The French Disconnection

Christian Liewig/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

French President Francois Hollande at Elysee Palace on July 16, 2015 in Paris, France. 

This book review appears in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

A Divided Republic: Nation, State, and Citizenship in Contemporary France
By Emile Chabal
314 pp. Cambridge University Press $99.99

French politics can be bewildering to outsiders. The state seems all-powerful. The government consumes a larger share of national income than in most other countries, and many large corporations are partly state-owned. Yet as powerful as the French state is, it is periodically brought to its knees by popular protest: In 1995, demonstrators successfully resisted pension reform, and in 2006, young marchers thwarted a minor innovation in the labor code, while voters refused to approve a revision of the European constitutional treaty backed by both major parties. The power of the legislature to check the will of the executive is much weaker in France than in the United States, yet the last three French presidencies—one on the left, two on the right—have failed to produce any major reforms despite a widespread sentiment that change is urgently needed. How can we explain the paradox of a strong state that is unable to enact necessary reforms?

In A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France, Emile Chabal, currently a chancellor’s fellow in history at the University of Edinburgh, proposes that we look beyond the policy arena to the political culture. What he sees there is an opposition between two traditions, one “republican” and statist in orientation, the other “liberal” and focused on civil society. (American readers may be amused, not to say confused, by the association of “republican” with strong central government and “liberal” with society and the market.) Republicans, in Chabal’s telling, insist that citizens must abandon all “particularistic” allegiances (pertaining to religion, ethnicity, and economic interest) when they enter the “universalistic” public arena. For republicans, the state shapes culture and society, especially through the public schools. By contrast, liberals accord primacy to civil society in shaping the state. Republicanism, as we will see, is therefore hostile to multiculturalism, whereas liberalism tolerates and even encourages it.

The republican-liberal opposition came into being between 1975 and 1985 in response to three convergent changes: in the economy, the end of Les Trente Glorieuses (the “thirty glorious years” of rapid economic growth that followed the end of World War II); in politics, the “implosion of Gaullism” (which epitomized the tradition of the strong state) and the inability of the left-wing government elected in 1981 to effect radical economic change; and in intellectual life, the abrupt disappearance of once-pervasive neo-Marxist influences. “The grand ideologies which had governed post-war French politics—Gaullism, socialism, and communism—began to fade,” Chabal writes, and what emerged to fill the vacuum was a “neo-republican consensus.”

But exactly how extensive and how republican was this alleged consensus? Much of the book is taken up with showing how elements of the center-left and radical left coalesced around a certain idea of republicanism after 1968. Former radicals such as Régis Debray, who left France to join Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, and Alain Finkielkraut, who had been an extreme-left militant in the 1960s, ultimately found common ground with older centrists such as the historian Pierre Nora. Differences nevertheless remained.

“The republic,” the statesman Adolphe Thiers once said, “is the regime that divides us the least”—ironically, since Thiers, the scourge of the Paris Commune and the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Communards who were summarily executed at the Mur des Fédérés in 1871, was one of the most divisive figures in French history, and “republic” was once synonymous with “revolution.” By the late 1870s, however, the French ship of state, launched on the hazardous seas of revolutionary political upheaval in 1789, finally “came into port”—to borrow an image from historian François Furet. The founding of the Third Republic, with Thiers as its first president, marked the point at which nearly everyone in France accepted the idea that a return to monarchy was out of the question and the country would henceforth be governed by a parliamentary democracy. It would take another 30 years for the French to agree on the separation of church and state and the secularization of public education.

These three principles—parliamentary democracy based on universal male suffrage, strict separation of church and state, and the use of the public schools to propagate “universalistic” Enlightenment values—constituted the original “republican consensus.” What Chabal calls the “neo-republican consensus” is not really a consensus at all but a partisan claim that these century-old principles can provide a blueprint for resolving today’s social conflicts over economics, education, and religion.

The original republican consensus left unresolved the relation of state to market. Hence from the 1880s to the 1980s, the political contest between left and right turned essentially on the extent to which the state should attempt to regulate or dominate private capital. As Chabal sees it, the abortive revolution of May ’68 marked the beginning of the end for leftist hopes that capitalism could be reined in by an assertive state. The election of a Socialist government in 1981 only confirmed the need to recognize explicitly, as Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin would later say, that “the state cannot do everything” and must therefore accept a compromise with private capital. Intellectuals in the 1980s thus imagined a “centrist republic” in which radical economic transformation was no longer a possibility. The historian Pierre Nora edited a seven-volume magnum opus entitled Les Lieux de Mémoire, which banished revolutionary dreams to the “realm of memory.” Out of this meditation on France’s contentious past came what Chabal portrays as a neo-republican model for the country’s future: The neo-republican state would wield reduced power in the economic sphere but retain its cultural supremacy.

For former leftists such as Finkielkraut and Debray, this neo-republican model held an undeniable attraction. They nevertheless retained a critical distance. Although prepared, along with their more centrist colleagues, to enter into an entente cordiale with capitalism, these erstwhile radicals feared an erosion of the cultural basis of the state. Debray, for instance, attacked the “cultural revolution” symbolized by the vast street demonstrations of May ’68 as the precursor to a soul-sapping “hedonistic … consumerist society.” Finkielkraut stressed the importance of the republican school even more than the centrists did. For him, the school was the “sanctuary” where “secularism, positivism, and progress” could be defended against the “perils of post-68 modernity” and corrosive individualism. The universalistic concept of French citizenship depended, in Finkielkraut’s view, on a cultural consensus around Enlightenment values—a consensus threatened by a new and worrisome multiculturalism. The republican school was not only the fortress of French culture and therefore of the very idea of the nation, but also the champion of a value that has come to occupy an increasingly central place in neo-republican discourse, namely, laïcité, which approximately means secularism.

Laïcité is not an easy concept to translate outside the French context. The strict separation of church and state that laïcité entails was originally defined by a 1905 law that marked an enduring truce in the Hundred Years’ War between the Catholic Church and the first three French republics. The law banished religious teaching orders from the public schools and instituted moral instruction based on strictly secular principles. But the arrival in France of millions of non-Christian immigrants in the postcolonial era reopened the conflict between the state and religion in unexpected ways, with a new adversary—Islam—replacing Catholicism as the focal point of republican anxieties.

The latent tension between Islam and neo-republicanism erupted in a 1989 controversy over the wearing of headscarves in the public schools. Neo-republican guardians of the “school as sanctuary” were quick to insist that the 1905 law excluded the expression of student religious affiliations within the walls of the temple of republican culture. In fact, the law insisted only on the neutrality of the state, not on suppressing citizen expression. But this and numerous similar controversies transformed neo-republicanism into a fighting faith. Any illusion of consensus soon disappeared. Indeed, the promotion of laïcité to the rank of central republican value allowed the extreme-right Front National, once considered a party outside the republican orbit, to recast its opposition to immigration as a defense of republican values, on the grounds that Islam is doctrinally opposed to the exclusion of religion from the public sphere and therefore inherently “un-republican.”

The mobilization of neo-republican ideology against minority religious and cultural communities inspired a “liberal” response. In 2002, the French historian of ideas Daniel Lindenberg launched an attack on the neo-republicans, calling them “neo-reactionaries.” For Lindenberg, if plural subcultures existed in civil society, it was wrong to attempt to suppress them in the schools by enforcing conformity to a single “republican” culture. The republican state would have to adapt to the actually existing pluralistic society it governed rather than vice versa.

Rather than oppose neo-republicanism and liberalism as Chabal does, however, it might be more accurate to describe the liberals as dissidents within the neo-republican camp. Both sides agree, for example, that there are limits to state intervention in markets. Although the liberal tradition in France is usually described as weak, Chabal overstates its weakness when he says that it “appeared irremediably lost in a French political landscape already overpopulated with grand ideologies.” Liberals such as Thierry de Montbrial promoted the teaching of market-friendly neoclassical economics in key republican institutions such as the École Polytechnique. The sharp distinction between neo-republican and liberal discourse also breaks down when we look at where adherents of each camp published their ideas. For example, the journal Le Débat, which Chabal labels “liberal,” was founded by the same Pierre Nora who played a crucial role in the neo-republican revival.

Indeed, as Chabal disarmingly concedes, “the republican and liberal revivals had common intellectual roots.” For example, Pierre Rosanvallon, one of the authors of “the centrist republic” thesis, could equally well be classified as “liberal.” Now a professor at the Collège de France, he began his career as a trade-union strategist, which “helps to explain his interest in … pragmatic reform” by way of civil society institutions. Once an advocate of worker self-management, he has developed a sophisticated critique of the welfare state, emphasizing the need for “intermediary bodies” to bridge the gap between state and citizen and allow for greater adaptability to the variety of individual needs. He has also proposed reforms intended to bring competing ideas and viewpoints within the institutions of the state—a “liberalization” of the Republic itself.

Chabal’s survey of contemporary French political culture is patient and heroically comprehensive. He uncovers the crisscrossing genealogies that underlie the sometimes vociferous surface polemics. In a compendium like this, extreme compression is mandatory, along with a certain schematization that can distort some of the more distinctive voices in the choir. Students of French political thought will nevertheless remain in Chabal’s debt for this careful and thorough work of reconstruction and analysis. 

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