This is the first of two reviews of Emile Chabal’s brief history of France since 1940France (Polity, 2020).


Emile Chabal’s splendid new book is entitled simply France, without further qualification. What sort of book is it? A history or an interpretive essay? If a history, what period does it cover? The unadorned title offers no clue. If an interpretive essay, does it purport to present, as General de Gaulle famously did in his memoirs, “a certain idea of France,” fiercely personal and unique to its author and his experience of the country, or something less intimate, a vast panoramic landscape intended to awe readers with the sublimity of its all-encompassing view rather than orient them in the here and now?


The answer is neither, but rather something original, and difficult to encapsulate in a title. Yet if the title in its stark nakedness remains puzzlingly ambiguous, the cover nevertheless offers an important clue to the book’s content: it features, against a dark blue background, a double image of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, in striking red. The upper image faces left; rotate it 180 degrees and it is transformed, dialectically, into its antithesis, inverted and facing right. This is not Janus Bifrons, the Roman god whose two faces allowed him to gaze at once into the past and the future. Rather, the inverted Marianne stands for paradox, and paradox, in Chabal’s view, is the key to unlocking France’s secrets. France, then, is not one thing and certainly, pace de Gaulle, not one certain idea, but a country and a society best described as a series of contradictions: specifically, as enumerated in the titles of successive chapters, defeat and resistance, colonialism and anti-colonialism, grandeur and decline, left and right, the Republic and its discontents, and local citizens in a global state.


The question of chronology remains. Although we soon learn that the focus of the book is contemporary—”the period from 1940 to the present”—the author dexterously allows himself a subtle and unobtrusive flexibility when it comes to the definition of “contemporary.” If the paradox of left versus right lies in the recurrent insurrectional impulses of a fundamentally conservative people, it would be misleading to omit the source of this tension in the French Revolution itself and its subsequent reprises. If the sequelae of France’s imperial ambitions are evident in the ethnic and religious tensions that roil France today, understanding requires delving into the ideology of the civilizing mission as well as the recruitment of colonial troops to fight in France’s wars. If “defeat” and its correlate “resistance” refer primarily to the fall of France in June 1940 and the occupation that followed, with its prolonged shadow casting a pall over all subsequent French history, that reverse was preceded and magnified by the losses suffered in 1870-1871 and 1914-1918.


More than the history of most countries, the history of France is a palimpsest, and within the brief compass allowed him by the series in which this book appears, Emile Chabal has done his best to evoke the overwritten texts that periodically irrupt into contemporary controversies. Indeed, the paradox of an ever-present past is not the least of France’s defining contradictions, and even if it does not figure explicitly as the subject of one of the book’s chapters, it runs throughout as the basso continuo against which the book’s more explicit themes are elaborated.




The first of Chabal’s paradoxes—defeat and resistance—is of particular importance, because it accounts for France’s episodic lurches from defeatism to defiance and back again. For Chabal, the defeat of 1940, even 80 years after the fact, is responsible for the “anxious, wounded pride” that fuels the pessimism of France’s ubiquitous “declinists.” Yet it also accounts for the repeated resurgence of the rhetoric of “resistance.” Resistance, in Chabal’s telling, is “the necessary counterpart to defeat.” Its “intensity” compensates for the “humiliations” of powerlessness. Resistance thrives on the heroism of its ineffectiveness. It is never compromised by success, for when it succeeds, it ceases to be resistance and acquires the stigmata of responsibility. The Gilets Jaunes, the latest in the long series of France’s resistance movements, instinctively recognized this with its refusal to transform itself from a resistance movement into a political movement. So lofty were the redemptive hopes of the Comité National de Résistance that in retrospect their disappointment seems inevitable. Hence a certain bipolarity in French national consciousness, which surely can be traced beyond the fall of 1940 all the way back to the Revolution.


The colonialism-anticolonialism paradox can be read as the mirror image of defeat and resistance, with triumph in place of defeat and guilty conscience in place of heroic resistance. French imperialism differed from other imperialisms by virtue of its faith that it carried the torch of Enlightenment and the gospel of a “civilizing mission.” Chabal sees France’s postwar obsession with empire in physical terms, as compensation for the maiming of the Hexagon and culpable acknowledgment that Free France survived only thanks to its overseas possessions. Yet as so often in French history, the pristine abstraction foundered on the untidiness of real life. Once-colonized peoples flocked to the metropole, whose lustrous allure was polished and amplified by French teachers—les hussards noirs de la République, as they were called, as if education were a battle to be won by force of arms in the classroom: “No other European power took the idea of assimilation and citizenship as seriously as the French did.”


But just as defeat led to antifascist resistance at home, triumph led to anticolonial resistance both abroad and within the Hexagon. From the négritude movement’s origins in interwar Paris to the postwar burgeoning of independence movements across the empire from Vietnam to Algeria, undeniable opposition made the universalist pretensions of the civilizing mission untenable, leading ultimately to a shriveling of France’s global ambitions—yet another humiliation. The illusion of French grandeur that General de Gaulle worked so hard to maintain through feats of political prestidigitation has not survived, and the half century since the magician’s disappearance from the scene has seen countless bilious reflections on the Great Nation’s irreversible decline. Subsequent presidents, especially Giscard, Mitterrand, and Macron, sought to ease the lingering hangover by administering strong doses of European elixir. Chabal has relatively little to say, however, about France’s periodically renewed European ambitions, perhaps because it has become clear that they are unlikely to bear fruit unless the recalcitrant half of “the Franco-German couple” suddenly becomes more Cartesian.


As for left and right, there was a time when one might have said that this opposition, which was after all invented in France at the time of the Revolution, was the key to understanding the “stalemate society.” André Malraux once said that “between the Communists [left] and us [the Gaullists, right], there is nothing,” but Mitterrand’s Common Program began the long process of constructing “something,” which at first appeared to be a social democratic party à la française but eventually, by drawing in a cadre of youthful énarques to occupy the commanding heights of government once the reconstructed Parti Socialiste took power, came to be seen as a technocratic centrist party with roots on both the right and left sides of the political divide. The gradual erosion of that divide culminated in the current president, Emmanuel Macron, who stormed out of a socialist government that had raised him from obscurity to public prominence and then turned to a center-right politician for his first prime minister, proving that France’s once-definitive social cleavage had lost much of its explanatory power (although some might argue that the invocation of a “rightward shift” to explain Macron’s post-electoral trajectory shows that the left-right divide remains relevant).


As for republicanism and its discontents, Chabal is on home territory here, since he has written perhaps the definitive English-language study of France’s “republican turn” (or revival) in the 1980s and 90s. Adolphe Thiers once said that the Republic was the regime that divided the French the least (despite their having already run through two of them at the time and acquiring three more since), and this dictum was frequently invoked as the country closed ranks to enforce the supposed tenets of the republican faith against enemies on two fronts: immigrants allegedly unwilling to accept the Republic’s defining commitment to laïcité and a xenophobic anti-immigrant party hostile to the Republic’s defining commitment to universalism. The truth is that republicanism is such a foggy faith that its only unifying power lies precisely in its enemies. Chabal sees republicanism as “a model of political action and community that could replace the lost ideals of Gaullist grandeur and revolutionary communism.” No doubt. But it also served as an alibi for refusing to come to terms with profound demographic changes and a rapidly evolving global context. The consequences of repeatedly invoking the republican alibi in every social crisis for the past four decades are now glaringly apparent.


Upon finishing Chabal’s France one comes away feeling that few authors could have compressed more pertinent discussion into so few pages. It is a truly remarkable book. Might it have been organized differently? Of course. It has become normal to think of contemporary France as the country that emerged from World War II. Contemporary French history has become postwar history. One of the most important studies of the period is Herrick Chapman’s book, entitled France’s Long Reconstruction, which recounts the tension between France’s ever-recurrent democratic impulse and its equally persistent efforts to contain democracy’s centrifugal forces through administrative regulation. One can map Chabal’s paradoxes onto Chapman’s tensions, but the different angle of view ultimately yields a revealingly different picture.


One can also ask whether the time has come to rethink the periodization of postwar France. Three-quarters of a century have now passed since VE Day. The Trente Glorieuses no longer loom quite so large in the history of an era now more than doubled in length and utterly changed in mood. In retrospect other key turning points emerge: the end of the Algerian War, the Socialist victory of 1981 (or perhaps more significantly the turn away from “socialism in one country” in 1983), the replacement of the Common Program by the Single Market, the 1989 celebration of the Revolution’s bicentennial and the concomitant decline of revolutionary Marxism, the veil and other Islam-related crises of the 1990s and beyond, or the terrorist attacks of 2015. Another path into France’s recent past might pass by way of political economy, recounting the long saga of the country’s belated transformation from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban population and its struggle to adapt to globalized competition, which Chabal broaches in his final chapter but without much detail: he is a cultural historian, not an economic one.


Still, it won’t do to be ungrateful when he has accomplished so much. This is a book that experts on France will want to read to compare their mental maps with the author’s, and that students will want to read for a sure-footed introduction to a complex tale, masterfully told. We can only hope that twenty years from now Emile Chabal will produce another, similar book to apprise us of how France has been transformed in the century since its fall in 1940 into whatever it will have become by then.


Photo Credit: France [cover], Polity (2020), Fair Use.


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1 Comment

  • Thanks for this dense review!

    “Resistance, in Chabal’s telling, is “the necessary counterpart to defeat.” Its “intensity” compensates for the “humiliations” of powerlessness. Resistance thrives on the heroism of its ineffectiveness. It is never compromised by success, for when it succeeds, it ceases to be resistance (…) (such) bipolarity in French national consciousness can surely be traced beyond the fall of 1940 all the way back to the Revolution.” — Fully agree. I thought the roots might be traced beyond the Revolution, but changed my mind 😉 esp. reading about Mirabeau’s (and his father’s) life. This deep mix of responsibility and resistance, of staying simultaneously within and out of the system — I can’t imagine that happening later than 1791. (OK, historians may fix my ignorance!)

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