Patrice Higonnet

Patrice Higonnet’s Paris, Capital of the World is published by Harvard.

De Gaulle’s Debt: Moulin, the French martyr

Patrice Higonnet, 4 December 2003

By 1995, there were 37 monuments and 113 plaques dedicated to Jean Moulin in France; 978 boulevards, avenues, streets, squares, bridges and stadiums were named after him, as well as more than 365 schools, including one university. There are even more today; only de Gaulle is more honoured. And yet at the time of his death at the hands of Nazi torturers in the first days of July 1943, Moulin was...


Patrice Higonnet, 14 November 1996

‘Sloth, by bringing on Disease, absolutely shortens Life.’ ‘The cat in gloves catches no mice.’ ‘A watched pot never boils’. No one can wholly avoid hating ‘Old Daddy Franklin’, from whose Poor Richard’s Almanac these sayings come, especially if brought up to revere him in Public School, USA. Abraham Lincoln is the father of his people; George Washington, of his nation; but Benjamin Franklin – as it happens, a basically very decent man – hovers over the entire tradition of American ‘Babbittry’. Some subterranean but essential link runs from Poor Richard to Disneyland, Mozart on the muzak and the mailing of America.’

Diary: On Jacques Chirac

Patrice Higonnet, 22 June 1995

Did France need François Mitterrand? I hope not: the man was so vain, so shallow, so duplicitous, so amoral. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t believe anything he said: you couldn’t even consistently believe its opposite. In fact, you couldn’t listen to him without feeling you had somehow been deceived. When this deeply cynical politician placed his hand on his heart, spoke about the poor, reminded you that he had never been interested in money, even as a child, and smiled through his bloodless lips, then you could be pretty sure he was lying. But it was not always so: Mitterrand wasn’t bad through and through. You couldn’t just turn your back on this fake leftist and vote for the Right with a happy heart. At times, to complicate matters hopelessly, he was quite sincere. He wasn’t devious for the sake of deviousness. Nor did he simply find goodness less interesting than malice. He misled others – Rocard, the Communists, the Socialists; and in his youth, Fascists, Pétainists and Gaullists – ceaselessly but mostly he did it in order to achieve some goal. To be sure, the goal was usually an enhancement of his own power and prestige. For example, when he went to Sarajevo he thoroughly bamboozled French humanitarian workers, not to speak of the Bosnians and the world: they really did think he would help them.’’

Family Stories

Patrice Higonnet, 4 August 1994

Robert Gildea’s subject is less French history than French ‘political culture’. His method eschews ‘the theorising pretensions of the Marxist and the Annales schools’ without ‘reducing history to one senseless deed of violence after another’, as he presumes (wrongly) Simon Schama to have done. Also to be avoided is Theodore Zeldin’s pointilliste description of isolated individuals, moving through time and space like ‘rogue electrons’. Following Keith Baker, Gildea means to study instead the ‘set of discourses and practices’ used by one community ‘to articulate and enforce its claims against those of rival communities’ and to define ‘the identity and boundaries of the community to which they belong (or from which they are excluded)’.

The man who was France

Patrice Higonnet, 21 October 1993

Clemenceau was an archetype; he even looked like the Third Republic. He wore, in Keynes’s words of 1919, ‘a square-tailed coat of very good, thick broadcloth, and on his hands, which were never uncovered, grey suede gloves’. For Churchill, who much admired his French counterpart, Clemenceau was ‘as much as a single human being, miraculously magnified, can ever be, a nation; he was France.’ And so he was, but the trouble is the Tiger was also dead-set against many features of modern life, from political parties and feminism to trade unions and telephones. An archnationalist and – in the end – an unwitting belliciste, he was the evil genius behind the destructive peace of 1919. It is too bad that Gregor Dallas in his long biography has so little to say about these matters. For him, Clemenceau was ‘the man who led them’ – the ordinary soldiers of the First World War – ‘and their allies’ (who does Dallas have in mind?) ‘to victory in 1918. And a victory it certainly was.’ No it wasn’t: 1914-18 was a disaster all around, and so was Clemenceau’s handiwork – the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The break-up of the central empires which it ratified brought us Hitler; the Russians’ share was Lenin; and the legacy of the Ottomans is still being fought over, from Iraq and Palestine in the Middle East to Sarajevo today and Kosovo tomorrow.’


T.H. Breen, 10 May 1990

‘Revolutions,’ Barbara Tuchman writes, ‘produce other men, not new men. Half-way “between truth and endless error” the mould of the species is permanent. That is the...

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Friend Robespierre

Norman Hampson, 5 August 1982

Francois Furet’s book, which appeared in France in 1978, reopens the debate on the nature and significance of the French Revolution. For a very long time, what Professor Soboul likes to...

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