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Transmission problems: memory, community and the republican idea in contemporary France.

In recent years, Editions du Seuil have published a series of small volumes aimed at a wide audience and bearing such titles as La Republique expliquee a ma fille or L'Amour de la France explique a mon ills. Well-known novelists, historians and philosophers have been enrolled in a attempt to fill in the generational gap, to repair the tear in the national fabric, in the hope that they will succeed in communicating what should already have been conveyed by political and cultural institutions. The need for leading public intellectuals to 'explain' to younger generations core national values and institutions such as 'the Republic' or 'the love of France" points to the inability of the French public schools to perform their traditional function of cultural transmission. Essays by Max Gallo and Regis Debray illustrate the paradoxical use of cultural memory by prominent representatives of the 'national-republican' camp in today's France.

Keywords: contemporary France, intellectuals, memory, Republic


One of the most perceptive commentaries on the success of Lieux de memoire, the influential multi-volume collection edited by Pierre Nora, is that the French have lately displayed a lot of interest in their past because their relationship to this very past has become acutely problematic. In other words, the French readership's taste for historical essays and novels is all the greater since France, with the end of the Gaullist era, has lost its 'exceptionality' on the world political scene and has joined, willy-nilly, the ranks of other European nations. The France of the 1980s, as Francois Furet has put it, finally closed down its 'exceptional political theatre' (Furet et al., 1988: 54).

The demand for history is a symptom of this uneasy relationship to the national past and the European future. In recent years, several thin volumes bearing titles such as La Republique expliquee a ma fille (The Republic Explained to my Daughter) and L'Amour de la France explique a mon fils (The Love of France Explained to my Son) have been published by Editions du Seuil. The model for this new didactic genre is quite simple, and easily reproducible, as shown by the formulaic nature of the titles in the collection. Take a polemical issue often debated in the media and in public discourse (i.e. racism, laicite or national identity), ask a renowned novelist or public intellectual to direct his reflections on the matter towards his son or daughter, and beyond towards French youth in general, in an accessible yet provocative manner aimed at informing, convincing and entertaining at the same time, and you have a highly marketable product that joins moral and intellectual edification with the pleasure of a good read.

I am less interested in the content of these books than in their form, or rather their function in a general economy of cultural transmission. In other words, what is the point of this kind of writing and how can we explain the success of its editorial concept? By explaining the Republic or 'France' to his son or daughter, the author (very often a man, i.e. a father) serves a pedagogical purpose, which is to clarify what has been obscured or even forgotten. The notoriety of the author helps convey to a wider audience a viewpoint perceived (by the author and the editors) to be unknown to young people, and this is presented as both an outrage and a danger.

The fact that a well-known novelist, historian or philosopher needs to 'explain' this or that notion to his son or daughter points to a lack of collective memory, a fateful break in the temporal chain of cultural transmission. The younger generation should know what the Republic or the love of country are all about, but they do not. Literary and academic personalities are enrolled in an effort to fill in the gap, to repair the tear in the cultural fabric, in the hope that their book will succeed in communicating what should already have been conveyed by other means.

There is a sense of urgency in the concept (and sometimes the tone) of these publications, as if this were a last-ditch effort, as if it might already be too late. At the beginning of L'Amour de la France explique a mon fils, Gallo wonders whether his son will ever be able to share his own 'relation to the nation' made up of his memories of the German occupation during World War II.
   On the day of the Liberation, I ran from barricade to barricade,
   and my father wore a tricolour armband. Flower wreaths had been
   laid at the foot of streetlights, with a poster that read 'Morts
   pour la France'. My childhood was patriotic, my Republic heroic and
   my France fighting and victorious ... I look at my son, seated at
   his computer. He is surfing, as he says, from one 'site' to the
   next. He checks his e-mail. What is his 'territory'? The world? What
   are his 'roots'? The Internet? (Gallo, 1999: 7)

Notorious writers or public intellectuals are called upon to make up for a deficient institution that has failed in its mission to pass on to French children a solid, documented, cogently argued illustration of core cultural values now threatened by oblivion. This faulty, inadequate institution is, of course, the public school. It is because the Republican school no longer talks of the Republique, and l'education nationale no longer teaches students about the nation, that Regis Debray and Max Gallo must act as their substitutes, performing in their place the cultural transmission that was their raison d'etre.

In a 1984 report addressed to Jean-Pierre Chevenement, then Education Minister, historian Claude Nicolet, former aide to Pierre Mendes-France, a renowned specialist of Roman republican history and author of L'Idee republicaine en France, lamented the disappearance from French school curricula of the civic education that was once the cornerstone of the pedagogical project of Jules Ferry and his colleagues in the first generation of Third Republic leaders. In his report (not published until 1992), Nicolet lambasted the 'deficiencies' of the public school system:
   Fifteen or twenty years of 'liberal' and 'industrial' policies
   have paved the way for the triumph of consumerism: the thin content
   of official recommendations are aimed at the 'future consumer'.
   Nothing about 'public law', institutions, civic duty and politics;
   instead, a self-seeking promotion of conviviality and 'social'
   practices of 'consensus', for the greater good of the market. No
   surprise there, after all, this was the ideology of 'the new
   society'. (Nicolet, 1992: 72)

The left was as much a target of Nicolet's criticism as the new free-market, consumerist ideology:
   More serious yet, to my mind, were the deviations that some unions,
   and even some left-wing parties, had made possible: learning
   'democracy' at school and 'opening up' the latter (to whom?) were
   supposed to make up, thanks to a winning 'pedagogy', for the lack
   of content with demagogic form. Last but not least, good
   intentions: civic duty, after 1981, was back in fashion; however,
   under the pretence of human rights, it only benefited anti-racism
   (which is good) and the cultivation of difference (which is either
   questionable or insufficient). (Nicolet, 1992: 72)

The historian's diagnosis echoes more recent attacks by national-republican intellectuals against the 'postmodern', 'communitarian' and 'droit-de-l'hommiste' sectors of the French left, faulted for having sacrificed the principles of the republican compact to cultural fads or business interests. In this view, the ascendancy of civil society over the state and the replacement of the school system by the media as the major source of social values and behaviours threatens the philosophical and political foundations of the republican regime, especially the independence of public education from the political, religious and economic forces at work in the social field. The much-debated notion of laicite, so often misunderstood today, aimed at sheltering the state's school system, conceived as a space for the free examination of knowledge, from pressures born of civil society, from churches, parties, unions, business interests, ethnic groups, civic associations and 'communities' of all kinds.

The discipline of history, even more than civic instruction, was entrusted with the mission of preserving the memory of the Republic by inscribing the achievements of modern democracy within the legacy of the French Revolution, according to the narrative provided by the mythical figures of Jules Michelet and Jean Jaures. Today's republican public intellectual, therefore, must become a historian, or rather, in Regis Debray's words, a 'meta-historian', in order to counter the 'depreciation of history' at work in our media-driven age. Alain Finkielkraut, for example, prefaces his critique of contemporary culture (in his Defeat of the Mind, 1995), with a long detour through the history of ideas leading from Kant and de Maistre to Fanon and Levi-Strauss, by way of Ernest Renan.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Max Gallo (a professional historian and prolific author of numerous historical novels) based his attempt to impart the values of patriotism to his own son on a short overview of the triumphs, and shortcomings, of French history. The theme of memory as survival is everywhere in Gallo's L'Amour de la France explique a mon fils, from references to the ancestral rituals and burying sites of ancient cultures to the repeated claim that his son (and by extension, his compatriots) have a duty to remember:
   When you walk upon this land, wherever it may be, remember that a
   man was there before you, that he hunted or ploughed a furrow, put
   up a fence, than another one came, who cut the stones to build a
   wall, and raise a tower, and when it falls, the stone is used
   again, becoming a house or a basilica. (Gallo, 1999: 12)

The work of Regis Debray illustrates the ambiguous status of cultural memory, both indispensable and under threat, for those who support the republican legacy. Novelist, philosopher, essayist, pamphleteer and now 'mediologist', Debray has excelled in a variety of literary genres, in the tradition of Voltaire and Sartre. His most recent publications shuttle back and forth between two dominant poles: on the one hand, critical, often acerbic political essays on issues of the moment, from the legacy of May '68 to the bicentennial of the French Revolution and the Socialists' conversion to the market economy; on the other, a series of academic writings in mediology, a new discipline he has founded and successfully established in France and abroad. According to Debray, mediology is 'the study of the mediations through which an idea becomes a material force, our "media" being only a specific, belated and intrusive extension of these mediations' (Debray, 1994: 19).

Debray's critique of contemporary media and the effects of their ascendancy in French society goes hand in hand with the long history of the technical mediations (orality, iconography, print, typography, computer science, etc.) that make it possible for a social ideology such as collective memory to reproduce itself. Mediological inquiry, in a sense, answers the need to account for the disappearance of what Debray calls the 'republican mediasphere': the ideals and institutions that produced the Reformation, the modern Republic and the Revolution, with the book, the school and the newspaper, respectively, as their material supports.

Republican ideology in France today is in large part a generational issue. Its most committed advocates cherish the memories of a world gone by: the covered playground of the elementary schools, the grey smocks of the schoolmasters, black and white movies, and the Citroen traction avant. Hence the imperious need to salvage these memories and pass them on to their sons and daughters, before it is too late, in the pages of the thin volumes published by Editions du Seuil. It is hardly surprising that the notion of transmission should play such a central role in the analytical framework of mediology. For Debray, the major source of the gradual erasure of the republican memory lies not in economic change, in post-war prosperity or the embourgeoisement of the lower middle classes, but in the transition from one mediological galaxy to the next, from 'graphosphere' to 'videosphere', from the empire of signs to that of images. The various aspects of the 'modernization' and 'liberalization' of France after 1968 are for Debray the symptoms of a momentous shift in media hegemony. 'We are witnessing', he writes, 'the Counter-Reformation of the image against the sign, of music against reading and audiovisual aids against the blackboard' (Debray, 1994: 502).

The eerie glare of TV sets and computer screens is responsible for what Debray calls the 'defeat of Diderot by Disneyland', for all the related 'crises' experts dissect daily on television: crises of the schools, of the book form and of socialism, of the university and the parliament, of the welfare state and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. The videosphere abhors abstractions and mediations, glorifies the imaginary, favours the short-circuit of the event over the long time of symbolic accumulation, immediate pleasure over asceticism, 'live' broadcast over deferred writing, and 'lived' experience over reflection after the fact. Debray's historical narrative provides a framework for interpreting a variety of current cultural developments, including recurring debates in academic circles between the supporters of Disneyland and the defenders of Diderot.

The seductive power of Debray's thesis might also lie in its crepuscular, almost stoic character, as he squarely faces the demise of what he holds to be the finest achievement of Western political philosophy and the eclipse of graphic Reason, i.e. a collective project of wilful political transformation based on the written text.
   Do you know what is going to disappear tonight when the eyes of
   the last unemployed typesetter close: a world, a history, a
   culture, the typographic sequence Reformation-Republic-Revolution.
   It was your present and you did not know that it was already past,
   because it still struggles along in the margins ... The study of
   the conditions of life is inevitably linked with death, since they
   only appear to us at twilight. (Debray, 1994: 318)

And yet Debray refuses to give in to nostalgia, to the backward-looking delectatio morosa of those who bemoan the surrender of thought and the disappearance of the political. Through a paradoxical use of the relations between memory and forgetting, he delights in turning things around, asserting that the past is before us, that the Republique is still alive and well, that the nation-state will return or that the future belongs to Charles de Gaulle. La Republique expliquee a ma fille ends with a call to the younger generations to fulfil the unfinished promise of the Republican legacy, as the author tells his daughter:
   Do not let this promise degenerate into entitlement claims or
   ready made slogans. It is given to you as a patrimony, and you
   will have to pass it on to your own children--enriched, and made
   larger by what you will have done with it. (Debray, 1998: 60)

In the concluding pages of A demain de Gaulle, Debray argues that 'everywhere, in architecture, in painting, in film, eclecticism as anaesthesia and the frivolous culture we call "postmodern" is drawing to an end' (Debray, 1990: 177). It is high time, he claims, to see de Gaulle as our contemporary rather than as the last great figure of the nineteenth century, since 'the old and the new are trading places today'. Similarly, in Que vive la Republique, Debray writes that the bicentennial of the French Revolution erased the memory of 1793, privileging instead the safer, less controversial liberal moment of 1789, because its organizers refused to 'historicize politics': they lacked 'the energy of the Renaissance, the activism of Romantics, the vitality of Louis David as a young man, going back to ancient Greece, to medieval gothic, in order to deflate the pompous turgidity of "the modern". The living never take enough advantage of the dead' (Debray, 1989: 39).

Are these elegant formulas nothing but facile paradoxes masking a failure to accept the inevitable, to face the ultimate consequences of the demise of graphic Reason? Debray provides the reader with two reasons for his faith in the persistence of memory, one based on the most recent developments in international relations, the other on a fundamental principle of his philosophy of history. He finds the proof that repressed archaic forms return in the midst of modernity in the rebirth of nationalisms despite the so-called crisis of the nation-state, in the flaring-up of religious fundamentalisms in the midst of the individualistic, agnostic, 'cold' cultures of postmodernity. Debray sees the return of 'tribalism' in a world supposedly turned global and post-national as evidence that 'the sacred is the future of mankind as much as the machine'. 'We have found out', he argues, 'that "the old" is not what one leaves behind, but what is waiting ahead' (Debray, 1994: 118).

This temporal reversal illustrates one of the main tenets of Debray's philosophy of history, a view that refutes both the economic evolutionism of the supporters of globalization and the anti-universalism of the postmodernists: there is 'no progress in the history of art, religion and politics. That is why there is one human culture and only one, as humanity remains one in all peoples' (Debray, 1994: 343). This very break between the history of representations and that of techniques warrants the paradoxical optimism of Debray's thought. The videosphere is vulnerable not only because it has a short memory, but also because the way it remembers is costly. The processes by which it stores traces, from computerized databanks to the dissemination of websites, are both expensive and fragile. The temptation, then, is to erase all traces and to rely on the 'live' immediacy of the event. The videosphere, lacking a material memory, inscribed in monuments and in schoolbooks, often fails to adequately assess the power of what returns from the most ancient past, and runs the risk of supporting Debray's claim that amnesiacs condemn themselves to oblivion.

Debray's position is paradoxical in the sense that his accurate assessment of the vitality of nationalism in a world supposedly gone global goes hand in hand with a grim view of the future of the republican tradition in contemporary France. The renewed attraction of the republican ideology among intellectuals in the wake of the 1989 Affair of the Veil and the subsequent debates on multi-culturalism, and the place of Islam in French society during the 1990s, does not seem to be shared by the electorate, especially the younger generations. The sole candidate who openly campaigned for the defence of republican institutions during the notorious 2002 presidential elections, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, received only 5.36 per cent of the vote, confirming Debray's own pessimistic prognosis in Le Code et le glaive:
   For now, the 'national-republican' vote could be seen as a
   minoritarian protest vote (as in the first round of an election),
   aiming less at blocking the system (there are too few of us) than
   at bearing witness. (Debray, 1999: 88)

Hence the proliferation of books explaining to younger generations the relevance of the past in the rapidly changing present. The 'duty of memory' is all the more pressing since, beyond the rhetorical appeal to 'republican values' following Le Pen's unexpected showing in the presidential elections, no convincing, forward-looking response to the current crisis of the national political culture has yet emerged in French intellectual circles.


Debray, Regis (1989) Que vive la Republique. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Debray, Regis (1990) A demain de Gaulle. Paris: Gallimard.

Debray, Regis (1994) Cours de mediologie generale. Paris: Gallimard.

Debray, Regis (1998) La Republique expliquee a ma fille. Paris: Seuil.

Debray, Regis (1999) Le Code et le glaive: apres l'Europe, la nation? Paris: Albin-Michel.

Finkielkraut, Alain (1995) The Defeat of the Mind, trans. Judith Friedlander. New York: Columbia University Press.

Furet, Francois, Juillard, Jacques and Rosanvallon, Pierre (1988) La Republique du Centre. Paris: Calmann-Levy.

Gallo, Max (1999) L'Amour de la France explique a mon fils. Paris: Seuil.

Nicolet, Claude (1982) L'Idee republicaine en France 1789-1924. Paris: Gallimard.

Nicolet, Claude (1992) La Republique en France. Etat des lieux. Paris: Seuil.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jean-Philippe Mathy is Professor of French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Address: Department of French, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 707 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801, USA [email:]
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Author:Mathy, Jean-Philippe
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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