Family Stories

Patrice Higonnet

  • The Past in French History by Robert Gildea
    Yale, 416 pp, £30.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 300 05799 7
  • La Gauche survivra-t-elle aux socialistes? by Jean-Marie Colombani
    Flammarion, 213 pp, frs 105.00, March 1994, ISBN 2 08 066953 2

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)’.

Heady pronouncements; but Gildea’s book is in fact a sensible account of what the French have for some time called ‘political families’. As we know, French politics, like French high culture, emphasises the abstract over the empirical, and the imagined past in France has been a constant point of reference for judging a shapeless present. Politically speaking, the present needs to justify itself by extending or reversing the paths followed in the past. In 1792, the Place Louis XV becomes the Place de la Révolution only to become the Place de la Concorde under Louis-Philippe; Napoleon III makes up for Waterloo in the Crimea and at Solferino; the Third Republic undoes the shame of the defeat at Sedan; de Gaulle erases the humiliation of 1940; and so on. All of Paris is hallowed ground, a lieu de mémoire whose coding is universally understood: right-wing parades go down the Champs Elysées, from the tomb of the unknown soldier towards the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre; left-wing parades stretch from the site of the Bastille to the Place de la République.

Each side has its heroes. Some of these are more or less invented, like the Revolution’s martyred children, Barra and Viala (who died in its service, though not as gloriously as their stories have it). Others are real but sometimes fall by the wayside: Louis XIV and the great Napoleon are not well liked today. Others still are much fought over: in 1885, Jules Grévy vetoed a ‘rue Saint-Just’, and only the Communists now like Robespierre (the Metro station which bears his name is in the capital’s ‘red belt’, at Montreuil, just beyond the city limits). A number of heroes have proved both durable and ecumenical: even the Communists have from time to time laid claim to Joan of Arc’s saintly mantle, and everyone warms to Bayard, Pasteur or, for that matter, Dom Pérignon and Brillat-Savarin. Very curious also is the current apotheosis of de Gaulle: once a rebel or a crypto-fascist, depending on where you came from, he has now become for both Right and Left the founding father of the modern democratic polity.

Gildea’s book is an excellent introduction to these French family stories. He begins with the myth of Revolution, describing the tribulations of pacific, liberal, constitutional democrats who have had to function in a context born of nationalism and violence. He does very well also with Bonapartism, which he presents as an effort to reconcile past divisions: Napoleon III flies the tricolour of the Revolution but protects the Pope’s dominion; de Gaulle, a Catholic nationalist, defends Republican legality and accepts the Common Market. Most interesting is Gildea’s treatment of such tangential matters as the cult of national grandeur, or the difficulties of legitimising regionalism in a post-Revolutionary context where the national alone was truly legitimate and progressive.

Gildea’s nostalgic theme strikes a responsive chord, now that the memory industry is so hard at work. We want both to remember and forget our century’s horrible vagaries. Similarly, the unprecedented rhythm of technological innovation in an age of sound-bites prompts the fear that we will forget, not just our collective mistakes but pretty much everything. Gildea is absolutely right to see 19th-century French politics as an ensemble of accounts which everyone knew by heart, stories that had the power to absorb and explain any and all events. Having been confirmed by the farcical anti-revolution of 1848-52, the myth of 1789, for example, went on to inform the history of the Paris Commune of 1871, whose travails were interpreted by the Right as the detested resurgence of Parisian revolutionism, and, by the Left, as another great if unsuccessful moment in the irresistible unfolding of libertarianism. For the Left the most untoward events (like the Stalin-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 or the Budapest uprising of 1956) were like the messenger’s bad news which forces a redirection, or even a reversal, of the narrative, but not its abandonment.

At the same time, parts of Gildea’s argument remain undeveloped. Why have the French aristocratically defined their present as a mere extension of a more glorious past. One answer lies in Gildea’s unexplained but correct assumption that 1789 is the obvious starting-point of the story. By its sheer weight, the Revolution long determined what came afterwards, the magnitude of the Revolutionary torrent, as contemporaries liked to describe it, guaranteeing the lasting relevance of this great founding trauma: in a single decade, the French destroyed the most ancient of the Old Regimes, passed through parliamentary monarchy and bourgeois republicanism in 1789-93; laid the groundwork of the gulag in the Great Terror of 1794; and concluded with the birth in 1799 of modern authoritarian politics. Which is to say that the Revolution was like a flare that lit up the political landscape of the next two centuries. A second cause of its durability is the stable setting of post-Revolutionary French politics after 1800. In contrast to Germany, Britain or America, whose societies were being rapidly transformed by trade and manufacturing, France kept the political culture she happened to have at the beginning of the 19th century.

The country’s political traditions were Saussurian, so to speak, made up of post-Revolutionary signs which largely made sense in terms of other signs that pointed in the same direction. The angry exchanges between curés and instituteurs in forty thousand villages were not just inherited, but were renewed, in an interplay of traditions to which Gildea gives insufficient space: Augustin Cochin, for example, is mentioned, but rather flatly, as a turn-of-the-century conservative historian who likened the leftists of his day to the Jacobins of 1789, a vertical relationship that Gildea might have extended to include a reference to François Furet, who has recently revived Cochin’s anti-revolutionary work. Nor does Gildea situate Cochin horizontally, as it were, in relationship to the narratives of the Left, which is too had because his first purpose was to defy the Republicans by harnessing Durkheim’s left-wing sociology to his own conservative, historicising purpose.

Generally speaking, the issue of French memory is more involved than Gildea allows. The abstract discourse of French politics was also intensely real. Its narratives provided not simply the stale rhetoric of national politics, but also created the thriving tropes that helped people make sense of their lives. Everyone understood what Danton and Robespierre stood for, both politically and humanly. Miraculously, history transformed the unavoidable drudgery of hopeless daily lives. French men and women of every kind were well able to read the universalist public metaphor of the Left and the traditionalist, familial metaphor of the Right. Immiserated French workers could use the memory of 1789 to feed their expectations of a final Grand Soir, of a lutte finale. And on the Right, when asked in extreme old age if the aristocracy of his youth in the 1820s had really been as Balzac described it, Thiers’s friend, Rémusat, replied that it had not – only to add that the frivolous French nobles of his youth had indeed become more serious once they had read the novels of this great reactionary genius. This is not to say that political myths are idle constructs or untruths – by involving the imagination they bring us back to knowledge: knowing about the Terror of 1794 informs our view of Stalinism which informs our view of the Revolution. Like metaphors generally, political families are devices ‘for seeing something in terms of something else’, and for seeing that something better than we otherwise could. French political language transformed experience poetically: in the 1830s, a mundane tear of the classes laborieuses might thus become a detestation of the classes dangereuses.

Les Morts qui parlent: so runs the title of a political novel of the 1890s by Melchior de Voguë. But what words do the dead speak? Here is another problem for Gildea. A few years ago, Raoul Girardet chose to describe the legacy of French political experience quite intelligently in terms of the various myths of unity, the Golden Age, and the Leader. But Gildea follows this suggestive lead only fitfully. He chronicles Protestant traditions in excellent detail, for example; but he does not have much to say about the Jews, whom Pierre Birnbaum recently described as ‘Les fous de la République’. One would like to know more also about the para-political myths of rural and urban life (George Sand and Flaubert) or the Walter Benjamin myth of Paris as the capital of the 19th century.

Gildea ends his account on a happy note: French political myths of both Left and Right are, he thinks, alive and well. Indeed, French political traditions have, in his view, been recently improved: Bonapartism in its Gaullist guise has finally become democratically respectable, and socialism is also thriving, even if it ‘has undoubtedly lost its way since it ceased to claim the values of Jaurès’. It’s not that people are forgetting, it’s just that some events, ‘far from being eminently forgettable, are so painful that attempts are made to repress them, attempts which, given their power and the interest of some parties in commemorating them or using them to deprive their enemies of legitimacy, are doomed to failure’.

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, in his intelligent survey of British and Continental socialism, Jean-Marie Colombani thinks the opposite. For the rédacteur-en-chef of Le Monde. ‘ideas, values and concepts’ are today moving from one political camp to another. How conflicts will crystallise, and which idea will end up in what camp seems to him quite moot. And rightly so. Metaphors thrive on contradiction, but from time to time they also decompose from sheer irrelevance. It is a striking fact that the two most powerful French myths of Right and Left (Catholicism and proletarian revolutionism) have simultaneously collapsed before our very eyes. Left and Right subsist, of course, in Paris especially, but often as clientelistic groupings whose first function is to determine who gets what state job.

Similarly, the overarching myths of Frenchness that encompass memories of both Right and Left are, like Simone Signoret’s nostalgia, not what they used to be, even if the cult of a national, public space survives vestigially. The, grands projets are there to prove it: the Grand Louvre and the new Bibliothèque de France are much to be admired. But they are also cold, art-of-the-state machines, as troubling (symbolically) as they are ennobling. Much of French public life today seems faintly decentred. From 1789 to our own day, the French assumed their history to be the matrix of world history: 1789, 1848 and 1871 were not merely moments of the history of France, but also universal landmarks – Marx, a German Jew, and Tocqueville, a Norman noble, could agree on that if on nothing else. But the flow of historical energy between France and the world has been reversed. The terms of the debates in which the great issues of French public life are set today (multiculturalism, the widening scope of civil society, the nature of the French Rechtstaat) are borrowed from other, non-revolutionary polities. Symptomatically, after having in the past, like America, successfully absorbed millions of immigrants, the French today are unprecedentedly disturbed by both foreignness and foreigners, not excluding those closest to them; the argument for building Europe that they find most convincing is that it irrevocably fetters their feared German partners. Symptomatically again, France’s historical legacy is perhaps less strongly felt – and known – today than it has been since France was first invented, in part because it is impossible to sustain public memories without the complicity of public schools, but also because the post-Revolutionary myths which are Gildea’s subject have lost their mesmerising power. ‘La Révolution est finie’: it was premature for Barnave in 1791 and Bonaparte in 1799 to think so, but now that the demise of the Revolutionary myth has finally come to pass, the French are puzzled.

Their great historical task today is to renew a secular, revolutionary, Jacobinical and pristine definition of the Republican myth. It is important for themselves and for Europe that they should succeed. The coming alternative to a revivified Republican tradition is a kind of national populism. ‘Fascism with a human face’, a means of governance foreshadowed by figures as varied as Philippe de Villiers, Oliver North and Berlusconi. It matters to us all that French political traditions should continue to provide the answers they once did; but contrary to what Gildea believes, that does not seem to be on the cards today.