One fine summer’s day, the great Lord Curzon, then British secretary of state for foreign affairs, received a delegation from Mosul. When they were ushered in to his presence he was busy writing and he invited them to go to the window and to look at the people enjoying the sunshine in the park. They were polite men and they did so. After a while Lord Curzon joined them. “How many people do you think we can see?” he asked. Since they were especially polite men the delegation ventured on a number of guesses. But the secretary of state soon put an end to the conversation. “It doesn’t matter how many there are,” he said. “But you can be sure of one thing. Not a single one of them has ever heard of Mosul.” Thus the delegation was put in its place. They knew how unimportant they were.

The French have always been fearful that they might be made to appear unimportant. One lesson that they have never forgotten is that of Yalta. General de Gaulle was not invited to the conference held in 1945 when Stalin, a sick Roosevelt, and a disgruntled Churchill divided up the world. All that the French received was a message that Roosevelt, on his way home from the Black Sea, would meet De Gaulle in Algiers, a gesture that added injury to the already grievous slight, since it appeared that Roosevelt chose not to know that Algiers was a part of French territory and chose to overlook the protocol that prevented him from inviting himself there. On many other occasions the French have taken note of how others have excluded them. John Foster Dulles touring Europe and passing Paris by. Macmillan and Kennedy conferring together about the future. Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in Iceland. The French thought that they should have been present since that would have demonstrated the importance of France. Such a presence might have been little more than symbolic. But a symbol is always acceptable.

Richard Bernstein tells a story that adds a different dimension to this attitude. He has heard of a wine grower in the Bordeaux region who insisted that his children should, first thing every weekday morning, watch an American news program on television. That way, he said, they would see how rare it was for Americans to mention France. They would therefore realize how unimportant France had become to the rest of the world.

This particular Frenchman was undoubtedly an eccentric. But his action reveals one part of a dialogue that has become particularly sharp over the past few months. There are those who have for long claimed that France has become a second- or third-class power and who have said that this was obvious to any rational observer. Giscard d’Estaing spoke of France being a middle-sized power, while Edgar Pisani, a distinguished servant of the French state if ever there was one, who has served both General de Gaulle and President Mitterrand in the most important posts, has said that the French did not realize what a negligible quantity they had become.

But given the crisis of the Gulf everyone has been obliged to recognize that the French do not see themselves as being unimportant. From the moment that Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, French diplomacy became ostentatiously active. President Mitterrand gave more press conferences in the course of some six months than any of his predecessors and he also made a speech to the United Nations. He always made it clear that France reserved to itself the right to take some independent peace initiative while, at the same time, supporting United Nations resolutions and dispatching French forces to join their allies in the Gulf. As the crisis drew to a climax and the United Nations’ “ultimatum” drew to a close, it was the other nations who gave the supposed Gallic shrug. The French continued their negotiations, involving North African governments (especially Algeria), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinians. For a time it was seriously thought that Mitterrand himself might go to Baghdad and negotiate on behalf of the Western world. There was even talk of Yasser Arafat flying to Paris and making a joint statement with the president from the steps of the Elysées Palace.

The last-minute peace initiative launched by the French government on January 15 was treated contemptuously by the United States, and it aroused foolish irritation in London. But it ensured, in French eyes, that France was still important. An opinion poll taken in France after the Gulf War had started showed that some 60 percent of the French population considered that their country was a great power. It could negotiate independently of the United States. It had a special and unique relationship with many Arab countries. It was able to send troops, ships, and aircraft and to engage in devastating battle. Thus there is nothing about the French that is negligible.


Some have put forward a daring comparison. In 1940 General de Gaulle and his supporters established themselves in London. They were small in numbers, they had no money, they were totally dependent upon their more fortunate allies. But with the ending of the war and the German and Japanese surrender, France was not only present at the ceremonies, but became one of the occupying powers in Germany and a permanent member of the Security Council at the United Nations. In a similar way, it has been argued, François Mitterrand was determined that France would be present in the Middle East when the Gulf war ended. It will have its special role to play. Were France absent then it will have declined to the same rank as Switzerland (and there are those who claim to have heard these very words from President Mitterrand himself). The chairman of the foreign affairs commission in the National Assembly, Michel Vauzelle, who acted as the president’s personal representative when he had a long interview with the president of Iraq, has publicly said that France’s aim is to avoid another Yalta, when arrangements were made in the absence of France. Thus, for one country in Europe, the memory of Yalta persists.

But why should there be this continuous preoccupation with being a great power? It was all very well for General de Gaulle to be haunted by the idea of rank, le rang, since, at the time of his birth Bismarck was alive and Europe was still dominated by alliance systems and by power politics. But times have changed. Nor do the French people apparently seek to behave heroically. Once the fighting in the Gulf had started more than one editorialist has commented upon “la petite peur” that seemed to have got hold of them, and has urged readers to behave more like “courageous Americans” or “dignified British people” (Le Figaro, January 31). At best, other opinion polls suggest that the French were sad rather than fearful about what has happened.

However, the insistence on status remains. Some of those who opposed Mitterrand’s policy did so precisely because they think that it was not worthy of France to take part in a war that was dominated by America. That is to say a war that is dominated by American interests as well as by American power. Although the French government seized every opportunity to demonstrate that it was different from the other powers of the anti-Iraqi coalition, while at the same time giving the most convincing proofs of its loyalty to this coalition, its opponents believed that France has lost prestige, power, and influence by accepting, however obliquely, that the US is the gendarme of the world. Those who wish to see France assert its greatness and prove its importance are on both sides of the debate. But the remark of the general’s son, the normally discreet Admiral de Gaulle, was noted. Mitterrand’s government, he said, had leapt on to the train when it was moving, and it found itself in the last coach.

For those who find that there is something inept about all this, one can recommend the perceptive and shrewd book by Richard Bernstein, formerly Paris correspondent for The New York Times. Among the countless books that the non-French have written about the French Bernstein’s stands out. This is not to say that he does not repeat many of the things that other journalists in his position have written. He tells us, predictably, about restaurants and clothes, work and leisure, taste and the French notion of “civilization.” We are treated to some generalizations that we wish to hear and some that anyone of us who has spent an afternoon on the Boulevard Saint Michel would be determined to reject and would do so with determined pleasure. He tells us, for example, that French girls “often lose their virginity when they are sixteen or seventeen.” How does he know? How can he make such an estimate? What does he mean by “often”? Is he talking about most French girls, many French girls, or simply some French girls? Does the picture change from one part of France to another, or from one social class to another? Our questions come thick and fast, they are posed with enthusiasm, and they will not surprise the author.

But Bernstein has much more to offer. In particular he gives us an analysis both of the concept of French greatness and of the concept of French identity. The two are linked. The French are constant self-examiners. They are devoted to opinion polls about themselves. They worry about their decline. They debate it endlessly and in the process they move easily from over-confidence and arrogance to a devastating loss of self-confidence. What is significant is that the rest of the world, with varying degrees of concern, joins in the debate. Perhaps this is the traditional French procedure of drawing attention to themselves and of asserting their importance by making themselves the center of interest. But it also illustrates the present French preoccupation with their identity. No word in the French vocabulary has been more used during the last six or seven years than “identité.”


Is France an artificial country, a political convention periodically in need of reinvention? Is France an entity that has come into existence only by means of royal bravura, administrative ink, and military fanfares? The question is relevant because a real France that did exist, one that was made up of villages and scattered houses and that was dependent upon the weather and upon the resolution of its peasants, has disappeared. A nation where it was often asked whether a Jew could be thought of as being fully French now finds that it has more than three million Muslims as permanent residents, with the prospect of having many more. It is not practical to fit the national tricolor flag onto an Exocet missile. It is difficult to assert that there is a specific French identity when in their technology, in the ways they are modernizing industry and domestic life, in their entertainment and leisure, the French are following the same patterns that other countries do. One can protest about all these matters. Even before the first of its many episodes was shown, the costly French television soap opera called Riviera was denounced as an affront to France’s cultural identity because it was seen as an imitation of Anglo-American successes. But however sophisticated or violent the protest it is unlikely to change anything.

France is not the only country to have become conscious of the ideological engineering that has created the nation-state. It is now believed that the famous detachment of republican soldiers from Marseilles who took up Rouget de Lisle’s song in 1792 did not speak French to one another. Manzoni, whose novel I Promessi Sposi gave Italy a national language, spoke French at home and a Milanese dialect when he was in town. Whichever European language can claim to be the language of logic or the language of love, the Gaël can only claim to be the language of very few Irish people. The English Law Lords have recently made a distinction between “national origins” and “nationality.” Hitler never wanted to visit Hamburg. Everywhere nations discover that their communities have been manufactured or are imaginary.

Bernstein shows us how the French are dealing with this problem. He does so with clarity and perspicacity. He is widely read in recent works by French historians, and in the new traditions that they are establishing. Now that the categories by which the French formerly defined themselves—revolution, reaction, progress, or some other principle consecrated by history—are no longer applicable, there is an attempt to re-create a shared memory. It has been pointed out that France did not come into existence because of the French language, or simply because of the extension of state administration. France has always been a conglomeration of different peoples, a condensation of Europe. Thus French historians prepare the way for the future: a France closely integrated into Europe, and a France which is multinational.

To this historical legacy, as Bernstein points out, is added the power of French culture and the weight of the educational machine. Immigrants to France, he says, do not celebrate their differences from the French. They wish to preserve their religions and their religious rights, but they do not demand a bilingual education for their children as some immigrant groups do in the United States or in Great Britain. They accept many of the values of France as they are taught in the schools and as they are assessed in the examination system.

This brings us back to the question of greatness. What other nation, it is asked, is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and lay (laïque)? What other nation can aspire to an identity that is both European and Mediterranean? Hence, what other nation could play a role comparable to that of France in the present crisis of the Middle East? The statement that only France, among European countries, possesses a common frontier with Arab states is a reference to France’s special relationship with the Maghreb populations of North Africa. It is, in a delicate manner, a revival of a certain imperialism. In the days of “Algérie Française” it used to be said that the Mediterranean flowed through France as the Seine flowed through Paris.

These questions of national identity do not worry Jacques Darras, a French teacher and poet, who gave the Reith Lectures, published by the University of Michigan Press under the title Beyond the Tunnel of History, for the BBC at the end of 1989. On the contrary, he seeks to get rid of a hateful concept that has destroyed lives and created misery. He does not want to be tied down by someone else’s notion of what he is. The fact that he was largely unknown in England at the time when he gave these prestigious lectures is something that he finds amusing. It illustrates what he wants to say. He is a Frenchman who revels in English culture. One should not be French and French only; one should not be English and English only. Artificial frontiers, the cult of the homeland, individualistic preoccupations—these are the obstacles that prevent Europeans from creating something new out of the achievements of the past. Darras thinks about continuity, about rivers and the towns that they nurture, about medieval scholars and their beliefs, about poets and their perceptions. It is these, he claims, that have created a reality that is European.

With a sensitive and enquiring mind he explains that when he visits Laon, in northern France (which is his native region), he is not only moved by the beauty of the rose window in the cathedral, he also reflects on the original name of the town, Lugdunum, meaning a fortress devoted to the worship of Lug, the Celtic god of light. Is it not, he asks, the same root that has formed the names of Lyons and London? At all events Laon was one of the great Carolingian cities, and therefore it spread eastward. But it also received Irish monks who, as they copied Latin manuscripts, wrote comments in the margin in Irish. Thus there is a Europe of the past that acts as a springboard for the Europe of the future that Darras wishes to see.

One should not dismiss this vision of a cultural European unity based upon a vision of Burgundian (or other) achievements. An anthropologist can define what he understands to be European by reference to a complex but real past. But Darras, who is eccentric in his enthusiasms (or is he enthusiastic in his eccentricities?), makes howlers when he comes to the present. He is impressed by President Mitterrand’s Arche de la Défense—a marble and glass arch that is part of a large modern building complex and is supposed to appear as a pendant to the Arc de Triomphe—because it was designed by a Dane. It also supposedly combines the inspiration of the past with American grandeur and European symbolism. It is difficult to know what is exactly meant by this (and it must be said that it is not always easy to follow the meaning that lurks within his sweeping remarks). But in fact the Arche de la Défense is an intimidating building. It looks as if it has just touched down from another planet. When the wind blows quite moderately on the top of the Arche, it is violent at is foot. Consequently it blows people off the street. What does Darras, with his quick eye for symbols, really think of this harbinger of Europe which wreaks havoc among peaceful pedestrians?

Darras is from northern France. That is to say the extended plain that runs north of Paris to the Maas valley in Belgium, north across to Germany, and to the polders of Holland. He claims that there is no natural reason why anything should ever have stopped the mobility and circulation of people dwelling on this flat expanse. Yet this is a region that has been devastated by war. So Darras has a quarrel with history, appropriately for this imaginative writer. If only the English had not invaded France, some say, then Joan of Arc would have stayed with her sheep and a form of Europe would have developed without the constraints of nationalisms. If only the First World War had not taken place, Darras thinks, then the importance of frontiers would not have been exaggerated.

But reality keeps breaking in. The sort of reality the neo-Gaullist mayor of Lyons was reflecting about when he broke with his party in December of last year and resigned his seat in the National Assembly in order to be reelected under a new political label. He began his announcement with the words, “France is sick.” Why did he say this? It could be argued that France had enjoyed a period of relative prosperity; for some ten years under Mitterrand France had known political calm; France, through its alliance with West Germany, had been a strong force in the European Community. What then has gone wrong?

Obviously, the unification of Germany has changed the situation of the Community. One response, which would be congenial to Jacques Darras, has been to say that the French and the Germans are one people and that they should act as such. But not everyone has responded to this call, which is largely an intellectual one. In addition, there is a failure of the European Community to have had a concerted policy toward the Gulf crisis. Another response, which would be congenial to European Community officials in Brussels, has been to say that this reveals the real need to establish the machinery whereby a common foreign and defense policy will be worked out. But the objection is that national interests are bound to differ. In these two respects the policy that France has been following in Europe has come to a stop. Possibly it can be reconsidered and revived.

But this is not what the mayor of Lyons was talking about. He was talking about a political malaise, whereby no one has any faith in either the politicians or the conventional political organization of the country. There is a cynicism about the constitution, and the manner by which one man is able to dominate the decision-making process, if only by being silent and evasive. There is great uncertainly concerning the distribution of power. Is it to be found among the traditional meritocracy of cultural elites? Or have the French moved, especially in urban life, to a new form of managerial elitism? Do the French identify themselves increasingly with the region (on condition that they know in which region they live, since while 83 percent of those who live in Alsace know that that is the name of their region, only 33 percent of those who live in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur are able to name it)? In that case, do they not see themselves as Corsicans, Bretons, Alsaciens, and others rather than French?

We are back with the problem of identity. But the special number of Esprit, the third in its series, devoted to the political situation, goes beyond this question. For one of the authors in this impressive collection of articles, Joël Roman, it is not only “la mystique républicaine” that has collapsed, it is also “la politique républicaine” that is in process of expiring. We are told that France hovers between premodern and postmodern, between post-national and supranational, between the region and the Eurocratic. Only one thing is sure. French intellectuals are back in business.

Who could be more typical of the new French intellectuals than Alain Minc? A graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and a former high official, he is now an executive of a European conglomerate who is able to turn out an incisive book every few years. He is young and self-confident; he writes with ease and eloquence; he manipulates ideas at the same time as he conveys information. And, as is to be expected, he is pessimistic. We can see this when he approaches the question of the extreme right, the Front National. Richard Bernstein confesses to disliking its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, but thinks that he has reached the peak of his power and influence. Birgitta Orfali, in the Esprit collection, sees the Front National as a “parti-famille.” The family is a traditional value in France. But it also presents a natural reaction, and artificial solution, to the identity problem. “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, I prefer my cousin to my neighbor, I prefer my neighbor to a stranger.” This form of argument permits the Front National to make its mark on the collective mentality of the French. But Alain Minc goes much further. The political malaise of the moment in his view comes from the decline of the liberal right wing, a decline caused by the pervasive idea of consensus, by indifference, by abstentionism, and by the menace of the extreme right. The Front National is made up of an extraordinary mixture of dogma, prejudices, nostalgia, and ambitions—“reflexes,” as he puts it, “not ideas.” It is the talent of le Pen to have given this mixture some appeal to constituents throughout France, not only in the regions where there is friction with Northern Africans. But one day a new, more charismatic, and more imaginative leader could appear. Then, Minc fears, France may collapse into the worst kind of nationalism. He therefore concludes that “anticipating the worst outcome, in order to better combat it, is the best philosophical hygiene” that can be recommended to the French at the present moment.

This Issue

June 13, 1991