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Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Memoire - The State

Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Memoire - The State

by Pierre Nora (Editor), David P. Jordan (Editor), Mary Seidman Trouille (Translator)

Les Lieux de mémoire is perhaps one of the most profound historical documents on the history and culture of the French nation. Assembled by Pierre Nora during the Mitterand years, this multivolume series has been hailed as "a magnificent achievement" (The New Republic) and "the grandest, most ambitious effort to dissect, interpret and


Les Lieux de mémoire is perhaps one of the most profound historical documents on the history and culture of the French nation. Assembled by Pierre Nora during the Mitterand years, this multivolume series has been hailed as "a magnificent achievement" (The New Republic) and "the grandest, most ambitious effort to dissect, interpret and celebrate the French fascination with their own past" (The Los Angeles Times). Written during a time when French national identity was undergoing a pivotal change and the nation was struggling to define itself, this unprecedented series consists of essays by prominent historians and cultural commentators which take, as their points of departure, a lieu de mémoire: a site of memory used to order, concentrate, and secure notions of France's past.

The first volume in the Chicago translation, Rethinking France, brings together works addressing the omnipresent role of the state in French life. As in the other volumes, the lieux de mémoire serve as entries into the French past, whether they are actual sites, political traditions, rituals, or even national pastimes and textbooks. Volume I: The State offers a sophisticated and engaging view of the French and their past through widely diverse essays on, for example, the château of Versailles and the French history of absolutism; the Code civil and its ordering of French life; memoirs written by French statesmen; and Charlemagne and his place in French history. Nora's authors constitute a who's who of French academia, yet they wear their erudition lightly. Taken as a whole, this extraordinary series documents how the French have come to see themselves and why.

Alain Guéry
Maurice Agulhon
Bernard Guenée
Daniel Nordman
Robert Morrissey
Alain Boureau
Anne-Marie Lecoq
Hélène Himelfarb
Jean Carbonnier
Hervé Le Bras
Pierre Nora

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Assembled by the editorial director of France's ?ditions Gallimard, these 11 essays focus on the central role of the state in French history. The essayists, some of France's leading contemporary intellectuals, use the concept of lieux de m?moire (places of memory) to explore a wide array of topics, such as the symbolism of Versailles, the changing legacy of Charlemagne, the importance of memoirs in the construction of French history, and the omnipresence of French regionalism. Alain Gu?ry's brilliant essay describes the philosophical underpinnings of French statism: "The originality of the French is to have made the common good into an attribute of the state." Thus, whenever the French have confronted a crisis, they've sought statist solutions. H?l?ne Himelfarb's fine contribution argues that in 1871, after France's crushing defeat by the Prussians, the victors used the Ch?teau of Versailles which had symbolized French power since the time of Louis XIV as the spot where humiliating peace terms were signed. In 1918, France returned the favor, also at Versailles. These essays, it must be said, reflect the French love of abstraction. This can be a delight, as in Himelfarb's essay, or a reason for hair-pulling frustration, as with Alain Boureau ("The King"), whose prose gets lost in a theoretical thicket: "the kings of the Old Regime served as a concrete and empirical representation of the social bond, prior to any political theorizing, in exactly the same way as the mnemonic trace or representation of an archaic event serves to structure the contradictory affects that make up the personality in the Freudian system." Nevertheless, the majority of these essays are worthwhile for those with aninterest in France's proud national identity. Illus. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is an English translation of a major publishing enterprise begun in France during the Mitterand years. Bold, brilliant, and ambitious, it aims to write a new kind of history of France, one that is not political or social but cultural and intellectual. The guiding genius of this collective historical enterprise is Pierre Nora, director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, who has directed editorial work on this seven-volume project since 1984. The guiding technique of this series is the concept of a "lieu de m moire." Although the term defies precise translation, it is used to mean individuals, institutions, places, and cultural phenomena that have shaped the way the past is remembered in the present. In this volume, Nora has assembled 11 essays written by some of France's most celebrated writers and intellectuals. The common theme is the notion of the state: how the French have come to see themselves politically and why. The essays touch on fascinating and unexpected topics like the changing image of Charlemagne, the image of the king over time, and the views of France presented in the memoirs of public men. This is an important book to be appreciated by scholars and specialists in the field and a strong complement to Pierre Birnbaum's The Idea of France (LJ 7/01). Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Rethinking France: Les Lieux De Memoire

By Pierre Nora

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001- Pierre Nora
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226591328

CHAPTER 1 - THE STATE: The Tool of the Common Good


What does the state do?" Everyone in France has asked this question on at least one occasion. Farmers pose the question because, in good years, the prices of grains, fruits, or vegetables are too low and in bad years because the crop yield is poor; dairy farmers, because the butter reserves are insufficient and milk production too abundant, while meat is imported; industrialists, because the levies on production are too heavy, while the subsidies for innovation, exportation, and investment are inadequate. Tourist agencies complain when there is too much rain in summer or not enough snow in winter. Professionals complain if competition becomes too intense among doctors, lawyers, or pharmacists; civil servants, because working conditions and funding make it difficult for them to provide good service to the public; the users of public transportation, because service is inadequate. We could add to the list ad infinitum. And we could all recognize ourselves in one of these examples and admit that we have, on at least one occasion, asked the question, rarely wondering whether it was pertinent, always convinced that the government's intervention was desirable.

"What does the statedo?" In France, it seems to be taken for granted that the state should intervene in countless situations. In the daily French press, any reader can find multiple calls for state intervention in every possible sphere: economic, ecological, social, cultural, technical, to mention a few. The same reader might amuse him- or herself by comparing the calls for intervention that stem from the same problem but are raised from different perspectives and in a unilateral manner and, consequently, are only the expression of a particular interest group or of a related set of interests. In a more critical mode the reader might also tally up the calls for intervention that border on the absurd: the wine producers in Languedoc, a few years ago, demanded that the state buy up an undrinkable wine to dispose of it and then, because the price offered did not suit them, retaliated by burning the locomotives of the French National Railways that were pulling trains of tourists bringing money to their region. A foolish enough diversion in itself and one that would fail to consider the distress of those whose thwarted economic activity brings onlyfinancial hardship.

"What does the state do?" is a question one rarely hears except when the state's resources are at issue. It goes without saying that every Frenchman thinks he is overtaxed, while his neighbor is undertaxed. In a country where fiscal fraud is seen as an acceptable national sport, the image of le Francais raleur, the grumbling Frenchman, is never closer to the truth than when the issue of taxes is brought up. Yet no government, on the Left or the Right, dares call into question a fiscal system that is judged unacceptable. Those who serve as ministers of finance work by successive adjustments and concessions integrated more or less surreptitiously into the laws of finance. They keep the framework of a fundamentally unjust system since it allows some to defraud the government, while others are bound to be honest. The state's intervention, so desirable in other respects, ends with its ability to monitor the income of its citizens. Because the French view such monitoring by the government's tax services as an intolerable "fiscal inquisition," the state has favored the value-added tax, an invisible but sure form of taxation. Reflected in retail prices, the value-added tax puts the same percentage strain on everyone's family budget, regardless of their income. Despite recent reductions, France still holds the record for the highest value-added taxes and was unable to bring them down to the average level in Europe by the end of 1992, when the new common market of the European Community went into effect.

The tax on visible income--the income tax or tax on assets--is, in the end, the only tax called into question. While it should be seen as the most equitable (or the least inequitable), it is the one that has been the focus of the most protests in French fiscal history. Its unpopularity caused Edouard Balladur, Jacques Chirac's minister of finance, to choose the tax on visible income as the means of lowering the overall weight of taxes in France, beginning in 1986. Another, less admirable reason, might also have influenced this decision, which Michel Rocard's socialist government retained: despite having a statistical system that is viewed as a model abroad, the fiscal administration in France does not have a clear understanding of the distribution of income and assets among the French, with the result that this tax, which is fair in theory, is actually distributed very unequally. Hence, contrary to expectations, the relative reduction in the tax on visible income did not lead to a substantial decline in mandatory levies in France. Indeed, with 44.3 percent of its gross domestic product taxed in 1988, France holds the record among developed nations.

As strong advocates of state intervention but reluctant taxpayers, the French foster a paradox of which they often seem unaware. This paradox is clearly reflected in various opinion polls. To the question "Would you say that the state currently intervenes too much, just enough, or not enough in the economic life of the country?" posed in December 1985, under a socialist government, and again in November 1987 (a year and a half after Chirac's government had put into place a more laissez-faire economic policy), the response was clear. Those who felt that the economic intervention of the state was at a normal level hardly changed from thefirst poll to the second: 23 percent in December 1985 compared with 24 percent in 1987. However, the number of those who felt that the state intervened too much declined from 25 to 16 percent between the first and second polls, whereas the number of those who felt that the state did not intervene enough increased from 29 to 42 percent. On this last point, the number of those with no opinion declined from 23 to 18 percent.

In the same poll taken in 1987, 44 percent of the French surveyed said they preferred a capitalist economic policy to pull the country out of recession, compared with 36 percent who desired a socialist policy to achieve the same objective. The results clearly reflect the split between the Left and the Right: 77 percent of those who voted for the centrist UDF (Union pour la Democratie Francaise), 81 percent of those who voted for the center-right RPR (Rassemblement pour la Republique), and 67 percent of supporters of the far-right Front national favored the capitalist solution, while 68 percent of Communist Party supporters and 69 percent of Socialist Party supporters opted for the socialist solution. But, here again, a closer look reveals another paradox: among the parties on the Right, 52 percent of those voting for the Front national favored greater state intervention; in contrast, 29 percent of UDF supporters favored greater intervention, compared with 33 percent who felt the situation was satisfactory and 25 percent who called for less intervention by the State. Among supporters of the RPR, although 39 percent approved of the level of state intervention under Chirac's government, 36 percent desired a higher level of intervention, and only 10 percent called for less intervention. The clear distinction between the Left and Right in France concerning the best policy to follow diminishes considerably as soon as one considers the direct intervention of the state in economic, social, and cultural affairs. "What does the state do?" is asked on the Right as well as on the Left, often in regard to the same circumstances and for the same reasons, but with very different ideological intentions and ulterior motives concerning possible solutions.

The French therefore have two reactions when they are confronted with problems that concern them, because they sense that those problems call into question their cohesion as a society and the values underlying it. They invoke both the necessary intervention of the state and solutions derived from ideological considerations or from a vision of society based on such considerations. These considerations are at times diametrical, based on totally different views of the role and importance of the state in society. The French often forget to consider two important related issues: First, what type of state should intervene and to what extent? Second, since every form of state intervention entails expense, those costs have a direct effect on its budget and, through taxes, on the budget of every citizen. If we believe that, in the land of reason, citizens make only very limited use of reason (which certain politicians like to imply when their solutions fail), there is another way to approach this paradox: we can momentarily set aside ideological considerations concerning the nature of the state and focus on the spontaneous call for state help, which is the true leitmotiv underlying the economic, social, and cultural life of France.

Economists, sociologists, and historians view the important role of the state in France as a distinctive feature of French society. Until the current revival of studies of the state and its history, two views have dominated historiography: the liberal and the Marxist interpretations of the state's role in the development of capitalism in France. Neither interpretation takes into account the close symbolic relationship of the French people to the state. The liberal interpretation either ignores the state's role in economic development or else accuses it--at times even a priori--of violating the intangible rules of economic balance. In the Marxist interpretation, the state is viewed as a mere superstructure resting on capitalism. In France, the dominance of the Marxist interpretation, understood as a simple economic determinism, has led to the same view of the state's role in the economic development of the country; its influence is seen as negligible by some and as negative by others. Although economists since Keynes have considered the more flexible role the state can play as a regulator of economic life, French historiography has not yet made full use of this concept (which, in any case, fails to take into account what the French expect from the state). In their minds, the regulation of economic life flows from the regulation of social life. Those in power reason in the opposite manner.

For most French, the state's role and its emblematic function depend less on ideological considerations regarding its interventions than on their view of the society in which they live, the values underlying it, and the necessary respect due these values in order for society to function properly. The state in France is so closely identified with French society that any social tension leads to the state's involvement and implies a view of the state that theories, ideologies, and even legal principles perhaps fail to take fully into account. For the French the state is located at the very heart of the social. This does not, however, imply that the state can do whatever it pleases. Quite the contrary. In addition, this view calls into question not only any analysis or judgment about state intervention that does not take into account social cohesiveness (the social relations between citizens, of which the state is one of the essential vehicles, since society and the state are inseparable) but also any approach that does not see the state--in the collective consciousness and the collective memory of the French--fusing this society together and giving it cohesion.


State and society, the state at the heart of society, the core of social relations among multiple partners, and the creator of social solidarity--the state that we still try to imagine and to foster has a long history. There are many kinds of states, with many different forms, making the term state extremely ambiguous. What do the ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, medieval, and modern states all have in common? What traits are shared by the democratic state and totalitarian state of the twentieth century? Despite differences, historians still use this word to describe the supreme power in all civilizations, the machinery of power, and the functions attributed to it to govern society. Perhaps the best way to distinguish these different states from each other is to reverse the proposition, to view the state as subordinate to society and first analyze the society that gave rise to the state we are considering.

We must go back to the origins of the French state in the fourteenth century, where we find increasing use of the expressions status regni (particularly in France and England), or status reipublicae, status imperii, status civitatis elsewhere: the state of the kingdom, the state of the commonwealth, the state of the empire, the state of the state. Regnum (kingdom or realm) is the oldest term. It is also the one that persists in official texts until the seventeenth century to designate what we would today call the nation, although the latter term most often designates the territory and the original social group of the majority of the ruler's subjects. At the end of the Middle Ages, in place of the term regnum (or royaume, kingdom), the legal scholars attached to the crown preferred the expression status regis et regni (the state of the king and the kingdom), which they gradually acquired the habit of shortening to status (literally, the state of things or the way things stand, rendered in French as etat, state). From Commynes to Seyssel, the term evolved toward a meaning closer to ours-- that of a political body--but it remained ambiguous. Seyssel used it in all possible ways, old and new, but already in the way we do today; political writers continued to do the same.

When we speak of the king's state and of the kingdom, we are speaking of the monarchy--for, in a king, power and the principle supporting it coexist. The king exercises power and embodies the principle that together constitute the monarchy. Here lies the starting point of the problem of the king's two bodies, illustrated so well by Ernst Kantoro-wicz. Both as a principle and as a power, monarchy is one of the most important forms of government in history for two reasons. First, chronologically, it is the one that has lasted the longest in the history of modern nations--roughly ten centuries in the case of France. Second, monarchy goes beyond the scope of politics alone. To understand it as a form of government, one must understand the term government in the broader sense of means designed to govern the conduct of men--all kinds of means for all kinds of conduct. From this point of view (and only from this point of view), any monarchy is, by its very nature, absolute. A monarchy ignores distinctions among categories of activity in the realm of the social, whether it is a matter of economics, culture, religion, or morality. By the very nature of his power, the king has the authority to intervene wherever he wishes, without anyone being able to oppose his intervention by citing rules governing a particular human activity if those rules call into question the monarchical principle. Before being a political order, the monarchy is first and foremost a social ideal upon which the king constructs a social order.

King, State, Society

Beginning with the terrible crises of the fourteenth century, which tore the feudal world apart, the king of France, through the state, became the principal actor in the social game. It was in his immediate entourage, in fact, that there emerged a military, judicial, and financial apparatus of a new type, through the specialization of the curia regis into different services. Thus was born the modern state that we still know today, at that moment in history when the traditional social relations that had developed in feudal times were in large part destroyed by war, poverty, and epidemics in the waning of the Middle Ages. It appeared, therefore, at the very moment when French society was forced to reform, in the midst of a long and profound crisis, giving life a certain "invigorating pungency,"


Excerpted from Rethinking France: Les Lieux De Memoire by Pierre Nora Copyright © 2001- by Pierre Nora. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Pierre Nora is editorial director at Éditions Gallimard. Since 1977, he has been directeur d'Études at the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales. He is the founding editor of Le DÉbat and has directed the editorial work on Les Lieux de mÉmoire since 1984. In 2001 he was elected to the AcadÉmie Française. David P. Jordan is the LAS Distinguished Professor of French History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Transforming Paris and The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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