- Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age by Herman Lebovics
Culture and politics have long been the scholarly engagements of Herman Lebovics, marked by a trio of tightly organized, thematically expansive works on French history: True France (Cornell, 1993), Mona Lisa’s Escort (Cornell, 1999), and now Bringing the Empire Back Home. The “back home” of the latest title suggests an author’s special focus on the implications of empire and decolonization in France proper, though in many ways Lebovics’ work has always been about this historiographical question: how “overseas” Empire is inseparable from national, regional, statist, and local tensions in republicanism and self-representations of culture in European civil societies.
Back Home is focused on particular cases: peasant and farmer struggles over the expansion of a military base in the Larzac region of France; the political machinations behind the monumental building projects of Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterand; the place in race and religion politics of ultranationalists like Jean-Marie LePen; the role of museums in the presentation and shaping of culture. The pieces are both essay and commentary, written with scholarly gravity and infused with a punchy rhetorical style: “Let me be up front with you. I want this book to contribute to an international project of liberation.” (xiii) The liberation desideratum remains cautiously open ended, and is articulated against Lebovics’ gradual definition of international. What makes the chapter pieces more than simply an essay collection is the extended meditation on “globalization” and “the global” that runs throughout.
The Larzac tale, an exposition of state attempts to expand a military installation into agricultural lands in the 1970s, might otherwise have been a familiar story of villagers protecting their patrimony from an encroaching central government. Yet by reading the case as a global phenomenon, Lebovics underscores how “the peasants…were hooked into international politics with the military base and into international capitalism with the export of their cheese.” (36) Thus, even while taking on self-representations as “authentic” paysans, the farmers and peasants “understood themselves, and their fight, as part of a larger freedom movement,” making allies of IRA sympathizers, members of the American Indian Movement, Japanese farmers, and Kanak leaders from New Caledonia. (38)
The common cause of colonial grievance provides the flashpoint which Lebovics historically excavates through André Malraux’s notorious question to colonial administrator Emile Biasini: “What you did in Africa, can you come back and do it in France?” (61) The ex-colonies provided much of the administrative mindset of Ministries of Culture in postwar France as the nation dealt with the loss of its territorial empire. As Lebovics formulates it, “The French model of cultural sensitivity in the colonies may without too much simplification be described as ignore and reconstruct,” that is, ignore the local while disseminating approved and established canons imported from Paris. (80) The Year of Heritage (1980), and the authoritarian directives that created the new Louvre Museum and Library of France are exemplary for separating “European” patrimony from African and Oceanian histoires (i.e. “former colonies”). These are the republican faces of unease about how to engage with a postcolonial world.
Other challenges are direct. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s politics distort pluralism by advocating national ethnic and religious differences be respected by compelling “others,” particularly North Africans, to embrace an African identity and leave France. Such discriminatory populism is met by responses from within Mitterand’s Socialist government, and Minister of Culture Jack Lang critically grasps a transformative moment: “Lang’s understanding of culture finessed the passage from local heritages to ethnic heritages.” (187) This realignment is the heart of Lebovics’ chronology and analysis: the postcolonial breakdown of canonical culture and the emergent multiple—and often conflicting—ways a nation attempts to decolonize and valorize its own national grandeur through regional heritage and patrimony. Decentralization as an assertion of local identity creations is, however, itself limited and fraught, locking culture builders into a conundrum of how to historically locate immigrants and industrial workers who have “no recognized...