Partly because of the way it’s painted itself to the world through a long history of art, geopolitics, and run-of-the-mill tourism salesmanship — but also partly because of our entwined histories — Americans have drawn a number of caricatures of France. Coexistence between two or more of these caricatures seems impossible; each is its own nation, distinct from the others. This speaks to French culture’s complex nature, and also to its complicated history.
There’s the boho-chic France, of the Lost Generation and Shakespeare & Co., of the Left Bank and Gauloises, Beckett and Sartre. This is the France of self-serious art, which may have evolved over the generations but is, always, just so French.
There’s the French idolized by the wealthy, the France of the grand chateaux of the Rhone and Bordeaux, of 246 kinds of cheese, of the Bocuse d’Or and yellow-and-blue Provençal tablecloths.
There’s the France unable to defend itself, the France of surrender, just as bad at defending its 1998 World Cup win as it was the Maginot Line.
And there’s the newest caricature of France, held by a particular sort of person, who views it as a country single-handedly saved by the U.S. — twice — who used their opportunity at 20th Century prosperity to do ludicrous things with taxes while admitting way too many Muslims into the country.
There are more, I’m sure, but the point is clear: If these competing caricatures speak to the complexity of France, they also speak to our (Americans’) inability or unwillingness to genuinely understand the French. We do this at our own peril. While we may share a language and a distant history with the United Kingdom, we arguably have the most in common with the French.
That’s one lesson I learned from reading France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror (c2015, St. Martin’s Press). Its British author Jonathan Fenby was named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for his contributions towards British-French relations, but he emphasizes throughout the book a tension very familiar to students of the American situation: the tension between France’s stated ideals and the actual, lived experience of the French people.
As a nation, France carries the weight of the French Revolution, which went even further than the American one in declaring a country that’s supposed to work for everyone. Where we had liberty and justice for “all,” the French had liberty, equality, and fraternity (with many of the same demographic qualifiers as us.) The subsequent 230 years or so of French history can largely be seen as an ongoing fight over how to define those ideals — and a perpetual failure to live up to them, regardless of definition.
That said, the early years of post-Revolution France were actually defined by a more fundamental debate: given how quickly and violently the French Revolution devolved into excess, oppression, and terror, are those ideals even the right ones? Isn’t liberty just another word for licentiousness? Fraternity is a cruel joke when those claiming to be your brothers are willing to send you to the guillotine. Equality, as always, is a great thing to strive towards if you’re at the bottom of an unequal system but is something to be avoided at all costs if you currently sit at the top. Why would monarchists, the nobility, or the bourgeoisie want such a thing as equality?
Early on, the French Revolution created a legacy that some wanted to embrace or emulate through Republics or Communes, but that others wished to abandon or flee in the First and Second Empires, the Restoration, or the July Monarchy. Each sweeping political change was wrought through open violence and widespread demonstrations. But generally each was borne of a fundamentally positive attitude: the proud embrace of the French identity and a desire to shape the country into one whose greatness matched that pride.
Put otherwise, the basic struggle was to create a political system that matched the French people’s (or at least its leadership’s) conception of the country’s greatness, within competitive European geopolitics. Yet none fully addressed a competing domestic need, to create a country that worked for all people. Thus each shift to a new system can also be seen as an attempt to address the needs or desires of populations that were ignored by the preceding one.
For the last 70 years, the shifts have been (mostly) non-violent. The Fourth Republic, created at the end of World War II, yielded to the Fifth Republic after a constitutional crisis, but this was nothing like the events of 1789, 1830, 1848, or 1870. In other parts of the century, France’s struggle to address the legacy of its colonialism led to violence as both North African freedom fighters and reactionary colonists attacked French citizens and leadership. Just about everybody tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Students rioted. General strikes were called.
It all sounds so very French, doesn’t it?
For an American reader, the greatest benefit of Fenby’s book is the ability to see the deeper meaning behind all of these events. The France that Fenby describes is a fundamentally conservative one, which has followed each attempt at progressivism with an intense reaction. (Sound familar?) It’s one that struggles to reconcile this with the legacy of the Enlightenment, of the Revolution, of ground-breaking art and world-changing thought.
It’s one that struggles, today, with being the secondary economic power in the European Union behind its historic rival, Germany; one that struggles with the debate of what it means to be “French” in an increasingly pluralistic world, with the legacy of colonialism that brought non-white and non-Christian immigrants into the country; one that struggles to squeeze “liberty, equality, [and] fraternity” into the increasingly narrow space between modern terrorism and far-right European ethno-nationalism.
It is, above all, one roiled by “a determination to stick to an image of the French nation which had been outpaced by the changing world.”
- Fenby, Jonathan. France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War on Terror. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.