The French Republic: History, Values, Debates.
Every book has a history, but that of The French Republic is particularly relevant to its structure, content, and scholarly contribution. The volume's origins lie in the Dictionnaire critique de la Republique, which was edited by Vincent Duclert and Christophe Prochasson, published in France in 2002, and subsequently reprinted in 2007 in slightly revised form. Coming in at over 1,300 large-format pages, this massive volume aimed to provide a critical history of the French Republic by examining republican institutions, practices, values, heroes, and symbols in a way that incorporated contradictions, repudiations, and episodes of violence. The almost two hundred essays and entries included ten contributions by seven leading American and British scholars of France. Struck by the distinctiveness of the Anglo-American contributions, which was also on view in 2004 at the first Society for French Historical Studies annual meeting to be held in France, Duclert and Prochasson enlisted Edward Berenson, a 2004 conference co-organizer, to help produce a new version of the Dictionnaire critique to be published in the United States. The resulting work, The French Republic, reprints both the original ten pieces written by American and British scholars and a nearly equal number of French pieces, and pairs them with twenty new pieces on topics of particular interest to Americans, including immigration, decolonization, the civilizing mission, and commemoration. Although this much slimmer volume thus blends scholarship on Republican France produced in both France and the Anglophone world, it is most interesting as a reflection of the approaches and concerns currently animating American historians of modern France who, as the editors point out, have a different relationship to the Republic than their French counterparts.
The French Republic is divided into three very different sections: "Time and History," "Principles and Values," and "Dilemmas and Debates." The first section, which provides the book's historical framework, includes synthetic essays of between eight and ten pages on each of France's five republics alongside essays examining the relationship of republican thought and practice to the Enlightenment, the Second Empire, the Vichy regime, and war (read World War I). The essays generally begin with an historiographical overview before proceeding to the development of a new interpretive argument. Although the essays in this section vary considerably in style and approach, the essay that seems least in keeping with the rest of the volume is that examining the Fifth Republic, which was established in 1958 and still in place. Written by a political scientist, the essay does not foreground historiography, focuses on constitutional and political history (narrowly defined), and says little about events after de Gaulle's departure in 1969. Since the Fifth Republic's last forty years serve as the historical backdrop for many of the issues and debates addressed in the third part of the book, this is unfortunate.
Pointing out contradictions between republican ideological claims and social, political, economic, and cultural realities, expanding the notion of France to include the nation's former colonial possessions and peoples, have been central concerns of American historians of France during the last twenty or so years. The book's second and third sections reflect these interests directly. The essays in part two, "Principles and Values," examine the historically specific meanings of key republican tenets, beginning with the republican triad of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and including such terms as democracy, laicity, citizenship, universalism, the civilizing mission, parite, and the state. Tracing the history of these terms across the republican past effectively underscores the historically variable meanings, contradictions, and, at times, limited applicability of republican values that are presented as timeless and universal. The book's final part, "Dilemmas and Debates," is the biggest departure from the earlier French volumes. These essays, which are particularly stimulating, probe controversies and debates that have challenged Republican orthodoxies--and so intrigued American historians. Excellent essays examine such issues as the history of immigration and commemoration over the republican longue duree, while others provide nuanced readings of more time-delimited debates, such as those on the suburbs and the new national immigration museum, which opened in 2007. Additional pieces analyze the relationship of Republican thought and practice to the family, children, intellectuals, Jews, indigenous peoples, women, and gender.
The French Republic is an invaluable resource for historians of modern France. The thirty-eight essays, written by eminent scholars representing three countries and multiple intellectual traditions and generations, are of an uncommonly high quality. Although some are less tightly focused than others, the vast majority are clearly written, well-conceived, and authoritative, blending synthesis with fresh analysis. Each, moreover, contains a bibliography of key works, although citations are very few. Because of the volume's unusual structure, the book ranges more widely than most edited collections and provides a great diversity of pieces that are nonetheless in dialogue with one another. As one example, the decision to open the third section with consecutive essays on indigenous people, immigration, the immigration museum, decolonization, the suburbs, and debates over the veil allows the reader to consider these topical issues from a range of vantage points: The placement of these articles also reflects the importance that these kinds of issues have come to have for American historians of France. What is missing from the book is any sustained discussion of the economic history of republican France and any mention of the process and pitfalls of European integration. Perhaps the current crisis facing Europe will push more historians in these directions in the future.
Susan B. Whitney
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|Author:||Whitney, Susan B.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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