L’embarras du choix

Emile Chabal
11 January 2021

In this post, Emile Chabal responds to reviews of his book—France (Polity, 2020), a short history of the country since 1940—by Art Goldhammer and Emmanuel Jousse


Writing the history of a nation-state requires both distance and intimacy. It forces the author to inhabit an uncomfortable space as an insider’s outsider and an outsider’s insider. It seems appropriate therefore that the first reviews of my book should be appearing on a bilingual website, with contributions in two languages, from two different places. This is the sort of productive exchange I hoped to stimulate. When I first set out to write this book, I wanted to push those familiar with France to think again about their own assumptions—their “mental map,” as Goldhammer puts it—and I wanted to introduce those unfamiliar with France to some of the big animating debates of the past 70 years.


Given how unfailingly generous the reviewers have been in their assessment of my ideas and arguments, I do not feel the need to defend myself here. After all, any moderately intelligent reader will be able to decide whether I have done my job well. But Goldhammer and Jousse do raise important questions about the history of postwar France, and their queries deserve a response. It is important to state at the outset that this book was unlike anything I had written in the past. It was commissioned as part of a new series of national histories for Polity Press, and it came with instructions to adhere to a tight word limit (less than 50,000 words). Very quickly, I realized that these constraints would force me to make a series of difficult and controversial choices about what to include and what to leave out. With this in mind, it might help to revisit some of those choices as a way of explaining why the book reads in the way that it does.


The first point is that this is a political history of postwar France. It is not an old-fashioned, top-down political history, dominated by regimes, parliaments, and presidents. But it does focus on the distribution and exercise of—and the justification for—power. These themes run through every chapter. I was concerned to show how power works in contemporary France and how people resist the powers under which they labour. For me, understanding the complexity of power relations in contemporary France provides the key to grasping the push and pull of social, economic, cultural, and intellectual relationships. It is for this reason that I regret not spending more time on the history of the French state and, above all, on the (re)circulation of French elites. I cite Rosanvallon in my bibliography and I make many references to the architecture and organisation of the state, but as Jousse points out, I do not spend enough time on the ways in which the state has become the site of conflict, rather than simply the focus of it.


Jousse is also right to point out that I frequently emphasize the importance of political discourse, perhaps to the detriment of the everyday interactions that form the basis of French political and social life. This is no doubt a consequence of my earlier work on political culture in contemporary France, but it is also a result of my position as an outsider. To most English speakers, French political language comes across as highly stylized, polemical and abstract. Not surprisingly, then, certain words—from laïcité to grandeur—have dominated English-language writing about contemporary France. I felt that one of my jobs in a short introduction such as this was to explain where these words come from and how they are used. This may seem excessive to French people who have learned to treat such words with a healthy pinch of salt, but I had in mind curious British or American (or indeed Spanish or Chinese) students. For many of them, these words are likely to be some of the first things they encounter as they learn about France.


As for Goldhammer and Jousse’s claims that I neglect economic and social history respectively, I can only plead guilty on all charges. The closest I get to thoroughgoing economic history is in the sections of the book devoted to modernisation and development in metropolitan France, its overseas territories, and its colonial empire. The reason for this is simple: the relentless pursuit of the “modern” in postwar France—from the Constantine Plan to Macron’s “start-up nation”—is a point at which the economic and the political clearly intersect. What is missing from my narrative, however, is a greater sense of how patterns of employment, demographics and structural changes in the French economy have transformed France, especially since the 1980s. The spectre of “neoliberalism”—a term I avoid in the book—would have been a useful way to understand these changes. I should also have made more space for rural France, a topic for which I have a strong personal affinity and one which has been the subject of some fascinating recent research by scholars like Benoît Coquard and Sarah Farmer.


In terms of what Jousse calls “la question sociale,” again, I make references to this throughout the book without ever bringing it centre-stage. A more thorough treatment of, as Jousse puts it, the “force d’invention des territoires de proximité et leur capacité à composer le lien social” would almost certainly have required me to write a different kind of book. In fact, I briefly considered structuring the book around different geographical spaces, starting in Paris and moving outwards to the most far-flung of Pacific Ocean territories. This would have had the benefit of focusing the narrative on the differential relationships that French people have had with political institutions and discourses over time, but it would also have demanded a lot of the uninitiated reader. The familiar scaffolding of political history at least has the advantage of familiarity.


Nevertheless, there is one place where I bring the complexity of space and territory to the fore, even if it is something that knowledgeable readers are likely to pass over without a second thought. Unlike every other book published in this series so far, this one includes three maps at the start: one of metropolitan France in 2020, another of France’s overseas territories in 2020, and a third of France’s colonial empire in the early 1930s. The decision to include three maps was one of the rare occasions where I pushed back against the editorial constraints imposed on me. I had to work hard to persuade my (extremely patient) editor, not only of the pedagogical utility of the three maps, but also of their conceptual importance. I thought it was vital to remind readers in a visual form that, for the past 70 or more years, the entity we call “France” has been a continuously changing and dynamic space. This space has had fluid internal and external borders, but also a strong sense of spatial hierarchy, with a “core” located in Paris and a “periphery” that stretches from Marseille to Bastia, Cayenne, Nouméa, and beyond.


Of course, maps alone cannot bring to life the richness of France’s “question sociale,” but they do provide a stark reminder that political ideas such as republicanism or Gaullism can only be stretched so far. In the end, they run up against the textures of everyday life. And, as Jousse points out, this everyday life cannot be reduced to a “réflexion antinomique” structured around binary paradoxes. Yet the purpose of paradox in this book is not as a representation of the multi-layered realities of French society. Rather, it serves to highlight difference, otherness, estrangement, and division. Insofar as many French people in 2020 feel exactly these emotions in relation to their fellow citizens and their history, paradox has a lot to offer as an analytical framework. This is because it encourages inquisitive readers to look to the “other side,” whatever that might be. More than this, though, paradox forces readers to grapple with the same basic problem as me, namely how history changes shape when you choose to listen to some voices rather than others.


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