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French National Revolution

by JOHN HELLMAN

In his first speech to supporters after his election on May 6, 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy said the time had come for radical change in France: “The French have spoken. They want to break with the old ideas and way of doing things. That’s why I’ll make certain values honourable again. Work, for example, as well as authority, moral principles and respect.” M. Sarkozy was elected with the overwhelming support of voters over 65, many of whom were fearful of ‘civic unrest’ France had been experiencing, particularly in the two months of riots of 2005. In the context of a divided and troubled national community Sarkozy’s appeal had a certain similarity with the famous summons of Philippe Pétain, in 1940, for France to undertake a National Revolution with the slogan “Travail, Famille, Patrie”. The wide support for Nikolas Sarkozy’s call for radical change in the French presidential elections of May 2007 can reminder us that from July 1940 the French government faced little opposition in abandoning many of the basic principles of liberal democracy, and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Sarkozy, like Pétain, promised to change France dramatically, engender a great national transformation, in the months following his taking power. In fact war-time France under Pétain would change more radically in a few months than at anytime since the Revolution of 1789 with widespread deportations, forced resignations, demotions, confiscations of property and internments of both French citizens and immigrants. Marshall Pétain’s National Revolution put troublesome, often foreign, minorities in their place and make a hard-working, prideful and moral ‘France for the French’. Those who resisted this agenda were treated harshly as France, particulary by 1944, became a country which was Fascist or National Socialist in all but name. France in 2007 seems again tempted to abandon liberal democracy in the hope to restoring law and order in a strong, renewed national community.

Post-war France had difficulty coming to terms with what really happened during Pétain’s Révolution Nationale. Foreign historians doing research in Paris as late as the 1960s talked more freely and frankly with one another about what had happened in war time than was possible with even close French friends. All historians had to be wary of the sensitivities of the French historical establishment, and of powerful French interest groups such as the Communist Party, in seeking out archival materials or interviews. The French still tended to see their country as having been liberated by the Resistance, while few of their countrymen had collaborated with the Germans. The French establishment had little interest in encouraging the study of the more painful and divisive elements aspects of war-time France –particularly while a committed ‘lobby’ in academic, publishing and cultural life actively worked to defend the image of Pétain and his regime.

French historians of World War II ignored those considerable archival records of the Germans who had occupied France, which –once perused – had to make French monographs seem incomplete and effect a revolution in French historical understanding. Yet archives relating to home grown, large scale French fascist or national-socialist groups often seemed inaccessible –as did records of the French government’s internment of Communists, immigrants, and Jews, and the major French and Swiss logistical contributions to the German war effort (and of the allied bombings intended to disrupt them). Foreign historians discovered widespread French resentment at the damage done by allied bombardments, at the activities of several Resistance groups and fear of them among the general population. The German occupation of France was found to have been experienced differently than “the Gospel according to de Gaulle” would have it.

Imitation of German racial policies suggested that the French “National Revolution” of 1940-44 was in fact more “fascist” that that of countries usually categorised as such, and the fading of the Resistance myth revealed a more accurate picture of the evolving attitudes of ordinary people. Fresh post-war historiographical trends such as the “histoire des mentalités” and the history of memory were revealed to have been born in the “New Middle Ages” of the German occupation. Initiatives to rethink health and create a “new man” under Vichy had included those of brilliant Nobel Prize winners. Rethinking the entire historical process, the personal sense of time, in elite leadership schools inspired by “original National-Socialism” or communitarian personalism changed the memories and sense of self of young people to fit the European New Order.

In recent years, extreme right wing “non-conformist” ideas of the 1930s have reappeared in different – neo-conservative –guise. Racism and exclusionary language, taboo in much public discourse since the German Occupation began reappearing in highbrow literature, philosophy, and political discourse to the point where an historian caused a minor scandal by pointing this out.

As few as ten people, mostly Paris-based, have shaped what has been taught and published about fascism and World War II in France. Nicolas Sarkozy seems to favour the enduring centrality of French academic, political, publishing, and journalistic life –despite the hesitancy in France’s academic establishment to discard the “immunity thesis” (the idea that France was immune to the fascist virus that infected much of pre-war Europe –a point of view completely discredited outside of France). Despite his documented wartime racism, and Sciences Po student protests, that institution named its new library after a prominent professor who altered his lectures there along racist lines in occupied Paris. The victory of Nicolas Sarkozy (who studied at Science Po), despite what a number of observers described as his fascist and racist characteristics, suggests that remembering France’s disgraced “National Revolution” under Pétain is important. M. Sarkozy has found faults in Islamic religious culture’s effects on women intolerable but not the effects on women of those paternalistic, totalitarian and anti-liberal Catholic ‘new movements’ which favoured his candidacy or the repressive policies of Israeli political leaders like Sarkozy’s long-time friend Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a speech in Nice on March 30, 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy provided an intimation of the role of the memory of Pétain’s National Revolution in the French and Christian Revolution in which he would, once elected President, engage France. He intended, he said, restore a sense of pride in being French by encouraging the acceptance of the history of France as it was, and rejecting the initiatives of those who would make younger people feel a need to expiate for the ‘supposed’ sins of their fathers, or forefathers. France, he said, “had no need to be embarrassed about her past”. All of the French were not Pétainists and if certain French people denounced Jews to the Gestapo, others ‘beaucoup plus nombreux’ risked their lives to help them. And in the colonies, too, there were many good people who did not exploit anyone, who built roads, hospitals, schools, and who taught or were care-givers, who had planted vineyards and orchards on arid soil and then, when they had to choose “between the suitcase and the coffin”, left everything behind. Respect was due these displaced colonialists, and those indigenous people who fought to defend the French colonial empire. In the April 22 -May 6 elections, Sarkozy said, French people had to chose ‘entre ceux qui sont attachés à l’identité nationale et qui veulent la défendre et ceux qui pensent que la France a si peu d’existence qu’elle n’a même pas d’identité.’ He had already proposed, three years earlier, that the government abandon separation between Church and state and help restore French national identity by subsidizing religious schools.

According to Nicolas Sarkozy, France has not remembered the Vichy regime, or the war in Algeria, in the way they should be remembered: as part of France’s essence, her fundamental identity. But to follow President Sarkozy and resurrect a strong sense of French identity by remembering Vichy and Algeria “without embarrassment” would be to forget that Pétain’s National Revolution and the French Colonial Empire inflicted great sufferings on, even cost the lives of, hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

JOHN HELLMAN, is Professor of History, at McGill University and author, most recently, of The communitarian third way Alexandre Marc’s Ordre Nouveau, 1930-2000 (Montreal ; Ithaca : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

 

 

 

 

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