- A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France by Emile Chabal
The principal objective of this book is "to make sense of French political life" during what the author calls "a new age of uncertainty." It consists of an examination of French political culture from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, going beyond the usual dichotomies of left and right. Chabal surveys a vast quantity of books, academic articles, and written political commentary, along with some audiovisual interviews and presentations. Rather than examining various political ideologies or traditions, Chabal tracks various beliefs, values, ideas, biases, assumptions, et cetera that can be represented by different political "languages": words, concepts, and symbols (république, laïcité, intégration, communautarisme, droit à la difference, autogestion) that have been associated with them. He canvasses how these languages were used and by whom, as well as how their usage and meaning changed over time. He also employs historical interpretations and narratives, especially historical myths and misrepresentations, to demonstrate various ways of thinking. He usually moves from one writer or politician to another, in some cases providing brief biographies. He also discusses a large variety of associations that seek to promote different causes.
He divides these languages into two broad categories: republicanism and liberalism. He traces the revival of the former from the 1980s, which he refers to as "neo-republicanism." This revival was one of the consequences of the decline in adherents to Marxism and the remarkable drop in electoral support for the French Communist Party in the early 1980s. He examines criticisms of Marxism, its re-casting, and its contribution to neo-republicanism in the works of a number of authors in this period, including some who transitioned from Marxism to republicanism during their lifetime. The opposition of republicans to consumerism, modernity, multi-culturalism, and Anglo-Americanism, and debates over laïcité, head-scarves, and multiculturalism are featured.
Whereas this political culture can be captured by the notion of republicanism, what he calls "liberalism" cannot be easily conceptualized by one term. He does not mean the philosophy or ideology of liberalism as it can be found in different European countries over the preceding several centuries, nor more recent Anglo-American liberalism, though both of these influenced the liberalism he is talking about. Instead, it is what I would call a cultural collection. Parts of a cultural collection can be taken up by a variety of people belonging to different social groups, espousing different persuasions, and engaged in different political activities. He [End Page 605] believes that the defining characteristic of French liberalism is its critique of republicanism.
It is a very good book. For the period in which he is interested it is comprehensive. Chabal is well-read. His knowledge of this complex subject is unsurpassed. He skilfully navigates it, calling the reader's attention to a great number of (often subtle) distinctions in political languages. He effectively challenges generalizations that are commonly made about France, its political culture, and its republican tradition. It is balanced, providing objective presentations of opposing points of view. He impressively contextualizes authors and their views by reference to contemporary conjunctural and situational conditions. And his brief biographies not only assist our understanding of different political cultures but also make the book all the more interesting to read.
It is necessary to acknowledge what he does not cover. He limits his analysis almost entirely to France. While we get appropriate treatment of postcolonial cultural issues and a few references to liberalism outside France, hardly any effort is made to situate French political culture in a more global perspective or to offer any kind of comparative analysis of this culture. Instead, it is mainly French perceptions of political cultures in other countries and their effect on France that get attention. It is also necessary to be clear that he is talking mostly about the language of the literary classes. There is not much discussion...