End of French Exceptionalism: Lessons From/for Canada

By Dobuzinskis, Laurent | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

End of French Exceptionalism: Lessons From/for Canada


Dobuzinskis, Laurent, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Born in Paris, Laurent Dobuzinskis teaches political science at Simon Fraser University. He obtained a Masters degree from La Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, and a doctorate from York University. This article is drawn from a study he is undertaking on recent trends in liberal thought in the French-speaking world.

France is no longer the centre of the intellectual world. Most French intellectuals have come to realize that. They no longer think of themselves as the vanguard of universal History. They have even developed a taste for the ideas of Anglo-American liberal philosophers. (1)

Grudgingly perhaps, they have rallied to the cause of liberal democracy and free markets. Yet they have managed to find their own unique ways towards these--by now quasi-universal--values.

French exceptionalism in politics has also ended. By "exceptionalism" I mean a situation in which for 200 years--from 1789 to perhaps 1989--political conflicts concerned not real, practical issues of immediate interest to the political community, but the nature of the regime itself (if not the meaning of history) and the rules of the socio-economic game. (2)

On both the left and the right, powerful political forces, often mobilized by prestigious intellectuals, poured scorn upon liberal democracy and the rule of law.

Until World War I, the right longed for the pre-revolutionary era; then, in the 1920s, it turned to fascism. The left, on the other hand, thought that the French Revolution had only been the prelude to another and more profound historical epoch on the model of the Russian Revolution.

French intellectuals helped to legitimize the views that would have been ignored in a culture less tolerant of anti-democratic discourse and less enamoured of writers. The examples drawn from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum illustrate this antidemocratic bias. The much-admired Catholic playwright Paul Claudel greeted the 1940 defeat and the formation of the Vichy regime by claiming that "France has been delivered after 60 years from the yoke of the anti-Catholic Radical Party (teachers, lawyers, Jews, Freemasons). The new government invokes God ... There is hope of being delivered from universal suffrage and parliamentarism." (3)

After 1945, the right was thoroughly discredited, but leftist intellectuals proved just as adept at the art of anti-democratic rhetoric. In the late 1950s, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a series of articles for the review Les Temps Modernes (4) in which he purported, in the most contrived manner, to condemn the Soviet intervention in Hungary while at the same time insisted that the hope of humanity continued to rest with the Soviet Union. Indeed, in his view, de-Stalinization opened up a new era that would fulfill these hopes!

A number of cultural and philosophical trends have conspired to put an end to this French exceptionalism--while allowing fortunately for the preservation of some uniquely French qualities. How and why this displacement of utopian ideas has happened is relevant to Canadians. The end of French exceptionalism often implies an acceptance of American values, concepts and practices. France has become Americanized in many ways. Yet there still exist strong currents that go against that trend--indeed these currents are stronger now than in the 1980s. Thus, France is coming to resemble Canada both in terms of its acceptance of a liberal consensus--something that Canada came to earlier--and in terms of the distance it tries to maintain vis-a-vis American culture. France and Canada both find it impossible to escape the Amerian orbit. But in both countries there are attempts to retain a measure of cultural autonomy. The intellectual communities in each country have something to learn from each other.

I. THE LAND OF "EXCEPTIONALISM"

French intellectuals do not speak with one voice on all issues. Nevertheless, their discourse has a certain style and evokes recurring images and values. …

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