Plus ça change, plus ça change: The France of 2005 is far different from the France of a century before, though both agree that anything that is not French is suspect.
Thus, writes historian Kedward (Emeritus Professor, History/Univ. of Sussex) toward the end of this long, overstuffed book on the big shifts France has seen over the last hundred years, whereas the left had acquired great power in the early 20th century by posing an alternative, and opposition, to clerical control of public education, a century later “the political right was now the democratic center of hostility to Islamic intrusion in the state classroom.” Whether of the left or right, the challenge was to offer a “unitary republican identity” against the centrifugal forces of regional and cultural identity. As Kedward writes, the nature of that identity, and of the republic, was of central concern to the French of the Belle Époque and pre-WWI generation; then as now, France was a nation fond of and not self-conscious about arguing with itself, assembling august bodies of intellectuals and politicians to ponder such issues as good government and national identity. Critic Julien Benda’s assault on the “treason of the clerks” that this accommodation to power represented foreshadowed a second era, that of ideology. Here Kedward depicts the growth of mass parties of the left and right, offering useful notes on the nature of, for instance, the Vichy government: “There was no comparable ‘final solution’ in Vichy’s own antisemitic agenda,” he observes, but neither was there meaningful resistance on Vichy’s part to the program the Germans imposed. The age of ideology, by Kedward’s account, gave way after May 1968 and its stunning revolt to the present era, one of preoccupation with identity; the eminent historian Braudel may have argued that to be French was to be multicultural, but the National Front had a much different view. Which one will prevail remains to be seen.
A revealing and nuanced view of recent French history.