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In  February 2003, the then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin addressed the United Nations Security Council. Villepin was setting out France’s opposition to the use force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. “We are the guardians of an ideal,” he said, “the guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and the immense honour which is ours should lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament.”

Sudhir Hazareesingh, who teaches politics at Oxford, opens his new book, “How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People,” with a discussion of Villepin’s speech. Villepin’s appeal to universal values—which, it was implied, France incarnates more completely than any other nation—was, Hazareesingh writes, “recognisably, unquestionably French”. I spoke to him on the phone earlier this week and began by suggesting that the speech was also a reminder that French politicians of both right and left, particularly in the postwar period, have often spoken the same political language, one which exalts the power of the state at home and France’s “civilising mission” abroad.

SH: Very much so. In a way, that’s part of the longer republican tradition. Villepin is a Gaullist, and Gaullism is one of the most recent examples of the republican tradition, which is sometimes called the “Jacobin” tradition. And it goes back to the French Revolution—the idea of a strong, centralising state that has a civilising mission both domestically and abroad. Domestically, it shines through in education and in the idea of creating a rational political community. It shines through, too, in the French notion of citizenship, which is one based on adhesion to common values and has nothing to do with ethnicity. All of that is the cultural and intellectual backdrop to the sorts of things Villepin believes and which were very widely shared by French elites on the right and on the left.

Added to that is a vision of France as a kind of benevolent force in world politics. That changes over time, of course. With the Revolution and particularly with Napoleon, it’s a slightly more brutal form of French messianic power. In a sense, the two empires represent the apogee of this more brutal version of it—Napoleon’s empire, on the one hand, and the French colonial empire, on the other, which is the second largest empire after Britain’s. But in the 20th century, and particularly after the Second World War, there’s a very important shift. Then the notion of French power becomes much more the kind of thing that Villepin was talking about—it’s something more to do with morality, with trying to construct a world which is not purely based on power politics and where collective interests play an important role. That’s what de Gaulle famously tried to do in the Sixties, at the height of the Cold War. So, that’s why I open the book with the Villepin speech—it was important, in and of itself, as it was one of the watershed moments of the early 2000s, but it also carried so much of these previous traditions in it that it seemed to be a nice opening point.

JD: The extent to which that republican tradition has always been available for appropriation by both right and left is presumably one of the reasons why there has been a fair bit of controversy recently in France over Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to rename his party, the UMP, Les Républicains.

Yes, it was felt to be unfair…

 Un-republican?

Un-republican, right. It’s sometimes said that the Republic is “la chose commune”, something that belongs to all of us. So if something is la chose commune it can’t be the property of one particular group—even a group that claims to represent everybody. This is a symptom of something else, which is also a sign of how things are changing in France: Sarkozy is perhaps the most pro-American mainstream politician the French have produced recently. He’s consciously trying to create a party in the mould of the American Republicans.

Sarkozy is also an interesting symptom of something else you discuss in the book: the place that what the French call “liberalism”, and which we in the “Anglo-Saxon” world might call neoliberalism, has in the country’s political discourse. As president, he began in a liberal or neoliberal mode, rhetorically at least,and then retrenched later in his quinquennat, emphasising law and order issues in a more conventionally right-wing way.

Exactly. I’m still not sure how to explain that change. It’s either that Sarkozy was simply quite superficial—he’s not a doctrinaire politician, so he grasped at this language at a time when it was helpful to distinguish himself. He comes out of the dying embers of the Chirac era and is trying to look young, trying to sound different, so he grasps this cluster of ideas about the need to have a smaller state, the need to promote individualism. It was classic anti-Jacobin rhetoric. Chirac was the absolute incarnation of the Jacobin tradition. So I think that’s why you get that kind of [liberal/neoliberal] language from Sarkozy in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Once he’s in power, he finds it difficult to implement reform. Vested interests in France are very powerful, even when they don’t represent large social constituencies. Trying even just to slow down the rate at which public expenditure grows is very difficult. And he fails there. And then of course there’s the financial crisis. So he turns to the issue of security in the final years of his quinquennat. The great republican leaders who’ve done that in the past have coded it in terms of republicanism and that’s when it’s worked. Think of Clemenceau, think of de Gaulle. They were able to be the incarnation of the idea of the strongman, but they managed to do it in a way that wasn’t divisive. I think Sarkozy’s big mistake was that this whole security agenda seemed to be too transparently directed at one particular part of the French community.

Let’s turn away from recent political history to the longer story you’re telling in the book. You described the republican tradition just now as la chose commune, something that is shared by politicians of right and left. But there’s a paradox here isn’t there? Because at the same, as you point out, 1789 casts a long shadow over French politics, giving it what you call a “fratricidal” quality. So on the one hand there is a “rhetorical attachment to the idea of rupture” and, on the other, “a fundamental unity that manifests itself in the reproduction of certain basic assumptions and styles of thought.” And that paradox seems to have shaped the political and intellectual history of France over the past 200 years.

That’s right. The Republic divides and it divides most dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Historians sometimes forget that, particularly in the early days, the Republic just about managed to hang on. In 1875, the Constitution was passed by a single vote in the National Assembly. All the way up to Vichy, there are large constituencies in society that are viscerally opposed to the Republic. But the story of republicanism—and this is why it is so successful—is that it becomes more and more inclusive. So over the course of the 19th century it swallows some of its opponents. It has this extraordinary capacity to keep reaching out to broader constituencies. Groups that start out as opponents eventually come inside the tent. You see it on both the left and the right. On the left, the best examples are the socialists, who start out very sceptical about the Third Republic. Eventually, by the time you get to the Second World War and then the Fourth Republic, they’re the pillars of the institution.

The Third Republic, which lasted from 1870 to 1940, is clearly the hinge in this story. You see the Third Republic as reinterpreting the Revolutionary inheritance in what you describe as an essentially “depoliticised” way. What do you mean by that?

It’s a very important turning point. Up to the late 19th century, the French are constantly debating the Revolution and what it means. There are all sorts of interpretations—moderate, radical and revolutionary—and there’s no consensus. No single group is able to appropriate it for its own ends. What the Third Republic does very cleverly, by creating the Quatorze Juillet and making it the national day, is to redefine what the Revolution was about. It redefines it in two ways. One is to make it not about radical change but about national unity. The Quatorze Juillet is in fact a celebration of 14th July 1790, the festival of the federation when everybody comes together, that fleeting moment of unity before things go pear-shaped. Secondly, it’s no longer a revolution that is a break from the past. It’s staggering, when you read the speeches and the discussion in parliament in 1880—they all talk about how the Revolution is the culmination of all the great things that the monarchy had achieved before 1789.

This is a classic reinvention of a tradition. And that’s why I say it’s depoliticised. The Third Republic is born at the time of the Paris Commune. So they’re really worried that republicanism will be tainted by this association with subversion, the red flag and all of that. That’s why they need to find a safe way of reinterpreting the past.

What also becomes entrenched during the Third Republic is what we were talking about at the beginning—the idea that France, above all other nations, incarnates universal values.

There’s always a bit of wishful thinking here. The more stridently French elites talk about France’s universal mission the more likely it is that they’re going through a difficult patch at home. Take the early Third Republic—they’d just lost to Prussia, they’d lost Alsace-Lorraine, so this universalism they’re talking about is a way of deflecting the sense of humiliation and loss. And then the big push to rebuild the colonial empire comes in the late 19th century. That’s very explicitly, in the minds of people like Jules Ferry, a way of turning attention toward something else, finding glory through other means.

The same thing happens with de Gaulle. De Gaulle has this universalising rhetoric, but what he’s trying to make everybody forget, particularly after 1958, is Vichy and the terribly messy way in which the French colonial regime ends in Algeria.

That sense of universalism is one the sources of anti-American sentiment, which has historically been unusually virulent in France. Partly because the United States also claims to embody universal values, to be obliged by providence to carry the torch of liberty on behalf of all human kind.

Yes. This is a classic clash of universalisms. When I was doing the research for the book, I was really surprised by how entrenched the anti-Americanism is. I thought it would be something relatively recent. For a very brief moment right after the American Revolution, French thinkers celebrated it as a triumph of the Rousseauist spirit. But as soon as they start visiting [America] they’re horrified. The only one who’s positive—it’s ambiguous, but it’s still positive—is Tocqueville. He sees [America] as the harbinger of things to come. But in the 20th century, anti-Americanism is absolutely rampant. You get it both from cultural conservatives, who are horrified by the materialism of the place, and from the left, where it’s the inegalitarianism that matters. They come together after the Second World War. It’s the one thing that de Gaulle and the Communists have in common.

One of the ironies of recent French intellectual history, given what you’ve just said, is that it was the US which offered the warmest welcome for the French “theory” of the Sixties and Seventies—the work of figures like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida.

That was unexpected. There was a cultural and generational war going in within American academia. Foucault and Derrida, in particular, were picked up by the younger, more radical groups and used as a wedge to dislodge what they saw as more conservative and traditionalist elements—particularly in literature, but also in philosophy. French theory was appropriated for American academic and intellectual ends. And that also explains why it was distorted, too. They tried to make Foucault and Derrida stand for things that they didn’t necessarily believe themselves.

You alluded just now to what the historian Pierre Nora has called the “moment of Gaullo-Communism,” the confluence of Gaullism and Communism in France after the Second World War. Opposition to the universalist, republican tradition seems to come primarily from the radical right. And there are several incarnations of this conservative nationalist sensibility—Boulangisme, Action Française, Vichy, Poujadism and presumably the Front National today.

Right up to the FN—that’s exactly the lineage. But the relationship with the Republic is ambiguous. Boulanger, for example, is a republican to begin with and a lot of the people who support him are socialists and radicals. It’s the fascination that the French have for charismatic, providential leaders that’s underlying all of this. It’s a populist movement which thinks it can capture the Republic and bring it back to its popular origins—that’s where the radical right starts. When the door is closed at the summit, it then develops into a much more viscerally anti-republican movement. But it’s always quite fragmented. René Rémond wrote a classic book on the right in France [La Droite en France de 1815 à nos jours] in which he distinguishes between three traditions—the legitimist, traditional Royalists, the Orleanists, who are the liberals, and then the Bonapartists, who are the populists. The extreme right borrows from the traditionalist Royalists, on the one hand, and the Bonapartists on the other.

Vichy is the big moment. Vichy is the culmination—Charles Maurras said it was the revenge of the Dreyfusards. After all the battles they lost in the first half of the 20th century, [the right] now think they can turn the clock back. But because Vichy fails in the way it does, the extreme right that comes out of the Second World War ends up following a rather different route. And its last stand is in Algeria. Algeria is also where the ambiguity reappears, because when de Gaulle comes back to power in 1958 he uses these people to get back—the Comité de salut publique, which is formed in Algiers, is filled with these not very salubrious characters that de Gaulle has cultivated.

You place the Front National squarely in that lineage. What’s interesting about Marine Le Pen is that her project for the decontamination or “dédiabolisation” of the FN involves laying claim, precisely, to the language of republicanism— especially of laicité.

Yes. She’s done it very artfully. She’s cleverer than her father. She’s also she’s following a very different strategy. The father wanted to be seen as a pure opponent, and that’s where he was most comfortable. He was never more distraught than when he made it to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002. He really didn’t want to be in that position. He wanted to be the outsider and stay there. But his daughter wants to be the governing force.

We’re back to the ambiguity again: she realises that if she wants the FN to become a party of government, then it can’t just be seen as an anti-republican party of the extreme right. It’s going to have to accommodate itself not just to other parties, but to republican values and principles. The way that has been translated in practice is that, instead of denouncing Arabs as Arabs, which is what her father would do, she now says that they’re not secular enough. These are all code words. Everybody knows that when Marine Le Pen says, “We have a problem with laicité,” she means that there are too many Arabs. She’s repositioned herself quite skilfully. But when you look at the opinion polls, there’s still a substantial majority of people who would say that the FN is not a republican party.

The mainstream right is caught between a rock and hard place on this. If you ignore them [the FN], they just become stronger. If you try to make some kind of alliance or even just speak the language of the extreme right, then you alienate the centre. Look at what happened in 2012. Sarkozy lost [the Presidential election] by just over a million votes, and they were basically all of [the centrist] François Bayrou’s votes. The thing that horrified Bayrou most was the fact that, from 2010 onwards, Sarkozy was manifestly lurching to the right in a bid to win the support of the FN electorate.

You identify the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1980 as a decisive moment in French intellectual history. You write that after his death, “Marxism ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life.” But that process of de-Marxification had already started before Sartre died hadn’t it? You mention the nouveaux philosophes in passing, but you don’t mention the profound effect that the publication in 1974 of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago had in France.

As far as the unravelling of Marxism as the dominant French ideology is concerned, I think you could go back even further, to the Sixties and the rise of structuralism which takes the whole perspective in a completely different direction. It drops the notion of progress which is pivotal to the Marxist idea. And it drops the idea of a particular privileged historical agent—the proletariat. That’s the first big move. The second big move is May 1968, when it becomes clear that the Communist Party is not a revolutionary force. That’s the beginning of the end intellectually for the Communists. The third element, because the French have this weird fascination with the Soviet Union, is the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. Before that, nothing had dented this vision of the Soviet Union as a flawed but progressive force in world politics. It’s that book which, for various complicated reasons, causes a ripple effect within the left intelligentsia and eventually brings down the whole edifice.

The era that followed, in the early 1980s, is one of intellectual “normalisation,” as you point out in the book. And probably the emblematic publication of this period was Le Débat, founded by the historian Pierre Nora and the political theorist Marcel Gauchet. Another important figure in this period is the historian of the French Revolution François Furet. How sympathetic are you to the kind of declinist analysis of the post-Sartrean era that you find in the work of someone like Perry Anderson?

Not hugely. I think he’s a bit too bleak. What I try to do in the book is to show, on the one hand, where things are quite pessimistic and, on the other hand, where there are signs of positivity and hope in the French intellectual sphere. And that more positive message is one that Anderson doesn’t have—he’s just negative. He doesn’t see any prospect for change. Whereas I think the structures are still there. France still has all these publications, it has an intellectual sphere that is vibrant. All it needs is for the French to stop being so self-pitying.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s “How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People” is published by Allen Lane (£20).

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