End of French exceptionalism: lessons from/for Canada.

Author:Dobuzinskis, Laurent

Born in Paris, Laurent Dobuzinskis teaches political science at Simon Fraser University. He obtained a Masters degree from La Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, and a doctorate from York University. This article is drawn from a study he is undertaking on recent trends in liberal thought in the French-speaking world.

France is no longer the centre of the intellectual world. Most French intellectuals have come to realize that. They no longer think of themselves as the vanguard of universal History. They have even developed a taste for the ideas of Anglo-American liberal philosophers. (1)

Grudgingly perhaps, they have rallied to the cause of liberal democracy and free markets. Yet they have managed to find their own unique ways towards these--by now quasi-universal--values.

French exceptionalism in politics has also ended. By "exceptionalism" I mean a situation in which for 200 years--from 1789 to perhaps 1989--political conflicts concerned not real, practical issues of immediate interest to the political community, but the nature of the regime itself (if not the meaning of history) and the rules of the socio-economic game. (2)

On both the left and the right, powerful political forces, often mobilized by prestigious intellectuals, poured scorn upon liberal democracy and the rule of law.

Until World War I, the right longed for the pre-revolutionary era; then, in the 1920s, it turned to fascism. The left, on the other hand, thought that the French Revolution had only been the prelude to another and more profound historical epoch on the model of the Russian Revolution.

French intellectuals helped to legitimize the views that would have been ignored in a culture less tolerant of anti-democratic discourse and less enamoured of writers. The examples drawn from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum illustrate this antidemocratic bias. The much-admired Catholic playwright Paul Claudel greeted the 1940 defeat and the formation of the Vichy regime by claiming that "France has been delivered after 60 years from the yoke of the anti-Catholic Radical Party (teachers, lawyers, Jews, Freemasons). The new government invokes God ... There is hope of being delivered from universal suffrage and parliamentarism." (3)

After 1945, the right was thoroughly discredited, but leftist intellectuals proved just as adept at the art of anti-democratic rhetoric. In the late 1950s, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a series of articles for the review Les Temps Modernes (4) in which he purported, in the most contrived manner, to condemn the Soviet intervention in Hungary while at the same time insisted that the hope of humanity continued to rest with the Soviet Union. Indeed, in his view, de-Stalinization opened up a new era that would fulfill these hopes!

A number of cultural and philosophical trends have conspired to put an end to this French exceptionalism--while allowing fortunately for the preservation of some uniquely French qualities. How and why this displacement of utopian ideas has happened is relevant to Canadians. The end of French exceptionalism often implies an acceptance of American values, concepts and practices. France has become Americanized in many ways. Yet there still exist strong currents that go against that trend--indeed these currents are stronger now than in the 1980s. Thus, France is coming to resemble Canada both in terms of its acceptance of a liberal consensus--something that Canada came to earlier--and in terms of the distance it tries to maintain vis-a-vis American culture. France and Canada both find it impossible to escape the Amerian orbit. But in both countries there are attempts to retain a measure of cultural autonomy. The intellectual communities in each country have something to learn from each other.


    French intellectuals do not speak with one voice on all issues. Nevertheless, their discourse has a certain style and evokes recurring images and values. Until recently, these had a curious romantic and utopian character. The present was rarely seen as a reality worth reflecting about. Only the past for the nostalgic right, or some highly abstract conception of History for the revolutionary left, were worth considering. And, when the present was the object of attention of critical sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu (the theorist of capitalist reproduction), it was usually painted in the starkest of colours.

    From the end of the Second World War until about the late 1970s, progressive thinkers dominated France's intellectual scene. Like Sartre, the archetype of the engage French intellectual, many believed that "Marxism is the unsurpassable horizon of philosophy in our times." Others, like Jacques Lacan (the structural philosopher of psychoanalysis), turned toward Freud. In the 1970s, under the influence of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Nietzsche and Heidegger became the new points of reference. All these currents have since become known as "the philosophies of suspicion," that is, philosophies whose central message is that appearances are deceiving. The truth--if it exists at all--lies hidden behind an ideological, cultural or psychosocial screen that only intellectuals can tear down.

    Like all rapidly drawn sketches, this one leaves out details. Several prominent figures went against the trend. Raymond Aron was one. He vigorously denounced Marxist attacks against liberal freedoms and tried to educate his countrymen about the realities of economic constraints. He influenced many students, some of whom have themselves become influential figures. However, until the late 1970s, Aron was shunned by an "intelligentsia" that regarded him as an apologist for despised "bourgeois" values. Albert Camus also comes to mind as someone who resisted conventional wisdom. He too, even more than Aron, was ostracized by the intellectual class.

    The French intellectual scene has now been radically transformed. The shift began in the 1970s. But why did it take so long? Part of the answer lies with the Algerian war.

    Beginning in the 1950s, French society modernized very rapidly. "Les lendemains qui chantent" (the utopian goal toward which the radical political activism was supposed to point) were happening all around the country. The living conditions of a much more diversified and affluent working class, the consolidation of the welfare state and the solidity of the institutions of the Fifth Republic contradicted left-wing analytical schemata inherited from earlier times. But the Algerian war, and the ideological conflicts it rekindled, postponed the inevitable for at least a decade. Without the colonial crises, progressive intellectuals would have lost their ideological blinkers sooner.

    The events of May 1968 began to undermine the progressive orthodoxy. Although the traditional left was actively involved, the logic of the movement was "spontaneist" and anarchist. It stood in complete opposition to the vision of historical progress that had characterized the established left since the 19th century. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year, publication of Solzhenitsyn's work, realization that many of the Khmer Rouge leadership had studied under French Marxists (Pol Pot is rumoured to have studied under Althusser), and formation of the Polish Solidarity movement all contributed to bringing down the ideological walls behind which French progressive intellectuals had been trapped.

    The 1970s were the key years. During this decade progressive intellectuals en masse--and almost simultaneously--came to the realization that the Soviet Union was a truly totalitarian society. Ever since the Russian Revolution, very few on the French left (Andre Gide and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are honourable exceptions) had condemned what was happening in the Soviet Union. For Communist intellectuals (like the poet Aragon) this was not surprising. But most progressive intellectuals were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Many of them had no sympathy for Stalinism and its remnants. Yet they were convinced that publicly condemning the Eastern Bloc's tyranny would play into the hands of their ideological enemies.

    Perhaps because the readjustment came so late, it took a radical form. In the 1970s, suddenly popular essayists like Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levi undertook to demolish not only Soviet Stalinism and its ramifications in the French Communist Party, but the whole edifice of historical materialism. By the time the 1980s rolled in, even the tenuous distinction between a "Marxist" and a "Marxian" approach had become very difficult to sustain. Marx was finally dead in the halls of French...

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