Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Transmission Problems: Memory, Community and the Republican Idea in Contemporary France

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Transmission Problems: Memory, Community and the Republican Idea in Contemporary France

Article excerpt

In recent years, Editions du Seuil have published a series of small volumes aimed at a wide audience and bearing such titles as La Republique expliquee a ma fille or L'Amour de la France explique a mon ills. Well-known novelists, historians and philosophers have been enrolled in a attempt to fill in the generational gap, to repair the tear in the national fabric, in the hope that they will succeed in communicating what should already have been conveyed by political and cultural institutions. The need for leading public intellectuals to 'explain' to younger generations core national values and institutions such as 'the Republic' or 'the love of France" points to the inability of the French public schools to perform their traditional function of cultural transmission. Essays by Max Gallo and Regis Debray illustrate the paradoxical use of cultural memory by prominent representatives of the 'national-republican' camp in today's France.

Keywords: contemporary France, intellectuals, memory, Republic

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One of the most perceptive commentaries on the success of Lieux de memoire, the influential multi-volume collection edited by Pierre Nora, is that the French have lately displayed a lot of interest in their past because their relationship to this very past has become acutely problematic. In other words, the French readership's taste for historical essays and novels is all the greater since France, with the end of the Gaullist era, has lost its 'exceptionality' on the world political scene and has joined, willy-nilly, the ranks of other European nations. The France of the 1980s, as Francois Furet has put it, finally closed down its 'exceptional political theatre' (Furet et al., 1988: 54).

The demand for history is a symptom of this uneasy relationship to the national past and the European future. In recent years, several thin volumes bearing titles such as La Republique expliquee a ma fille (The Republic Explained to my Daughter) and L'Amour de la France explique a mon fils (The Love of France Explained to my Son) have been published by Editions du Seuil. The model for this new didactic genre is quite simple, and easily reproducible, as shown by the formulaic nature of the titles in the collection. Take a polemical issue often debated in the media and in public discourse (i.e. racism, laicite or national identity), ask a renowned novelist or public intellectual to direct his reflections on the matter towards his son or daughter, and beyond towards French youth in general, in an accessible yet provocative manner aimed at informing, convincing and entertaining at the same time, and you have a highly marketable product that joins moral and intellectual edification with the pleasure of a good read.

I am less interested in the content of these books than in their form, or rather their function in a general economy of cultural transmission. In other words, what is the point of this kind of writing and how can we explain the success of its editorial concept? By explaining the Republic or 'France' to his son or daughter, the author (very often a man, i.e. a father) serves a pedagogical purpose, which is to clarify what has been obscured or even forgotten. The notoriety of the author helps convey to a wider audience a viewpoint perceived (by the author and the editors) to be unknown to young people, and this is presented as both an outrage and a danger.

The fact that a well-known novelist, historian or philosopher needs to 'explain' this or that notion to his son or daughter points to a lack of collective memory, a fateful break in the temporal chain of cultural transmission. The younger generation should know what the Republic or the love of country are all about, but they do not. Literary and academic personalities are enrolled in an effort to fill in the gap, to repair the tear in the cultural fabric, in the hope that their book will succeed in communicating what should already have been conveyed by other means. …

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