France is, of all European countries, the most difficult for any foreigner to write about. Its intractability is a function, in the first instance, of the immense output on their society produced by the French themselves, on a scale undreamt of elsewhere. Seventy titles just on the electoral campaign of spring 2002. Two hundred books on Mitterrand. Three thousand on De Gaulle. Such numbers, of course, include a huge amount of dross. But they are not mere logomachy. High standards of statistical rigour, analytic intelligence, literary elegance continue to distinguish the best of French writing about France, in quantities no neighbouring land can rival.
Confronted with this mass of self-description, what can the alien gaze hope to add? The advantages of estrangement, would be the anthropological reply – Lévi-Strauss’s regard lointain. But in England we lack the discipline of real distance. France is all too misleadingly familiar: the repetitively stylised Other of insular history and popular imagination; the culture whose words are still most commonly taught, movies screened, classics translated; the shortest trip for the tourist, the most fashionable spot for a second residence. London is now closer to Paris than Edinburgh by train; there are some 15 million visits by Britons to France every year, more than from any other country. The vicinity is lulling. Its effect is a countrywide equivalent of the snare against which every schoolchild struggling with French is warned. France itself becomes a kind of faux ami.
Local connoisseurs are seldom of much help in correcting the error. It is striking that the two best-known recent English historians of France, Richard Cobb and Theodore Zeldin, have taken the national penchant for the whimsical and eccentric to extremes, as if so defeated by their subject they had to fall back, in compensation, on a parodic exhibition of French images of Anglicity, as so many historiographic Major Thompsons. Less strenuous contributions – political science, cultural studies, the higher journalism – offer little antidote. Reportage itself often seems mortified: few dispatches are so regularly flat as those filed from Paris, as if it were somehow the deathbed of the correspondent’s imagination. A bright obscurity covers the country, screening its pitfalls for cross-Channel commentary. What follows is unlikely to escape a share of them.
The current scene is as good a place to start as any, since it offers a pregnant example of the illusions of familiarity. Newspapers, journals and bookshops brim with debate over French decline. Gradually trickling to the surface in the past few years, le déclinisme burst into full flow with the publication last winter of La France qui tombe, a spirited denunciation of national default – ‘the sinister continuity between the 14 years of François Mitterrand and the 12 of Jacques Chirac, united by their talent for winning elections and ruining France’ – by Nicolas Baverez, an economist and historian of the centre-right. Rebuttals, vindications, rejoinders, alternatives have proliferated. Baverez looks at first glance like a French version of a Thatcherite, a neo-liberal of more or less strict persuasion, and the whole controversy like a rerun of the long-standing debates on decline in this country. But the appearances are deceptive. The problem is not the same.
Britain’s diminution since the war has been a long-drawn-out process. But its starting point is clear: the illusions bred by victory in 1945, under a leader of 1914 vintage, followed virtually without intermission by the realities of financial dependency on Washington, austerity at home and imperial retreat abroad. By the time consumer prosperity arrived, a decade later, the country was already lagging behind the growth of Continental economies, and within a few more years found itself locked out of a European Community whose construction it had rejected. In due course the welfare state itself – a landmark when first created – was overtaken elsewhere. There was no dramatic reckoning with the past, just a gradual slide within a framework of complete political stability.
Abroad, decolonisation was conducted steadily, at little cost to the home country, but owed much to luck. India was too big to put up a fight for. War in Malaya, unlike Indochina, could be won because the Communist movement was based on an ethnic minority. Rhodesia, unlike Algeria, was logistically out of range. The costs to the colonised were another matter, in the bloody skein of partitions left behind: Ireland, Palestine, Pakistan, Cyprus. But British society appeared unscathed. Yet, like the welfare state with which it was often coupled as a principal achievement of the postwar order, withdrawal from empire, too, eventually lost its lustre, when the abscess of Ulster reopened. The decisive development of the period lay elsewhere, in the abandonment after the Suez expedition of any pretension by the British state to autonomy from the US. Henceforward the adhesion of the nation to the global hegemon – internalised as a political imperative by both parties, more deeply by Labour even than Conservatives – cushioned loss of standing in the popular imagination, while exhibiting it to the world at large. Intellectual life was not so dissimilar, vitality after the war coming largely from external sources, emigrés from Central and Eastern Europe, with few local eminences. Here, too, there was subsidence without much tension.
A sense of decline became acute within the British elites only when fierce distributional struggles broke out in the 1970s, with the onset of stagflation. The outcome was a sharp shift of gravity in the political system, and Thatcher’s mandate to redress the fall in the country’s fortunes. Neo-liberal medicine, continued under New Labour, revived the spirits of capital and redrew the social landscape – Britain pioneering programmes of privatisation and deregulation internationally as it had once done welfare and nationalisation. A modest economic recovery was staged, amid still decaying infrastructures and increasing social polarisation. With the recent slowdown in Europe, claims of a national renaissance have become more common, without acquiring widespread conviction.
Overseas, Thatcher’s most famous success was regaining the puny Antarctic colony of the Falklands; Blair’s, brigading the country into the American invasion of Iraq. Pride or shame in such ventures scarcely impinge on the rest of the world. Internationally, the country’s cultural icon is now a football celebrity. Little alteration of political arrangements; moderate growth but still low productivity; pinched universities and crumbling railways; the unmoved authority of Treasury, Bank and City; an underling diplomacy. The record lacks high relief. The British way of coming down in the world might itself be termed a mediocre affair.
France has been another story. Defeat and occupation left it, after Liberation, at a starting point far below that of Britain. The Resistance had saved its honour, and Potsdam its face, but it was a survivor rather than a victor power. Economically, France was still a predominantly rural society, with a per capita income a little over half of the British standard. Sociologically, the peasantry remained by far its largest class: 45 per cent of the population. Politically, the Fourth Republic floundered into quicksands of government instability and colonial disaster. Little more than a decade after Liberation, the army was in revolt in Algeria, and the country on the brink of civil war. The whole postwar experience appeared a spectacular failure.
In fact, the Fourth Republic had in some ways been a period of extraordinary vitality. It was in these years that the administrative structure of the French state was overhauled, and the technocratic elite that today dominates the business and politics of the country took shape. While cabinets revolved, civil servants assured a continuity of dirigiste policies that modernised the French economy at nearly twice the clip of growth rates in Britain. French architects – Monnet and Schumann – laid the foundations of European integration, and it was French politicians who clinched the Treaty of Rome: the birth of the European Community, just before the Fourth Republic expired, owed more to France than any other country. French literature, in the days of Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir, enjoyed an international readership probably without equal in the postwar world, well beyond its standing between the wars.
So when De Gaulle came to power, on the back of military revolt in Algiers, the dilapidated estate he inherited in fact offered solid bases for national recovery. He, of course, promised much more than that. France, he had announced, was inconceivable without grandeur. In his vocabulary the word had connotations that escape the vulgar claims of ‘greatness’ attached to Britain; it was a more archaic and abstract ideal, that appeared even to many of his compatriots out of keeping with the age. Yet it is difficult to deny it to the man, and the reconstruction over which he presided. It is conventional to pair him with Churchill, as statues in the national pantheon. But, beyond romantic legend, there is a discrepancy between them. De Gaulle’s historical achievement was much larger. Colourful as it was, Churchill’s role in 20th-century Britain proved by comparison quite limited: an inspirational leadership of his country, crucial for a year, in a war won by Soviet troops and American wealth, and a brief epilogue of nondescript office in time of peace. The image he left was huge, the mark modest. Little in postwar Britain, save lingering imperial illusions, is traceable to him.
In exile, De Gaulle’s wartime leadership was more purely symbolic, and his adjustment to peace, at which he threw in a hand stronger than Churchill’s, little more successful. But he was a generation younger, with an altogether more reflective and original cast of mind. When he returned to power a decade later, he had mastered the arts of politics, and proved a strange singleton of modern statecraft. In the West no other postwar leader comes near his record. The largest colonial conflict of the century – at its height, the French army in Algeria numbered 400,000; perhaps a million Algerians were killed – was brought to a dextrous end, and resistance to the settlement by those who had put him in power crushed. A new republic was founded, with institutions – above all, a strong presidential executive – designed to give the country political stability. High-tech modernisation of the economy proceeded apace, with major infrastructural programmes and rapidly rising living standards in the towns, as growth accelerated. Large-scale farming was shielded by the Common Agricultural Policy, a French construction, while the countryside started to empty, and the capital regained its pristine splendour.
Most striking was the transformation of the French state’s position in the world. As the Cold War continued, De Gaulle made France the only truly independent power in Europe. Without breaking with the United States, he built a nuclear deterrent that owed nothing to America, and cocked it à tous azimuts. Withdrawing French forces from Nato command, boycotting US operations under UN guise in the Congo, stockpiling gold to weaken the dollar, he condemned the American war in Vietnam and Israeli arrogance in the Middle East, and vetoed British entry into the Common Market: actions unthinkable in today’s cowering world, as they were for Britain’s rulers at the time. No country of the period was so plainly removed from any notion of decline. Equipped with a vigorous economy, an exceptionally strong state, an intrepid foreign policy, France displayed a greater elan than at any time since the Belle Epoque.
The radiance of the country was also cultural. The arrival of the Fifth Republic coincided with the full flowering of the intellectual energies that set France apart for two generations after the war. Looking back, the range of works and ideas that achieved international influence is astonishing. It could be argued that nothing quite like it had been seen for a century. Traditionally, literature had always occupied the summit on the slopes of prestige within French culture. Just below it lay philosophy, surrounded with its own nimbus, the two adjacent from the days of Rousseau and Voltaire to those of Proust and Bergson. On lower levels were scattered the sciences humaines, history the most prominent, geography or ethnology not far away, economics further down. Under the Fifth Republic, this time-honoured hierarchy underwent significant changes. Sartre refused a Nobel Prize in 1964, but after him no French writer ever gained the same public authority, at home or abroad. The Nouveau Roman remained a more restricted phenomenon, of limited appeal within France itself, and less overseas. Letters in the classical sense lost their commanding position within the culture at large. What took their place was an exotic marriage of social and philosophical thought, at the altar of literature. It was the products of this union that gave intellectual life in the decade of De Gaulle’s reign its peculiar brilliance and intensity. It was in these years that Lévi-Strauss became the world’s most celebrated anthropologist; Braudel established himself as its most influential historian; Barthes became its most distinctive literary critic; Lacan started to acquire his reputation as the mage of psychoanalysis; Foucault to invent his archaeology of knowledge; Derrida to become the antinomian philosopher of the age; Bourdieu to develop the concepts that would make him its best-known sociologist. The concentrated explosion of ideas is astonishing. In just two years (1966-67) there appeared side by side: Du miel aux cendres, Les Mots et les choses, Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme, Système de la mode, Ecrits, Lire le Capital and De la grammatologie, not to speak – from another latitude – of La Société du spectacle. Whatever the different bearings of these and other writings, it does not seem altogether surprising that a revolutionary fever gripped society itself the following year.
The reception of this effervescence abroad varied from country to country, but no major culture in the West, not to speak of Japan, was altogether exempt from it. This owed something to the traditional cachet of anything Parisian, with its overtones of mode as much as of mind. But it was also an effect of the novel elision of genres in so much of this thinking. For if literature lost its position at the apex of French culture, the effect was not so much a banishment as a displacement. Viewed comparatively, the striking feature of the human sciences and philosophy that counted in this period was the extent to which they came to be written increasingly as virtuoso exercises of style, drawing on the resources and licences of artistic rather than academic forms. Lacan’s Ecrits, closer to Mallarmé than Freud in their syntax, or Derrida’s Glas, with its double-columned interlacing of Genet and Hegel, represent extreme forms of this strategy. But Foucault’s oracular gestures, mingling echoes of Artaud and Bossuet, Lévi-Strauss’s Wagnerian constructions, Barthes’s eclectic coquetries, belong to the same register.
To understand this development, one has to remember the formative role of rhetoric, seeping through the dissertation, in the upper levels of the French educational system in which all these thinkers – khâgneux and normaliens virtually to a man – were trained, as a potential hyphen between literature and philosophy. Even Bourdieu, whose work took as one of its leading targets just this rhetorical tradition, could not escape his own version of its cadences; far less such as Althusser, against whose obscurities the sociologist railed. The potential cost of a literary conception of intellectual disciplines is obvious enough: arguments freed from logic, propositions from evidence. Historians were least prone to such an import substitution of literature, but even Braudel was not immune to the loosening of controls in a too flamboyant eloquence. It is this trait of the French culture of the time that has so often polarised foreign reactions to it, in a seesaw between adulation and suspicion. Rhetoric is designed to cast a spell, and a cult easily arises among those who fall under it. But it can also repel, drawing charges of legerdemain and imposture. Balanced judgment here will never be easy. What is clear is that the hyperbolic fusion of imaginative and discursive forms of writing, with all its attendant vices, was also inseparable from everything that made this body of work most original and radical.
The vitality of France’s culture under De Gaulle was not merely a matter of these eminences. Another sign of it was possession of what was then the world’s finest newspaper, Le Monde. Under the austere regime of Hubert Beuve-Méry, Paris enjoyed a daily whose international coverage, political independence and intellectual standards put it in a class by itself in the Western press of the period. The New York Times, the Times or Frankfurter Allgemeine were provincial rags by comparison. In the academic world, this was also the time when the Annales, still a relatively modest affair during the Fourth Republic, became the dominant force in French historiography, winning for it both a more central role within the public culture – something it had once enjoyed, but long lost – and a great arc of overseas influence. Braudel’s command of the Sixième Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes allowed him to rejuvenate the social sciences, and lay the foundations of what would become the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, regrouping disciplines and talents in a manner worthy of the Consulate. Last but not least, of course, was the cinema. Here, as in much else, the origins of a spectacular burst of creativity lay in the subcultures of the Fourth Republic. One of its features, still undiminished through the 1960s, had been the number and variety of its journals of ideas, which played a much more important part in intellectual life than anywhere else in the West. Sartre’s Temps modernes, Bataille’s Critique, Mounier’s Esprit were only the best known of these. It was in this milieu that Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma had its place, as the crucible in which the passions and convictions of the future directors of the Nouvelle Vague were formed.
Their debut on the screen coincided with the arrival of De Gaulle in power. Les Quatre Cents Coups and Les Cousins opened in 1959, A bout de souffle in 1960. After the war Paris had notoriously ceased to be the capital of modern painting, a position it had held for a century. But within the visual arts as a whole, it might be said that France recouped with brio in moving pictures. Or if, with equal plausibility, we regard film as the art that has taken the place of the novel as the dominant narrative form of the age, Godard might be seen as the contemporary equivalent of the great French writers of the past, producing one tour de force after another – Le Mépris, Bande à part, Une femme mariée, Pierrot le fou, Deux ou trois choses, La Chinoise, Weekend punctuating the decade as once the latest volumes by Balzac or Proust. No other country, even Italy, came near the blaze of the French cinema in these years.
Today, all this has passed. The feeling is widespread that the Fifth Republic, as it approaches its half-century, presents a fallen landscape. The economy, after crawling forward at 1.3 per cent a year through the 1990s, is today sunk in yet another trough, with a widening deficit, rising public debt and very high levels of unemployment. Well over 9 per cent of the labour force, itself reduced by high rates of early retirement, is out of work. One quarter of French youth is jobless; two-fifths among immigrant families. Secondary education, once the best in Europe, has been steadily deteriorating; large numbers now emerge from it scarcely literate. Although France still spends more on a pupil in its lycées (for the first time outclassed, except at the very highest level, by private schools) than it does on a student at its universities, it has one of the lowlier rates of reading in the OECD. Scientific research, measured by funding or by discovery, has plummeted: emigration, virtually unknown in the past, now drains the country’s laboratories.
The political system, riddled with corruption, is held in increasing public contempt. Nearly a third of the electorate – a far larger number than voted for any single candidate – refused to cast a ballot in the first round of the presidential elections of 2002; the incumbent got less than a fifth of the vote; 40 per cent abstained in the legislative elections. The National Assembly is the weakest parliament in the Western world, with more than one resemblance to the echo chambers of the First Empire. The current ruler of the country would be in the dock for malversation had a constitutional court not hastened to grant him immunity from prosecution: a trampling of equality before the law that not even his Italian counterpart, in what is usually imagined to be a still more cynical political culture, has been able to secure. Foreign policy is a mottled parody of Gaullism: vocal opposition to the pretext for war in the Middle East, followed by practical provision of airspace and prompt wishes for victory once the attack was under way, then eager amends for disloyalty with a joint coup to oust another unsatisfactory ruler in the Caribbean, and agrément for the puppet regime in Baghdad. At home the prestige of public works, as late as the 1990s still a touchstone of national pride, lies in the mortuary dust and rubble of Roissy.
Economic stress and political corrosion could still, it might be argued, leave intact what are the essential values of France, both in its own eyes and those of the world. No other nation, after all, has so conspicuously based its identity on culture, understood in the broadest sense. But here too, as much as – in some ways, perhaps even more than – in matters of industry or state, the scene at large is dismal: in the eyes of many, a veritable dégringolade. The days of Malraux are long gone. No better symbol of current conditions could be found than the fate of his hapless descendant as court philosopher, the salonnier Luc Ferry, minister of education under Chirac – derisively pelted with his own latest opuscule by teachers when he tried to tour schools to persuade them of the latest round of downsizing reforms, and then summarily terminated as an embarrassment to his patron.
More generally, a sense of cheapening and dumbing down, the intertwining of intellectual with financial or political corruption, has become pervasive. Press and television, long given to the incestuous practices of le renvoi d’ascenseur – is there an equivalent so expressive in any other language? – have lost earlier restraints, not only in their dealing with ideas, but with business and power. The decline of Le Monde is emblematic. Today, the paper is a travesty of the daily created by Beuve-Méry: shrill, conformist and parochial, increasingly made in the image of its website, which assails the viewer with more fatuous pop-ups and inane advertisements than an American tabloid. The disgust that many of its own readers, trapped by the absence of an alternative, feel for what it has become was revealed when a highly uneven polemic against the trio of managers who have debauched it – Alain Minc, Edwy Plenel and Jean-Marie Colombani – sold 200,000 copies, in the face of legal threats against the authors, later withdrawn to avoid further discomfiture of them in court.
La Face cachée du ‘Monde’, a doorstop of 600 pages mixing much damaging documentation with not a few inconsistencies and irrelevancies, unfolds a tale of predatory economic manoeuvres, political sycophancies and vendettas, egregious cultural back-scratching, and – last but not least – avid self-enrichment, unappetising by any standards. ‘Since Le Monde was founded,’ Beuve-Méry remarked after he retired, ‘money has been waiting below, at the foot of the stairs, to gain entry to the office of the editor. It is there, patient as always, persuaded that in the end it will have the final word.’ The media conglomerate erected by Colombani and his associates gives notice that it has taken up occupation. But, powerful a motive though greed at the top may be, the journalism they represent is too pervasive to be explained simply by this. A deeper focus can be found in Serge Halimi’s exposure of the interlocking complicities – across the spectrum – of establishment commentary on public affairs, in Les Nouveaux Chiens de garde (1997). What this sardonic study of mutual fawning and posturing among the talking heads and editorial sages of Parisian society shows is a system of connivance based at least as much on ideological as material investment in the market.
The world of ideas is in little better shape. Death has picked off virtually all the great names: Barthes (1980); Lacan (1981); Aron (1983); Foucault (1984); Braudel (1985); Debord (1994); Deleuze (1995); Lyotard (1998); Bourdieu (2002). Only Lévi-Strauss, at 95, and Derrida, at 74, survive. No French intellectual has gained a comparable international reputation since. Lack of that is not a necessary measure of worth. But while individual work of distinctive value continues to be produced, the general condition of intellectual life is suggested by the bizarre prominence of Bernard-Henri Lévy, far the best-known ‘thinker’ under 60 in the country. It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight. Could such a grotesque flourish in any other major Western culture today?
If this is what lays claim to philosophy, literature is not far behind. Today’s leading novelist, Michel Houellebecq – the ‘Baudelaire of the supermarket’ in the eyes of admirers – occupies a position not unlike that of Martin Amis in English letters, as the writer by whom readers most like to be shocked, though beyond the commonplaces of sex and violence, their forms of épater are asymmetrical: flamboyance of style and bienséance of sentiments in Amis, provocation of ideas and banality of prose in Houellebecq. The French version, coming out of science fiction, is less conventional in intellectual outlook – capable of the occasional unsettling, if never very deep, apothegm – but, as might be expected of its origins, poorer in literary imagination. In principle, the steady drone of flat, slack sentences reproduces the demoralised world they depict, not the limits of the writer’s talent. But a glance at the doggerel of Houellebecq’s poetry suggests that the match between them is only too natural. That writing of this quality could command official acclaim says something about another, now more long-standing, weakness of French culture. Criticism has remarkably little place in it. The standard idea of a book review – see La Quinzaine littéraire, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde des livres, Libération – is what would elsewhere be regarded as not much above a puff. The rule has its exceptions but these tend to simple inversion, the obloquy as another ritual. No equivalent exists of the TLS or the LRB, of L’Indice or of the books pages of the New Republic, even of the dull ones of Die Zeit: truly sustained, discriminating engagement with a work of fiction, of ideas or history has become rare.
It was not always like this. The culture of the Fourth Republic and the early years of the Fifth, when political divisions were stronger and conflict within and between journals was livelier, involved much more genuine argument and criticism than can be found today. Cahiers du cinéma is a striking case in point. What is it now? Another commercial magazine in Colombani’s stable, that could be mistaken on the news-stands for Elle. If French cinema itself has not fallen as far, this is mainly due to the continuing flow of works from its original transformers: Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol are still as active as when they began. As for its contemporary output, the one film France has successfully exported in recent years, Amélie, is kitsch sickly enough to make even Hollywood squirm.
The current French scene cannot, of course, be reduced to its least appealing expressions. No mere inventory of failings could capture the uneven realities of a society in motion; other features and forces have yet to be considered. It is also true that all inter-temporal comparisons are subject to distortion and selective illustration. In the case of France, still haunted by the assured regency of the General, perhaps more so than elsewhere. But the present unease is not a chimera, and requires explanation. What lies behind the apparent subsidence of institutions, ideas, forms, standards? An obvious first hypothesis would be that the life of what was once the ‘French exception’, that is, all those ways in which this society and its culture escaped from the mediocre routines of the Atlantic ecumene surrounding it, has gradually been squeezed out of the country by two unstoppable forces: the worldwide advance of neo-liberalism, and the rise of English as a universal language. Both have certainly struck at the foundations of traditional conceptions of France. Historically, neither right nor left, however passionately divided in other ways, ever trusted the market as an organising principle of social order: laissez-faire is a French expression that was always foreign to French reality. Even today, so deep is suspicion of it that here, uniquely, the contemporary term ‘neo-liberal’, with all its negative connotations, has little currency, as if it were redundant: ‘liberal’ alone remains enough, for a still considerable range of opinion, to indicate the odium. The Gleichschaltung of Western economic arrangements that began in the era of Thatcher and Reagan was thus bound to bear especially painfully on a national inheritance of economic intervention and social protection, common to the Fourth and Fifth Republics alike.
Coinciding with the economic pressure of deregulated financial markets, and often experienced as simply its cultural dimension, came the victory of English as the irresistible global medium of business, science and intellectual exchange. For the smaller countries of Northern Europe – Benelux and Scandinavia – this merely confirmed a widespread bilingualism. The political and intellectual elites of the Federal Republic had always been so deeply in thrall to the United States, as the country’s saviour from a discreditable past, that the postwar pretensions of German were small. Italians have never imagined their language as of much moment to anyone but themselves. France was in a completely different situation. French had once been the common tongue of the Enlightenment, spoken by upper classes across the continent, sometimes even – Prussia, Russia – preferred to their own. It remained the standard idiom of diplomacy in the 19th century. It was still the principal medium of the European bureaucracy of the Community, down to the 1990s. Long identified with the idea of French civilisation – somewhat more than just a culture – it was a language with a sense of its own universality.
The intellectual fireworks of the trente glorieuses, spraying aloft and exploding far beyond the borders of France, sustained this notion. But the conditions that produced them depended on the training of an immensely self-assured, spiritually – often also practically – monoglot elite, in the Ecole Normale and the key Parisian lycées that formed generation after generation of talents within an intense, hothouse world. The rise of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, founded only in 1945, to become the nursery of high-fliers in politics and business (Pompidou was the last normalien to rule the country) had already tended to shift privileged education in a more technocratic direction. Then, after 1968, university and school reforms followed the pattern elsewhere: broadening access to education, without the resources necessary to maintain the standards of the narrower system.
Democratisation on the cheap inevitably undermined the morale and cohesion of a national institution that had been the pride of the Third Republic. The prestige of the instituteur plummeted; curricula were restlessly rejigged and degraded, the average lycéen now getting only a wretched smattering of French classics; private schools spread to take up the slack. This is a familiar story, which could be told of virtually every Western society. Overdetermining it in France were the brutal blows to cultural self-esteem from the invasion of English, through the circuits of business, entertainment and journalism. In the past two decades, the proportion of French films screened every year has dropped from a half to a third: at present 60 per cent are American. Le Monde now distributes a suitable selection from the New York Times at weekends. One of the most important props of national identity is under acute stress. In these conditions, some degree of disintegration in intellectual performance was to be expected.
But while economic and cultural pressures from the Anglosphere have imposed increasing constraints on a wide range of French traditions and institutions, political changes within French society have also been critical in bringing the country to its present low waters. Here an obvious coincidence strikes the eye. De Gaulle presided over the apogee of France’s postwar revival. His rule culminated in the explosion of May-June 1968. A year later he was gone. But by then the social energies released in that crisis, racing to the verge of upheaval, had been defeated. No comparable elan has ever reappeared. Ever since, on this reading, France has been sunk in the long post-partum depression of a stillborn revolution – what should have been the turning point of its modern history that, as in 1848, failed to turn.
Seductive though such a conjecture may seem, the actual sequence of events was more complicated. Although the immediate revolutionary thrust of 1968 was broken, the energies behind it were not extinguished overnight. Politically speaking, for a time most of them flowed into more conventional channels of the left. The early 1970s saw a rapid growth in the membership of the Communist Party, the reunification of the Socialist Party, and in 1972 their agreement – seeming to bury Cold War divisions – on a Common Programme. Although Giscard narrowly won the presidency in 1974, polls indicated that the legislative elections scheduled for the autumn of 1978 would give a clear-cut victory to the left, creating the first Socialist-Communist government since the war, on a platform repudiating capitalism and calling for sweeping nationalisations of banks and industries.
It was this prospect, unleashing something close to panic on the right, that precipitated the real break in the intellectual and political history of postwar France. Mobilisation to stop the spectre of Marxism making its entry into the Hôtel Matignon was rapid, radical and comprehensive. The noisiest shots in the campaign were fired by former gauchiste intellectuals, launched by the media as the Nouveaux Philosophes between 1975 and 1977, warning of the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism and its theoretical ancestry. If a straight line could be drawn from Engels to Yezhov, would the French be mad enough to let Marchais and Mitterrand extend it into their own homes? Packaged under lurid titles – La Cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes, La Barbarie à visage humain – and patronised by the Elysée, the message received timely reinforcement from the French translation of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1976. Lacking much scholarly tradition of Sovietology, France had long lagged behind the US, UK or Germany in public awareness of the detail of Stalin’s regime: what was common knowledge elsewhere during the Cold War could come as a revelation to le tout-Paris during détente.
For a brief period Solzhenitsyn could thus exercise, as a local admirer was to put it, the ‘moral magistracy’ traditionally accorded by the French to one of their own great writers: a role that expired when his disobliging opinions of the West and other inconveniences came to light. But while it lasted, the effect was considerable, helping to put BHL and his fellow thinkers into orbit. Then, in the midst of the mounting Communist scare, the PCF itself allowed its opponents a sigh of relief by suddenly ditching its alliance with the PS, for fear of becoming a junior partner in it, and so destroying any chance of the left winning a majority in the National Assembly. By 1981, when Mitterrand finally won the presidency, the Common Programme was a thing of the past, and the Party a spent force. The left gained the epaulettes of office after it had lost the battle of ideas.
For the uncertainties of the late 1970s had galvanised into being an ‘anti-totalitarian’ front that would dominate intellectual life for the next two decades. The Russian sage and the Nouveaux Philosophes were only the advance criers of much stronger, more durable forces set in train in those years. In 1977, Raymond Aron – who had just joined L’Express, to be able to intervene more actively in politics – was preparing a new journal, Commentaire, to defend the Fifth Republic against what appeared to be the deadly threat of a Socialist-Communist regime coming to power on a well-nigh revolutionary programme. By the time the first number of the journal appeared, on the eve of the elections of March 1978, there had occurred the ‘divine surprise’ of the rupture between the PCF and PS. Nevertheless, as he explained in a formidable opening essay, ‘Incertitudes françaises’, there was good reason for continuing apprehension and vigilance. The factors that had made France so unstable and prone to violent upheavals in the 19th century – the lack of any generally accepted principle of legitimacy; peasant acceptance of any regime that left the gains of 1789 on the land intact; the powder-keg role of Paris – all these might indeed have passed away in the prosperous, industrialised democracy of Pompidou and Giscard. But the depth and predictable length of the economic crisis that began in the early 1970s, when world recession had set in, was underestimated by the French, while – even with the recent fortunate division of the left – French socialism had not yet cast off all maximalist temptations. If the PS were still to pursue PCF voters and bring Communists into government, ‘France will live through years of perhaps revolutionary, perhaps despotic, turmoil.’
Commentaire went on to become the anchor journal of the liberal right, distinguished not only by its intellectual avoirdupois, but also by its international horizons – a function in part of its close connections, under the direction of Raymond Barre’s chef de cabinet, with functionaries, politicians and businessmen, as well as the academy. Two years later it was joined, and soon outpaced, by a partner in the liberal centre. Le Débat, launched in a sleeker format by Pierre Nora under the auspices of Gallimard, had a more ambitious agenda. Nora opened the journal with a programme for intellectual reform. In the past, French culture, steeped in humanist traditions, had been dominated by an ideal of rhetoric that had led from the role of the instituteur to the cult of the great writer, and had permitted every kind of ideological extravagance. Now, however, the legitimacy of the intellectual lay in positive knowledge certified by the competent institutions – essentially, the university. This change could not do away with the agonistic tensions inherent in intellectual life, but it confronted intellectuals with a new set of tasks: not only to promote democracy in society at large, but to practise it within the sphere of thought itself, as a ‘republic in letters’. The aim of the new journal would thus be to organise what was still a rarity in France, genuine debate. The ground for that had been cleared by the demise of the three major schemas for understanding history operative since the 18th century. The ideologies of Restoration, of Progress and of Revolution were now all equally dead, leaving the road open at last for the modern social sciences. Le Débat would stand for ‘information, quality, pluralism, openness and truth’, and against every kind of irresponsibility and extremism.
Addressing the perennial French query, ‘Que peuvent les intellectuels?’, this manifesto did not touch directly on politics, beyond indicating that a ‘complete democracy’ was to be found in the United States, not in France. When Mitterrand took the presidency a year later, Nora struck a cautious note, stressing the personal character of his victory. Although not suspect of any tenderness towards totalitarianism, would this former ally of the Communists draw the necessary consequences of the ‘great change of mentality in the past four years that has turned the image of the Soviet regime upside down’, and adopt the requisite foreign policy to confront the principal enemy? These were concerns shared by Esprit, a journal that had once been the voice of an anti-colonial and neutralist Catholic left, but on the retirement in 1976 of its postwar editor, Jean-Marie Domenach, had repositioned itself as a front-line fighter in the anti-totalitarian struggle. In these years, as Nora would later note, Commentaire, Le Débat and Esprit formed a common axis of what would have elsewhere been called Cold War liberalism, each with its own inflexion and constituency.
Of the three, Le Débat was the central creation. Not simply as the house journal of Gallimard, with resources beyond those of any rival, but because it represented a real modernisation of styles and themes in French intellectual life. Extremely well edited – in time Nora turned over its day-to-day running to Marcel Gauchet, a transfuge from the Socialisme ou Barbarie wing of the far left – the journal devoted its issues to a generally temperate exploration of three main areas of concern, history, politics and society, with frequent special numbers or features on a wide range of contemporary topics: the biological sciences, the visual arts, social security, the institutions of heritage, postmodernism and more. If it was less international in horizon than it originally set out to be, it was rarely parochial. It was never an impartial forum for objective debates, as its prospectus had suggested, but it would have been a duller affair had it been. It was, on the contrary, an urbane machine de guerre.
BBehind its political project stood one commanding figure. Nora’s brother-in-law was the historian François Furet, whose Penser la révolution française – published at the political crossroads of 1978 – had in no time made him the country’s most influential interpreter of the French Revolution. Like Nora from a wealthy banking family, Furet had been formed in the postwar Communist Party at the height of the Cold War, when it included a group of future historians – among them, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Maurice Agulhon, Jacques Ozouf – to rival its British counterpart. In France, too, it was the XXth Party Congress in Moscow and the Hungarian Revolt that broke up this nursery of talents. Furet left the Party in 1956, and while pursuing – initially fairly conventional – historical research, became a regular contributor to France-Observateur, the independent left weekly that was the principal organ of opposition to the Algerian War, and to De Gaulle’s rule in the Fifth Republic. In 1965 he coauthored, with another brother-in-law, an illustrated history of the French Revolution designed for a general readership, which argued that it had been ‘blown off course’ (dérapée) in 1792 by a series of tragic accidents, destroying the liberal order at which it had originally aimed, and ushering in Jacobin dictatorship and the Terror instead.
Thirteen years later, Penser la révolution française was a more potent proposition: an all-out assault, invoking Solzhenitsyn and the current political conjuncture, on the catechism of Marxist interpretations of the Revolution. Furet offered instead the insights of two liberal-conservative Catholic thinkers, Tocqueville in the mid-19th century and Augustin Cochin in the early 20th, as the keys to a real understanding of the ‘conceptual core’ of the Revolution: not the interplay of social classes, but the dynamics of a political discourse that essentially exchanged the abstractions of popular will for those of absolutist power, and in doing so generated the terrifying force of the new kind of sociability at work in the revolutionary clubs of the period. Delivered with great polemical verve, this verdict led, logically enough, to a pointed taking of distance from the Annales school – its facile notion of mentalités ‘often a mere Gallic substitute for Marxism and psychoanalysis’ – as no more capable of grappling with the upheaval of 1789 and what followed. Needed instead was an ‘intellectualist history that constructs its data explicitly from conceptually posed questions’.
Furet’s major application of this credo, which appeared in 1988, was a large political history of France from Turgot to Gambetta, conceived as the playing out over a century of the explosive dialectic of principles released by the attack on the Ancien Régime. Whereas in his earlier writing he had maintained that ‘the Revolution was over’ with Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1798, he now extended its lifespan to the final fading away of monarchism as an active force under the Third Republic, in 1879. Only then were republic and nation finally reconciled, and the original goals of 1789 realised in a stable parliamentary order. The tormented path from starting point to terminus, threading its way through the commotions of 1815, 1830, 1848, 1851 and 1871, was to be traced as a working out of the tensions and contradictions of the first historical experiment in creating a democracy.
The motor of Furet’s history is essentially a genealogy of ideas. But he was not an intellectual historian in the sense that Pocock or Skinner has given the term. Although he was capable of acute insights into thinkers who interested him, there is scarcely any detailed textual scrutiny of a given body of writing in his work, and no attention to languages of discourse in the Cambridge tradition. Ideas are treated rather as stylised forces, each of them embodied in particular individuals, around whom a narrative of high political conflicts is woven. Furet was also fascinated by ceremonials as the public symbolisation of ideas, and La France révolutionnaire 1770-1880 is studded with set-piece descriptions of them, from the coronation of Napoleon to the funeral of Thiers. At the other pole of his imagination were personalities, and here he had an outstanding gift for mordant characterisation. Out of this trio of elements – ideas: rituals: persons – Furet produced an unfailingly elegant, incisive story of the making of modern France, largely cleansed of its social and economic dimensions, and all but completely insulated from its imperial record abroad, that issued into an utterly focused contemporary political conclusion. He was not a great historian of the calibre of Bloch or Braudel. But he was an exceptional force in French public life in ways they were not.
For his historical work was part of a larger enterprise. No modern historian has been so intensely political. There was a virtually seamless unity between his work on the past and his interventions in the present, where he was an institutional and ideological organiser without equal. He owed that role to his person, a mixture of the dashing and the reserved. There was, a foreign colleague once observed, a hint of Jean Gabin in his taciturn charm. As early as 1964, he was orchestrating the merger of a declining France-Observateur with a more right-wing stable of journalists from L’Express, and picking the necessary editor to ensure that the periodical to be created out of the fusion would have the correct politics. As Jean Daniel, who still presides over the Nouvel Observateur – for four decades the unfailing voice of centre-left proprieties – recollected 25 years later, ‘I will not forget the pact we made; the choice in favour of his controversial theses on the Revolution and on Marxism which he proposed to me; and the surprise on his face at finding me an accomplice already so primed and determined to be at his side. I want to record the debt I owe him, and his family of thought, for the real intellectual security they gave me.’ This disarming confession, from one of the country’s most powerful journalists – Daniel even adds, in all innocence: ‘One day we all found ourselves, without knowing it, running behind Augustin Cochin because Furet was pushing us in the back’ – could have been echoed by many another kingpin of the Parisian establishment in the years to come. The network of Furet’s placements was eventually referred to in the press simply as ‘the galaxy’.
If the Nouvel Observateur gave Furet a central base in the media, his control of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, which he helped to create out of Braudel’s old Sixième Section, and of which he became director in 1977, put him in command of the most strategic institution of the academy, bringing a research elite together across disciplines in the Rockefeller-funded building on the Boulevard Raspail, freed from the teaching burdens and administrative tares of the French university – ‘like going to the cinema without paying for a ticket’, as he cheerfully put it. The launch of Commentaire and Le Débat, in both of which he was active from the start, supplied him with flanking positions in the world of journals. Then, after Mitterrand’s accession to power, he helped create in 1982 the Fondation Saint-Simon, an alliance of insider intellectuals and industrialists formed to resist any socialist temptations in the new regime, and guide it towards a more up-to-date understanding of market and state. Bankrolled by big business – the boss of the Saint-Gobain conglomerate was a moving spirit along with Furet, who acquired a seat on the board of one of his companies – the foundation operated as a political think-tank, weaving ties between academics, functionaries, politicians; organising seminars; publishing policy papers; and, last but not least, hosting dinners every month for Schmidt, Barre, Giscard, Chirac, Rocard, Fabius and other like-minded statesmen, at which common ideas were thrashed out over appropriate fare.
Two years later, Furet set up – or was granted – the Institut Raymond Aron, as a committed outpost of anti-totalitarian reflection, of which he became president, and which in due course would be integrated into the fold of the EHESS itself. Then in 1985 he extended his range with a transatlantic connection, taking up a seasonal position with the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he secured financial backing from the Olin Foundation to pursue research on the American and French Revolutions. The bicentennial of 1789 was looming, and Furet voiced fears that this would become an occasion for the Mitterrand regime, in which Communist ministers still sat, to organise an official consecration of the mythologies of Jacobinism and the Year II of the Republic. With his colleague Mona Ozouf, he set to work to make sure this did not happen.
On the eve of the potentially risky year, a huge – 1200-page – Dictionnaire critique de la révolution française appeared, covering ‘events’, ‘actors’, ‘institutions’ and ‘ideas’. Its hundred entries, written by some twenty carefully selected contributors, supplied a comprehensive rebuttal of left-wing legends and traditional misconceptions of the founding episode of modern democracy. The overwhelming impact of this admirably designed and executed compendium of moderate scholarship removed any danger of neo-Jacobin festivities in 1989. The fall of Communism in the East offered further, conclusive vindication of the original impulse of the Revolution, against its ensuing perversions. When the bicentennial arrived, Furet was the unquestioned intellectual master of ceremonies, as France paid homage to the inspiring principles – duly clarified – of 1789, and turned its back at last on the atrocities of 1794.
To dispatch the wrong past, and recover the right one, was part and parcel of the country’s overdue arrival in the safe harbour of a modern democracy. In tandem with the Dictionnaire critique, Furet coauthored in the same year La République du centre for the Fondation Saint-Simon, subtitled: ‘The End of the French Exception’. After the absurd nationalisations of its first phase, Mitterrand’s regime had put paid to socialism by embracing the market and its financial disciplines in 1983, and then buried anti-clericalism by bowing to the demonstrations in favour of Catholic schools in 1984. In doing so, it had finally made the country a normal democratic society, purged of radical doctrines and theatrical conflicts. France had now found its equilibrium in a sober centre. So entire did liberal triumph seem that on the tenth anniversary of his journal in 1990, Nora – rejoicing that the ‘leaden cape of Gaullo-Communism was now lifted from the nation’ – could announce with Hegelian satisfaction: ‘The spirit of Le Débat has become the spirit of the epoch.’
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