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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 372-374

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Book Review

The Idea of France

The Idea of France. By Pierre Birnbaum. Translated by M. B. DeBevoise. (New York: Hill and Wang. 2001. Pp. xiii, 370. $32.00.)

In his introduction to The Idea of France (originally La France imaginée), Pierre Birnbaum writes, "On the one hand, [France] has seen its soul as residing in a privileged relationship with Reason, and its deep personality expressed in an unquestioning adherence to the ideas of the Enlightenment" and "on the [End Page 372] other hand, has conceived itself as the eldest daughter of the Church, the Catholic nation par excellence." And yet despite the "virtuous republicans" and the"uncompromising Catholic counter-revolutionaries," there was always one France in geography and government (pp. 11-12). Birnbaum privileges the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wished for France the openness and varieties of religion found in America; privileges also the revolutionary-era projects of Abbés Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Henri Grégoire, the one a thoroughly secularized politician and the other a zealous revolutionary bishop. Here theoperative theme is regeneration, specifically of the body of the nation—biological metaphors predominating.

A tradition of intransigence in French Catholicism begins with Joseph de Maistre, calling for the destruction of error, and ends with the Vichy government, supporting a rightist religious nationalism. Ardent republicans, for their part, enthusiastically embraced the revolutionary heritage, rejecting neither Terror nor dechristianization. Liberals satisfied neither side. Constant, Renan, and the very secular Universal Exposition of 1889 put traditional Catholics on the defensive; and Catholic influence in government and education was unacceptable to purist republicans. Antagonism was highest in the years of the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish French officer was accused of espionage by the heavily Catholic army administration, and was then defended mostly by the republican left. The inevitable outcome was the 1905 separation of Church and State.

Then came the great drama of World War I, the confused years of partial recovery, the Nazi takeover of France and establishment of a puppet government at Vichy. Birnbaum shows the slide into anti-liberal behavior (to say the least) of former republicans. When World War II ended, the École Nationale d'Administration was designed to restore republican values in government and commerce, but the Algerian crisis and the subsequent authoritarian presidency of DeGaulle stalled the republican revival and created a new balance of forces. In the end, the old antagonism between the republican left and the Catholic right diminished, partly because of indifference and partly because other challenges made each side forget the old enemy. Even the funeral of the agnostic socialist, ex-president Mitterrand, was a Catholic funeral. Official Catholicism, represented by the archbishop of Paris, born Jewish and a convert in his teens, Jean-Marie Lustiger, embraced the republic as the real France. And representatives of the old anti-Catholic Ligue Française de l'Enseignement declared, "We have accepted religions as enduring cultural facts out of which France has been made" (quoted on p. 223). If anything, the leaders of French Catholicism were more accepting than political leaders of pluralism of commitment and public expression of that commitment. Witness the 1990's controversy over the wearing of the veil by Muslim students in the school system. Here, freedom of expression was championed against some resolutely secular members of the government by Lustiger himself: "Is there a republican religion that prohibits one from being a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim—even a skeptic? The republican ideal of citizenship does not claim to be a substitute for religion" (quoted on p. 256). [End Page 373]

Pierre Birnbaum offers a representative selection of national-political dramas, with many crossings over to the contemporary scene along the chronological way. Though not a historical study technically speaking, The Idea of France is an excellent starting point for any discussion of Catholicism and national identity in France.


Joseph F. Byrnes
Oklahoma State University



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