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The Idea of France

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A thoughtful new analysis of the importance of history in understanding national identity

Modern France-born in the fire of revolution-was founded on dreams of unity, of a society of equal and like individuals working together. Today, ethnic and religious groups assert their essential autonomy, and France is home to an astonishing variety of opinions and allegiances. Most ...
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Overview

A thoughtful new analysis of the importance of history in understanding national identity

Modern France-born in the fire of revolution-was founded on dreams of unity, of a society of equal and like individuals working together. Today, ethnic and religious groups assert their essential autonomy, and France is home to an astonishing variety of opinions and allegiances. Most commentators see today's multiethnic France as a new entity, something contrary to the accomplishments of the Revolution-but Pierre Birnbaum believes otherwise.

In this major work, France's leading political theorist shows that the clashing identities of different groups did not disappear in 1789, but, rather, persisted in a quieter way. He shows how today's debates over Arab immigrants and the National Front mirror eighteenth-century arguments between republicans and Catholics, state and Church. The result is a brilliantly argued examination of how the French have over two centuries invented and reinvented their nation and their national identity.
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Editorial Reviews

J.C. Buisson
A pertinent and original study of political ideas in France since the Revolution.
J. C. Busson
"A pertinent and original study of political ideas in France since the Revolution."
—J. C. Busson, Le Figaro
Library Journal
Scholars interested in the growing field of national and cultural identity studies will draw valuable lessons from the approach taken by Birnbaum (politics and philosophy, Sorbonne; The Jews of the Republic, LJ 9/1/96), one of France's leading political theorists. While on one level his book is a study of political ideas in France since the revolution, on another it is a demonstration of the centrality of history in understanding national identity. Birnbaum demonstrates how contemporary political debates in France over issues of multiculturalism, Americanization, and European integration must be understood within the centuries-old context of a persistent and continual clash among different groups. He explains how the major events of modern French history have relentlessly challenged ideas of pluralism and toleration and shows how over the course of history the internal views of what it means to be French have changed. Although as an intellectual historian Birnbaum draws heavily upon the ideas of theorists like Emmanuel Sieyes, Alexis de Tocqueville, Joseph de Maistre, Charles Maurras, and Johann Gottfried Herder, he also devotes ample attention to key political, social, and cultural events of the post-1968 period. This brilliant and engrossing book is recommended for academic collections and for scholars in French history and national identity studies. Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
First published in 1998 by Librairie Arth<`e>me Fayard as e/>, Birnbaum's fascinating study is now available to English readers. Birnbaum traces the intellectual trends, particularly the opposing currents that arise from the Catholic Church versus those of the Enlightenment, of today's France to roots in and preceding the French Revolution. He traces the development of these trends through the intervening centuries to explore their expression in the current political situation and the attitudes French people express towards issues that include foreigners, Americanization, and diversity. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
An account of modern French politics and society, from the distinguished Sorbonne philosopher Birnbaum (Jewish Destinies, 2000). La plus ça change, la plus la même chose no longer serves as a very good shorthand description of France, whose political identity is now in the midst of what may be its greatest transformation since the Revolution of 1789. Birnbaum makes clear that many of the polarities that have defined French politics for 200 years-Catholic vs. secular, aristocratic vs. egalitarian, royalist vs. republican, provincial vs. national, etc.-no longer apply in the present day. The carefully constructed ideal of the French citizen, for example, previously advanced to thwart the reactionaries of Church and Château, now finds itself attacked from the postmodernist circles of the Left (who find the idea of universal values problematic at best), the great masses of immigrant laborers (who do not aspire to the liberal traditions upon which the Republic was established), and the provincial natives (who feel betrayed by the globalist elites of Paris). The inevitable result is a fragmentation of French society into a plethora of small, distinct cells more reminiscent, in their clannishness and variety, of medieval duchies than a body politic. The xenophobic representatives National Front, who have received increased (though still limited) support in recent years, are more significant, in the author's view, as an expression of mass discontent with the political establishment than as a true resurgence of genuine right-wing sentiments. Although bleak in its outlines, the author's view is not without hope that France will be able to forge a new national identity foritself that will keep it from being swallowed by the federalism of a united Europe. An academic study that will be of some interest to lay readers, but likely to appeal mainly to specialists of European politics and history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809046508
  • Publisher: MacMillan Higher Education
  • Publication date: 9/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Pierre Birnbaum is a professor of politics and philosophy at the University of Paris I (the Sorbonne). He is the author of numerous books, several of which have been translated into English, including Jewish Destinies.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Solzhenitsyn in the Vendée 

On 25 September 1993, in the village of Lucs-sur-Boulogne, Alexander Solzhenitsyn paid vibrant homage to the uprising in the Vendée of 1793, unveiling a memorial to the victims of the Terror and boldly proclaiming that all "revolutions destroy the organic character of society." The Russian prophet's verdict was unmistakable: France, following Russia's example, must turn its back on the suffocating temptations of Reason and rediscover its true identity -- abandoning, after a long period of indecision, the reveries of revolution and showing itself at last faithful to its own history. Solzhenitsyn's call for a return to national culture rang out as an urgent plea for revolt against Reason. At the very moment when France was commemorating the bicentennial of its own Revolution, Solzhenitsyn claimed that it was altogether futile to hope that revolution could regenerate human nature. "But that is what your revolution and especially ours, the Russian Revolution, had so very much hoped . . . Many cruel procedures of the French Revolution were obediently reapplied to the body of Russia by the Leninist communists . . . Together with you, we have crossed through a century of terror, the horrifying crowning of the progress that the eighteenth century had so longed for." In the person of the author of The Gulag Archipelago, old Catholic France and old Orthodox Russia suddenly met in this small town under the benevolent gaze of Philippe de Villiers, champion of a tasteful right-wing populism and architect of the revival of Vendean identity celebrated by shows mounted in nearby Puy-du-Fou . Villiers, a viscount who, though he was a graduate of the École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), was captivated more by tradition than by the idea of serving a rationalist state, was preparing to lead his forces to a brilliant series of victories in the European elections of 1994. His successes turned out to be ephemeral, however, and his star soon faded -- first in the presidential election the following year, and then in the legislative elections of 1997, when he was forced to yield the hotly contested position of national populist leader to Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen generously welcomed Villiers's disappointed supporters into his ranks. 

Shortly before Solzhenitsyn's visit, Villiers had received another distinguished guest, Monsignor Jozef Glemp, the Polish cardinal and ardent defender of a wholly Catholic Poland. Between these two visitors and various native advocates of a return to the deep sources of national identity there was a lively sympathy. The Vendean counterrevolution, a veritable crusade against evil, was said to have resembled the peasant revolts against Bolshevik authority. Both movements rejected the Enlightenment, which they saw as destructive of a vital attachment to the land, and both were loyal to Christianity, which they saw as the sole guarantee of an unbroken link with the distant past. They believed, as the Israeli historian J. L. Talmon has suggested, that the Enlightenment was responsible for the totalitarianisms that destroyed national identities. In Villiers's words, the "genocide" in the Vendée, with its "dozens and dozens of Oradours," appeared as a "final solution" comparable to the extermination of the kulaks -- wealthy peasant farmers -- in Soviet Russia in the 1930s. The Jacobins, like the Soviets, had created for themselves a purely "abstract" idea of liberty: "France invented in 1793 the infernal machine of ideological terror, which served as a womb for the terrors of the twentieth century . . . The Vendée incarnated a moment of history when ideology, with all its abstract vocabulary, ran up against the resistance of human reality." Adopting Solzhenitsyn's metaphor, Villiers asserted that the Russian prophet "ought to be able to speak to us of one of the cogs of that red wheel of totalitarianism, this offshoot of the French Revolution that prepared the totalitarian womb of the twentieth century." Not long before, in May 1993, almost 50,000 royalists had gathered at the Mont des Alouettes and, after celebrating a mass in Latin, commemorated the Vendean uprising with cries of "Vive le Roi!" Villiers resembled an unrepentant feudal landowner more than a royalist: implacably opposed to all centralizing powers, he presented himself as a "white knight who came forward to raise the standard of a faith that suffered neither adversaries nor contradiction."

Similarly, after his brief trip to the Vendée, Solzhenitsyn declared that "humanity does not develop in a single mold but through often closed cultures, each of which has its own laws." He dismissed the universalism of the Enlightenment and argued that the fate of each people depends on its fidelity to its own culture, which, in order to remain coherent and continue to bear historical meaning, must avoid all foreign influence. In France as in Russia, the end of revolutionary eschatology justified a return to an original culture that was constantly threatened by the abstractions of Reason. Solzhenitsyn symbolized the weakening of the revolutionary tradition and, by his own attachment to a remote Russian culture, delivered a new blow to the historical logic that for two hundred years had characterized French society. His hymn to a bygone Russia was easily transposed to France, a land haunted by so many "lieux de memoire" inscribed in the depths of national historical memory. He emphasized that "every people, even the very smallest, represents a unique facet of God's design," and that the political organization peculiar to each society must be fashioned by its "spiritual principles." Since in his view the structure of the state "must necessarily take national traditions into account," Russia could not with impunity import a centralized administrative system, as so many emperors who looked toward the West had sought to do, notably Catherine II (the Great) and Alexander I. Thus Solzhenitsyn proposed that Russia create a decentralized state and abolish politics as a profession. This state would do away with universal suffrage, which "assume[s] that the nation lacks all structure: that it is not a living organism but a mere mechanical conglomeration of disparate individuals," and instead make voting a public act done through a show of hands, after the example of the former canton of Appenzell in Switzerland. With the disappearance of the Western-style state, politics would lose its abstract character and become adapted to the culture in which the Russian people are rooted. 

Respect for traditions and orthodoxy, a longing to return to the land, a privileging of "below" against a disfiguring and artificial "above," foreign to local culture -- all these things explain Solzhenitsyn's trip to the Vendée and his attempt to relegitimate the populist and Slavophile currents that inundate Russia today. To the Slavophiles, the West is an entirely Protestantized world; even countries that are officially Catholic have lost their faith. Russia's Westernized elite, no less than the West itself, is marked by a spirit of individualism that is devoid of any spiritual dimension and destructive of the unity of the self and of all communal feeling." To Solzhenitsyn's mind, the Marxist communism that sprang from Western rationalism had no less thoroughly wrecked the organic development of the life of the people in Russia, creating an impasse with regard to the national question. 

Such views have led some observers to suppose that the end of the Soviet Union once again caused great numbers of Russians to embrace their native culture. Similarly, some detect a renewed concern with identity in France, accompanied by a retreat from the republican state that came out of the revolutionary tradition. In each case, the tradition of the Enlightenment, including its most pathological consequences, finds itself abruptly called into question. This tradition involves a conception of history as the vehicle of progress that appears so naively scientistic that it at once runs up against an almost unanimous skepticism. Public confidence in the strong state is further undermined by its seeming indifference to the values of individuals. In this view, it was the delegitimation of the state machine that did away with the Soviet-style party-state. The fall of the rational state is therefore the indispensable condition for reappropriating the authentic culture that must serve as the basis for a new type of state. 

Of course, the attempt to achieve a perfect fit between nation and culture can have the tragic and unintended result of giving birth to a dwarf state -- the servile and passive instrument of a unified and closed culture that becomes the mistress of the nation. This risk exists in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, where there have been countless calls for the formation of a "wholly Catholic" Poland or a "wholly Orthodox" Russia. Such states would be stripped of all attributes of public power and independence in the conduct of policy, and their workings would be determined solely by a unique and uniform national identity. In these countries the Soviet Revolution of 1917 appears in retrospect -- like the French Revolution of 1789 -- to have been the result of an internationalist conspiracy that relentlessly sought to deny authentic national values: thus the Jews, a "little people," threatened the "great" Russian people. The "genocide" perpetrated against the Russian people is therefore comparable to the one that was perpetrated against the Vendée and all of France during the Terror. In both cases, the perpetrator was a gigantic Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, operating under cover of the grand principles of rationalist universalism. 

*Endnotes have been omitted.

Copyright © 2001 Pierre Birnbaum

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