Magazine article The American Prospect

The French Disconnection: Can the Ideal of a Secular Republic Accommodate the New Cultural Pluralism?

Magazine article The American Prospect

The French Disconnection: Can the Ideal of a Secular Republic Accommodate the New Cultural Pluralism?

Article excerpt



Cambridge University Press


French politics can be bewildering to outsiders. The state seems all-powerful. The government consumes a larger share of national income than in most other countries, and many large corporations are partly state-owned. Yet as powerful as the French state is, it is periodically brought to its knees by popular protest: In 1995, demonstrators successfully resisted pension reform, and in 2006, young marchers thwarted a minor innovation in the labor code, while voters refused to approve a revision of the European constitutional treaty backed by both major parties. The power of the legislature to check the will of the executive is much weaker in France than in the United States, yet the last three French presidencies--one on the left, two on the right--have failed to produce any major reforms despite a widespread sentiment that change is urgently needed. How can we explain the paradox of a strong state that is unable to enact necessary reforms?

In A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France, Emile Chabal, currently a chancellor's fellow in history at the University of Edinburgh, proposes that we look beyond the policy arena to the political culture. What he sees there is an opposition between two traditions, one "republican" and statist in orientation, the other "liberal" and focused on civil society. (American readers may be amused, not to say confused, by the association of "republican" with strong central government and "liberal" with society and the market.) Republicans, in Chabal's telling, insist that citizens must abandon all "particularistic" allegiances (pertaining to religion, ethnicity, and economic interest) when they enter the "universalistic" public arena. For republicans, the state shapes culture and society, especially through the public schools. By contrast, liberals accord primacy to civil society in shaping the state. Republicanism, as we will see, is therefore hostile to multiculturalism, whereas liberalism tolerates and even encourages it.

The republican-liberal opposition came into being between 1975 and 1985 in response to three convergent changes: in the economy, the end of Les Trente Glorieuses (the "thirty glorious years" of rapid economic growth that followed the end of World War II); in politics, the "implosion of Gaullism" (which epitomized the tradition of the strong state) and the inability of the left-wing government elected in 1981 to effect radical economic change; and in intellectual life, the abrupt disappearance of once-pervasive neo-Marxist influences. "The grand ideologies which had governed post-war French politics--Gaullism, socialism, and communism--began to fade," Chabal writes, and what emerged to fill the vacuum was a "neorepublican consensus."

But exactly how extensive and how republican was this alleged consensus? Much of the book is taken up with showing how elements of the center-left and radical left coalesced around a certain idea of republicanism after 1968. Former radicals such as Regis Debray, who left France to join Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, and Alain Finkielkraut, who had been an extreme-left militant in the 1960s, ultimately found common ground with older centrists such as the historian Pierre Nora. Differences nevertheless remained.

"The republic," the statesman Adolphe Thiers once said, "is the regime that divides us the least"--ironically, since Thiers, the scourge of the Paris Commune and the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Communards who were summarily executed at the Mur des Federes in 1871, was one of the most divisive figures in French history, and "republic" was once synonymous with "revolution." By the late 1870s, however, the French ship of state, launched on the hazardous seas of revolutionary political upheaval in 1789, finally "came into port"--to borrow an image from historian Francois Furet. …

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