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I read the article yesterday with mixed feelings. On the one hand the author is correct, the French self-criticism is often over the top and tends to ignore similar problems in other countries. However, in spite of his acknowledgement of France's real problems, I get the distinct whiff of a desire that they really shouldn't be talked about so much, a Chevenement style hardcore left wing nationalism that tends towards the mirror image of the syndrome he is discussing. That comes out in the non-economic part of the article.

He starts out with a complaint about the lack of properly grand celebrations of the anniversary of Austerlitz. Now, I tend to find people who complain about such celebrations a bit tedious - for the most part those kind of things are at worst mildly annoying and generally innocuous - get a life and worry about real issues. However, the opposite side, the 'why do we just criticize our past and not show proper pride like [fill in the blank]' is much more disturbing. It shows a nostalgia for the old notion of history as a privileged national narrative whose function is to whitewash the past and reinvent it as a triumphant series of great men and great events that will unite the nation. It is a perfect illustration of Renan's bon mot that national identity is more about forgetting than remembering. Any French person who plays this game should be condemned to being locked in a room with Pierre Nora's (ed) Les Lieux de Memoire, not allowed out until he has read and understood it.

That comes out again in his mention of the debate over the colonial past. Yes, Andreani grudgingly says that the criticism is sort of ok - but note his justification - because there exists a left wing French anti-colonial tradition. And if it didn't exist?

Or take his spin on the riots. Oh no, French people saying this is a sign things aren't working as they should. Suggesting that maybe France could look abroad to see what has (and has not) been successful elsewhere, particularly among those terrible Anglo-Saxons. The horror!

I think that Andreani reveals himself best in this passage:
Le regard critique de la France sur elle-même a sans doute de multiples explications, et son ancrage dans la culture nationale ne date pas d'hier. Mais ce comportement s'est répandu, ces dernières années, jusqu'à former la toile de fond du débat politique et économique. Car dans la confrontation, devenue centrale, entre adversaires et tenants du néolibéralisme, les seconds ont su mettre à profit ce trait du caractère national.

I read this and I hear Lynne Cheney and Fox talking heads complaining about the evil textbook writers who talk about the ugly sides of American history rather than the proper triumph of freedom, prosperity, and the glory of the unique American model. I hear every Polish right winger complaining about historians denigrating the sacred Polish nation by painting its past in shades of grey, rather than a beautiful (and blinding) blaze of white.  More specifically, when he says that decolonisation is too recent to be a 'historical' event I read 'to be properly assimilated into the triumphant Republican historical narrative.'

To finish let me go back to Nora - a passage from his preface and introductory essay.
"La Republique opere un redoblement de memoire, dans la mesure ou, regime politique devenu notre seconde nature, elle n'est pas un simple fragment de notre memoire nationale, mais sa redefinition synthetique et son aboutissement. La Republique se confond pratiquement avec sa memoire..." [p. 17]

"L'histoire, parce que operation intellectuelle et laicisante, appelle analyse et discours critique. La memoire installe le souvenir dans le sacre, l'histoire l'en debusque" [p. 25, Quarto edition]

 

by MarekNYC on Thu Dec 29th, 2005 at 11:03:03 AM EST

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