin. There was actually no net increase in the combined vote of the far right at all, compared with 1995. The salient reality was the depth of popular antipathy to the political establishment as a whole. Far larger than the vote for any of the contestants was the number of abstentions and blank or invalid ballots – nearly 31 per cent. Another 10.4 per cent of the electorate voted for rival Trotskyist candidates of the far left; 4.2 per cent for the cause of hunting, shooting and fishing. In all, nearly two out of three French voters rejected the stale menu of the consensus presented to them.

Establishment reaction was unanimous. What mattered was one, apocalyptic fact. In the words of a typical pronouncement: ‘At eight o’clock on 21 April, a mortified France and a stupefied world registered the cataclysm: Jean-Marie Le Pen had overtaken Lionel Jospin.’ Everywhere hands were wrung in shame. The media were flooded with editorials, articles, broadcasts, appeals explaining to the French that they faced the brown peril and must now rally as one to Chirac, if the Republic was to be saved. Youth demonstrated in the streets, the official left rushed to the side of the president, even much of the far left decided it was the moment of no pasarán, and they too must weigh in behind the candidate of the right. Chirac – afraid he would be worsted in any argument with Le Pen, who would be sure to embarrass him by recounting past secret tractations between them – declined any television debate, and knowing the result was a foregone conclusion, scarcely bothered to campaign.

The second round duly gave him a majority of 82 per cent, worthy of a Mexican president in the heyday of the PRI. On the Left Bank, his vote reached virtually Albanian heights. The media switched in the space of 15 days from the hysterical to the ecstatic. The honour of France had been magnificently restored. After an incomparable demonstration of civic responsibility, the president could now set to work with a new sense of moral purpose, and the country hold its head high in the world again. Authoritative commentators observed that this was France’s finest hour since 1914, when the nation had closed ranks in a sacred union against another deadly enemy.

Actually, if an analogy were needed, the unanimity of 2002 was closer in spirit to that of Bordeaux in 1940, when the National Assembly of the Third Republic voted overwhelmingly to hand power to Pétain, convinced that this was a patriotic necessity to avert catastrophe. On this occasion tragedy repeated itself as farce, since there was not even a trace of an emergency to warrant the consecration of Chirac. In the first round of the elections, the combined poll of the right was already 75 per cent higher than that of the FN and its split-off – a difference of more than four million votes. At the same time the lack of any major contrast in the ideas and policies of Chirac and Jospin made it clear that many who had voted for the latter would anyway switch to the former in the second round. There was never the faintest chance of Le Pen winning the presidency. The frantic calls from the left to rally behind Chirac were entirely supernumerary, merely serving to ensure that it was crushed in the legislative elections in June, when as a reward for its self-abasement the right took the National Assembly with the largest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic, and Chirac acquired a plenitude of power he had never enjoyed before. It was a journée des dupes to remember.

The wild swings of the vote in this ideological whirligig – Chirac transmogrified from a symbol of futility and corruption, trusted by less than a seventh of the electorate, into an icon of national authority and responsibility in the blink of an eye – can be taken, however, as symptoms of an underlying pattern in the country’s political culture. Under the Fifth Republic, the French have increasingly resisted collective organisation. Today fewer than 2 per cent of the electorate are members of any political party, far the lowest figure in the EU. More striking still is the extraordinarily low rate of unionisation. Only 7 per cent of the workforce are members of trade unions, well below even the United States, where the comparable figure (still falling) is 11 per cent; let alone Austria or Sweden, where trade unions still account for between two-thirds and fourth-fifths of the employed population. The tiny size of industrial and political organisations speaks, undoubtedly, of deep-rooted individualist traits in French culture and society, widely remarked on by natives and foreigners alike: sturdier in many ways than their more celebrated American counterparts, because less subject to the pressures of moral conformity.

The French aversion to conventional forms of civic association does not necessarily mean privatisation, however. On the contrary, the paradox of this political culture is that the very low indices of permanent organisation coexist with exceptional propensities for spontaneous combustion. Again and again, formidable popular mobilisations can quite suddenly materialise out of nowhere. The great revolt of May-June 1968, still far the largest and most impressive demonstration of collective agency in postwar European history, is the emblematic modern example, that no subsequent ruler of France has forgotten.

The streets have repeatedly defied and checked governments since. In 1984, Mauroy fell from office after his attempt to curb private education unleashed a massive confessional mobilisation in defence of religious schools – half a million rallying in Versailles, a million pouring onto the boulevards of Paris. In 1986, protests by hundreds of thousands of students, from universities and lycées alike, fighting riot police in clashes that left one young demonstrator dead, forced Chirac to withdraw plans to ‘modernise’ higher education. His government never recovered. In 1995, Juppé’s schemes to cut and reorganise social security were met with six weeks of strikes, engulfing every kind of public service, and nationwide turbulence, ending in complete victory for the movement. Within little more than a year, he too was out of power. In 1998, it was the turn of truckers, pensioners and the jobless to threaten Jospin’s regime. Aware that such social tornadoes can twist towards them out of a clear sky, governments have learned to be cautious.

Signs of this characteristic duality, the coexistence of civil atomisation and popular inflammability, can be found in the deep structures of much French thought. They form one of the backgrounds to Sartre’s theorisation of the contrast between the dispersion of the ‘series’ and the welding of the ‘pledged group’, and the quicksilver exchanges between them, in his Critique de la raison dialectique. But the most distinctive effect of the problem they pose has been to produce a line of thinkers for whom the social bond is basically always created by faith rather than reason or volition. The origins of this conception go back to Rousseau’s insistence – revealingly at variance with his own voluntarist construction of the general will – that a civil religion alone could found the stability of a republic. The derision into which the Cult of the Supreme Being fell after the overthrow of the Jacobins did not discredit the theme, which underwent a series of conservative metamorphoses in the 19th century. Tocqueville became convinced that dogmatic beliefs were the indispensable foundation of any social order, but especially in democracies like America, where religion was omnipresent in a way that it wasn’t in Europe. Comte conceived the mission of positivism as the establishment of a Religion of Humanity that would anneal the social divisions tearing the world of the Industrial Revolution apart. Cournot argued that no rational construction of sovereignty was ever possible, political systems always resting in the last resort on faith or force. In some ways most radically of all, Durkheim reversed the terms of the equation with his famous notion that religion is society projected to the stars.

What all these thinkers rejected was the idea that society could ever be the outcome of a rational aggregation of the interests of individual actors. The branch of the Enlightenment that produced the utilitarian tradition in England became a dead bough in post-Revolutionary France. No comparable way of looking at political life ever developed. Constant, whose assumptions came closest to it, remained a forgotten half-foreigner. In the 20th century, the same underlying vision of the social resurfaced between the wars with a semi-surrealist tint, in the theories of the sacred proposed by Roger Caillois and Georges Bataille at the Collège de Sociologie. In the late 20th century, this intellectual line has seen yet further avatars in the work of two of the most original thinkers of the left, at odds with every surrounding orthodoxy. In the early 1980s, Régis Debray was already advancing a theory of politics as founded on the constitutive need, yet inability, of every human collectivity to endow itself with internal continuity and identity, and in consequence its dependence on an apex of authority – by definition religious, understood in a broad sense – external to it, as a vertical condition of its integration.

In this version, set out in Critique de la raison politique (1981), the theory sought to explain why nationalism, with its characteristic cults of the eternity of the nation and the immortality of its martyrs, was a more powerful historical force than the socialism for which Debray had once fought in Latin America. By the time of Dieu, un itinéraire (2001),[2] it had become a comparative account of changes in the ecologies, infrastructures and orthodoxies of Western monotheism, from 4000 BC to the present, that takes religion as an anthropological constant for all times: however protean its historical forms, the permanent horizon of any durable social cohesion. Far from such speculations leading to any reconciliation with the status quo, they long continued to be accompanied by political interventions held scandalous by the Parisian consensus – not least scathing comment on Nato’s war on Yugoslavia, still a touchstone of bien-pensant sensibility in Paris as in London. Perhaps in self-absolution, Debray has since compromised himself by preparing the ground for the Franco-American coup in Haiti. But the establishment can scarcely count on him.

A comparable case is France’s most incisive jurist, Alain Supiot. Drawing on the work of the maverick legal philosopher Pierre Legendre, Supiot has renewed the idea that all significant belief-systems require a dogmatic foundation by focusing its beam sharply, to the discomfort of their devotees, on the two most cherished creeds of our time: the cults of the free market and of human rights. Here too, the logic of the argument, in each case brilliantly executed, is ambiguous: demystifying, yet also in a sense underwriting each as the latest illustration of a universal rule, a necessity beyond reason, of human coexistence itself. A French habit of mind is at work here. The fact that the genealogy of such claims is so distinctively national does not in itself disqualify them: any general truth will have a local point of origin. But the predicament they point to is an archetypally French one. If singular agents will not associate freely to shape or alter their condition, what is the pneuma that can unexpectedly transform them, from one day to the next, into a collective force capable of shaking society to its roots?

For the guardians of the status quo, these are thoughts of the small hours, quickly dispelled in the sunlight of an exceptional morning in French history. ‘Never has the country been economically so powerful nor so wealthy,’ Jean-Marie Colombani rhapsodised in Les Infortunes de la République (2000). ‘Never has the dynamism of the country equipped it so well to become the economic locomotive of Europe.’ Better still: ‘never has there been in France such a palpable "happiness in living” as at this threshold of the 21st century.’ Bombast of this kind often has a nervous undercurrent. Much of the book, which ends with this peroration, is devoted to warning of the damage done to a healthy French selfunderstanding by critics like Debray or Bourdieu. In fact, the editor of Le Monde could have looked closer to home. The ebbing of the liberal tide in France has left a variety of unsettling objects on the beach.

Among them is the remarkable success of the daily’s antithesis in the monthly that bears its name, Le Monde diplomatique having about as much in common with Colombani’s paper as, in the opposite direction, today’s Komsomolskaya Pravda has with the original. Under the editorship of Ignacio Ramonet and Bernard Cassen, it has been a spirited hammer of every maxim in the neo-liberal and neo-imperial repertoire, offering a critical coverage of world politics in sharp contrast with Le Monde’s own shrinking perimeter of attention. Enjoying a readership of some quarter of a million in France, Le Monde diplo has become an international institution, with over twenty print editions in local languages abroad, from Italy to Latin America, the Arab world to Korea, and a further twenty on the internet, including Russian, Japanese and Chinese: in all, an audience of one and half million. No other contemporary French voice has this global reach.

The journal, moreover, has not only been a counter-poison to the reigning wisdom, but an organiser as well. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, it set up ATTAC, an ‘association for popular education’, which today has branches throughout the EU, to stimulate debates and proposals unwelcome to the IMF and the European Commission. For any periodical, an organisational function exacts a price – typically, a reluctance to shock its readers, a failing of which the journal has not been free. Yet its animating role has been remarkable. Four years later, Le Monde diplomatique and ATTAC were instrumental in creating the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, launching the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement that has since become the principal rallying point of protesters against the existing order across the latitudes. Here, on an unfamiliar transnational stage, France resumed something of its historic place as vanguard land of the left, acting as the ignition for radical ideas and forces beyond its borders.

A similar interlocking of national and global effects can be found elsewhere in the gauche de la gauche that has emerged in the past decade. The moustachioed figure of José Bové symbolises another side of it. Who could be more archetypally French than this Roquefort-maker from the Larzac, foe of GM and McDonald’s? Yet if alter-globalisation has international heroes, the charismatic farmer who founded a Peasant Confederation at home and helped create Via Campesina at large, active from the Massif Central to Palestine and Rio Grande do Sul, is among them. Characteristically, the French media put up with him as long as they could treat him as a piece of harmless folklore. Once he had the temerity to criticise Israel, it was another matter. Overnight, he became a bête noire, a disreputable demagogue giving the country a bad name abroad.

The role of Pierre Bourdieu in these years belongs to the same constellation. Son of a postman in a remote village of Béarn, in the borderlands with Spain, his trajectory bears many similarities to that of Raymond Williams, son of a railwayman in the marches of Wales, who was aware of the kinship between them. They shared steep ascents from such backgrounds to elite positions in the academy, and then feelings of acute alienation within the oblivious worlds of the cumulard and the high table they had reached, that made each steadily more radical after they had won established reputations. Even the typical complaints made of their prose – in the eyes of critics, sharpened by political hostility, a laboured, reiterative heaviness – were of a likeness. For both, the central experience that set the agenda of a life’s work was inequality. In Bourdieu’s case, the finest pages of the Esquisse pour une auto-analyse he wrote just before he died are his recollections of the bruised bleakness of his schooldays in the lycée at Pau.

After induction into sociology in Algeria – it is striking how many leading French intellectuals were, in one way or another, marked by time in the colony: Braudel, Camus, Althusser, Derrida, Nora – Bourdieu developed work along two major lines, study of the mechanisms of inequity in education, and of stratification in culture. These were the inquiries – Homo Academicus, La Distinction, Les Règles de l’art – that made him famous. But in the last decade of his life, dismayed by what successive governments had done to the poor and the vulnerable, he turned to the fate of the losers in France, and the political and ideological systems that kept them there. La Misère du monde, which appeared two years before the social explosion of late 1995, can be read as an advance documentary for it. When it came, Bourdieu took the lead in mobilising intellectual support for the strikers, against the government and its watchdogs in the media and the academy. Soon he was to be found in the forefront of battles over illegal immigration, in defence of the sans-papiers, becoming the most authoritative voice of unsubdued opinion in France. Raisons d’Agir, the intellectual guerrilla he created to harry the consensus, specialised in flanking attacks on press and television: Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde and Bourdieu’s own Sur la télévision were among its grenades. He was planning an estates-general of social movements in Europe when he died. His friend Jacques Bouveresse, France’s leading semi-analytic philosopher, an attractive but very different kind of thinker, has paid him perhaps the best tribute, not only in writing well about him but contributing in Schmock (2001), pointed reflections on Karl Kraus and modern journalism, to a common enterprise.

Bourdieu’s intransigence was a refusal to bend within the social sciences. But a similar sensibility can be seen in the better French cinema of recent years: films such as Laurent Cantet’s L’Emploi du temps, or La Vie rêvée des anges of Eric Zoncka, himself also a sociologist, that show the cruelties and waste of Colombani’s vivre heureux. France also saw perhaps the most ambitious attempt so far to trace the overall shape of the mutations in late 20th-century capitalism, in a work whose title deliberately recalls Weber’s classic on its origins. Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme (1999), by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, links industrial sociology, political economy and philosophical inquiry in a sweeping panorama of the ways in which relations between capital and labour have been reconfigured to absorb the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and engender new dynamics of profit, exploitation, and emancipation from all residues of the ethic that preoccupied Weber. This critical synthesis so far lacks any Anglophone equivalent. But, not unlike Bourdieu’s work, it also suggests a strange asymmetry within French culture of the past decades. For although its theoretical object is general, all its empirical data and virtually all its intellectual references are national. Such introversion has not been confined to sociology. The involution of the Annales tradition after Bloch and Braudel offers another striking illustration. Whereas British historians of the past thirty to forty years have distinguished themselves by the geographical range of their work, to a point where there is scarcely any European country that does not count among them a major contribution to the sense of its own past, not to speak of many outside Europe, modern historians of repute in France have concentrated overwhelmingly on their own country. Le Roy Ladurie, Goubert, Roche, Furet, Chartier, Agulhon, Ariès: the list could be extended indefinitely. The days of Halévy are over.

More generally, if one looks at the social sciences, political thought or even in some respects philosophy in France, the impression left is that for long periods there has been a notable degree of closure, and ignorance of intellectual developments outside the country. Examples of the resulting lag could be multiplied: a very belated and incomplete encounter with Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy or neo-contractualism; with the Frankfurt School or the legacy of Gramsci; with German stylistics or American New Criticism; British historical sociology or Italian political science. A country that has translated scarcely anything of Fredric Jameson or Peter Wollen, and could not even find a publisher for Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, might well be termed a rearguard in the international exchange of ideas.

Yet if we turn to arts and letters, the picture is reversed. French literature itself may have declined in standing. But French reception of world literature is in a league of its own. In this area French culture has shown itself exceptionally open to the outside world, with a record of interest in foreign output no other metropolitan society can match. A glance at any of the better small bookshops in Paris is enough to register the difference. Translations of fiction or poetry from Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American and East European cultures abound, to a degree unimaginable in London or New York, Rome or Berlin. The difference has structural consequences. The great majority of writers in a language outside the Atlantic core who have gained an international reputation have done so by introductory passage through the medium of French, not English: from Borges, Mishima and Gombrowicz, to Carpentier, Mahfouz, Krleza or Cortazar, up to Gao Xinjiang, the recent Chinese Nobel Prize-winner.

The system of relations that has produced this pattern of Parisian consecration is the object of Pascale Casanova’s path-breaking La République mondiale des lettres, the other outstanding example of an imaginative synthesis with strong critical intent in recent years.[3] Here the national bounds of Bourdieu’s work have been decisively broken, in a project that uses his concepts of symbolic capital and the cultural field to construct a model of the global inequalities of power between different national literatures, and the gamut of strategies that writers in languages at the periphery of the system of legitimation have used to try to win a place at the centre. Nothing like this has been attempted before. The geographical range of Casanova’s materials, from Madagascar to Romania, Brazil to Switzerland, Croatia to Algeria; the clarity and trenchancy of the map of unequal relations she offers; and, not least, the generosity with which the dilemmas and ruses of the disadvantaged are explored, make her book kindred to the French elan behind the World Social Forum. It might be called a literary Porto Alegre. That implies a beginning, with much fierce argument and discussion to come. But whatever the outcome of ensuing criticisms or objections, The World Republic of Letters – empire more than republic, as Casanova shows – is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact at large as Said’s Orientalism, with which it stands comparison.

The wider puzzle remains: what explains the strange contrast between a unique literary cosmopolitanism and so much intellectual parochialism in France? It is tempting to wonder whether the answer lies simply in the relative selfconfidence of each sector: the continuing native vitality of French history and theory inducing indifference to foreign output, and the declining prestige of French letters prompting compensation in the role of a universal dragoman. There may be something in this, but it cannot be the whole story. For the function of Paris as world capital of modern literature – the summit of an international order of symbolic consecration – long precedes the fall in the reputation of French authors themselves, dating back at least to the time of Strindberg and Joyce, as Casanova demonstrates.

Moreover, there is a parallel art that contradicts such an explanation completely. French hospitality to the furthest corners of the earth has been incomparable in the cinema, too. On any day, about five times as many foreign films, past or present, are screened in Paris as in any other city on earth. Much of what is now termed ‘world cinema’ – Iranian, Taiwanese, Senegalese – owes its visibility to French consecration and funding. Had directors like Kiarostami, Hou Xiao Xien or Sembene depended on reception in the Anglo-American world, few outside their native lands would ever have glimpsed them. Yet this openness to the alien camera has been there all along. The brio of the New Wave was born from enthusiasms for Hollywood musicals and gangster movies, Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism, that gave it much of the vocabulary to reinvent French cinema. A national energy and an international sensibility were inseparable from the start.

Such contrasts are a reminder that no society of any size ever moves simply in step with itself, in a uniform direction. There are always cross-currents and enclaves, deviances or doublings back from what appears to be the main path. In culture as in politics, contradiction and irrelation are the rule. They do not disable general judgments, but they complicate them. It is not meaningless to speak of a French decline since the mid-1970s. But the current sense of the term, that of Nicolas Baverez and others, which has given rise to le déclinisme, is to be avoided. It is too narrowly focused on economic and social performance, understood as a test of competition. Postwar history has shown how easily relative positions in these can shift. Verdicts based on them are usually superficial.

Decline in the sense that matters has been something else. For some twenty years after the end of the trente glorieuses, the mood of the French elites was not unlike a democratic version of the outlook of 1940 and after: a widespread feeling that the country had been infected with subversive doctrines it needed to purge, that healthier strands in the nation’s past needed to be reclaimed, and – above all – that the forms of a necessary modernity were to be found in the Great Power of the hour, and it was urgent either to adapt or adopt them for domestic reconstruction. The American model, more benign than the German, lasted longer. But eventually even some of those addicted to it began to have doubts. At the end of this road, might there not wait a sheer banalisation of France? From the mid-1990s onwards, a reaction started to set in.

It is still far from clear how deep that goes, or what its outcome will be. The drive to clamp a standard neo-liberal straitjacket onto economy and society has slowed, but not slackened – Maastricht alone ensuring that. What could not be achieved frontally may arrive more gradually, by erosion of social protections rather than assault on them; perhaps the more typical route in any case. A creeping normalisation, of the kind the current low-profile government led by Raffarin is pursuing, risks less than a galloping one of the sort admirers look to from Nicolas Sarkozy, the latest d’Artagnan of the right, and in French conditions may prove more effective. It will not be the Socialist Party, in office for 16 out of the last 24 years, that halts it. Its cultural monuments, the shoddy eyesores of Mitterrand’s grands travaux and vulgarity of Jack Lang’s star-shows, rightly detested by conservative opinion, were the epitome of everything signified by the progress of banalisation.

Outside the country, attitudes of passionate francophilia that were still quite common between the wars have virtually disappeared. Like most of its neighbours, or perhaps more so, France arouses mixed feelings today. Admiration and irritation are often expressed in equal measure. But were the country to become just another denizen of the cage of Atlantic conformities, a great hole would be left in the world. The vanishing of all that it has represented culturally and politically, in its pyrotechnic difference, would be a loss of a magnitude still difficult to grasp. How close such a prospect is, remains hard to fathom. Smith’s dry rejoinder to Pitt comes to mind: there is a lot of ruin in a nation. The hidden stratifications and intricacies of the country, the periodic turbulence beneath the pacified surface of a consumer society, sporadic impulses – gathering or residual? – to careen fearlessly to the left of the left, past impatience with democratic boredom, are so many reasons to think the game is not quite over yet. After explaining, lucidly and at length, why France was no longer subject to the revolutionary fault-lines of the 19th or early 20th century, and had at last achieved a political order that enjoyed stability and legitimacy, Aron nevertheless ended his great editorial of 1978 with a warning. ‘Ce peuple, apparemment tranquille, est encore dangereux.’ Let us hope so.

[1] Nora’s reserve towards Gaullism was consistent: in the last sentence of the first part of this essay (2 September), a typographical error rendered his characteristic phrase ‘Gaullo-Communism’ as ‘Gallo-Communism’. One of his most interesting contributions to Les Lieux de mémoire conjoins Gaullism and Communism as, each in its own way, vehicles of a powerful illusion.

[2] An English translation by Jeffrey Mehlman, God: An Itinerary, is published by Verso (307 pp., £25, April, 1 85984 589 4).

[3] Harvard will be publishing an English translation in January.