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THE IDEA OF FRANCE by Pierre Birnbaum


by Pierre Birnbaum & translated by M.B. DeBevoise

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8090-4650-4
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An account of modern French politics and society, from the distinguished Sorbonne philosopher Birnbaum (Jewish Destinies, 2000).

La plus ça change, la plus la même chose no longer serves as a very good shorthand description of France, whose political identity is now in the midst of what may be its greatest transformation since the Revolution of 1789. Birnbaum makes clear that many of the polarities that have defined French politics for 200 years—Catholic vs. secular, aristocratic vs. egalitarian, royalist vs. republican, provincial vs. national, etc.—no longer apply in the present day. The carefully constructed ideal of the French citizen, for example, previously advanced to thwart the reactionaries of Church and Château, now finds itself attacked from the postmodernist circles of the Left (who find the idea of universal values problematic at best), the great masses of immigrant laborers (who do not aspire to the liberal traditions upon which the Republic was established), and the provincial natives (who feel betrayed by the globalist elites of Paris). The inevitable result is a fragmentation of French society into a plethora of small, distinct cells more reminiscent, in their clannishness and variety, of medieval duchies than a body politic. The xenophobic representatives National Front, who have received increased (though still limited) support in recent years, are more significant, in the author’s view, as an expression of mass discontent with the political establishment than as a true resurgence of genuine right-wing sentiments. Although bleak in its outlines, the author’s view is not without hope that France will be able to forge a new national identity for itself that will keep it from being swallowed by the federalism of a united Europe.

An academic study that will be of some interest to lay readers, but likely to appeal mainly to specialists of European politics and history.