The Red and the White: Report from a French Village
The Other Germans: Report from an East German Town
Ich bin Bürger der DDR und lebe in der Bundesrepublik
After Hitler: A Report on Today’s West Germans
A French sociologist is looking at the bust of Marianne, the Spirit of Republican France, in a Breton mairie. As if for the first time, Edgar Morin stares into those terrible, blind eyes and sees her as “the Cybele or Isis of a dead civilization. At the same time, I suddenly discovered the beauty of this proud virgin’s face and realized that it produced in me a state akin to faith….” Morin’s book, The Red and the White, is the summing up of a project conducted by a team of researchers on a Breton community, but it is in effect a man’s reflections upon his own society and beliefs.
The study was carried out in the bemusing, sultry years which culminated in the flash and thunder of May, 1968. Morin interrogates Marianne: What, now, remains of the red spirit of France, the Jacobin tradition which is one pole of the bipolarity of every French commune and to which Morin knows that he irrevocably belongs? The countryside of France has been undergoing since about 1950 its second great transformation, the first being the changes brought about by the Third Republic from the Eighties onward. The intensity of the two old cosmologies of red and white begins to dim. What does this mean for the legitimacy of the parties which represent these cosmologies? Morin’s interest in the white side of things is, frankly, perfunctory. He is trying to orient himself. He is asking, I think, whether Marianne consents still to appear when the Communist Party conjures her up.
“Plodémet” is in no way typical of bipolar French small towns. It is a poor commune in the Bigouden country of South Finistère; the “bourg” of Plodémet itself is a raw little place of 1,200 people living in modern houses, dull and half-deserted in winter and revived every summer by visitors and homecomers who work elsewhere. Such Breton communities “joined France” (as Morin puts it) from their own peculiar direction, and joined relatively recently. Even in Brittany, Plodémet is odd: it combines “agricultural backwardness, high scholastic standards, red politics, extraversion….”
The historical account is a fascinating one. “Plodémet became red, not because the ancien régime had become decadent but because it never developed here.” The commune is an ecological patchwork with different micro climates every few hundred yards; those in richer areas accessible to roads and markets, where noblemen had cereal fields, did become attached to the feudal system and the ancien régime and evolved into the whites of the Breton political stereotype. But the poor areas stayed “outside France.” Paganism survived in them until the Counter Reformation. Quasi-tribal communities, with little or no church organization, they were the abode of “outlaws” and “wreckers.” And it was this population—the majority—which suddenly joined France at the Revolution “when, and because, France became a republic.” Prefeudal, anticlerical, they clung to the centralizing republic whose message of enlightenment also appealed to their outlaw sense of superiority to the feudal peasant …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.