BOOK REVIEW / Passe but not forgotten: The past in French History - Robert Gildea: Yale, pounds 30; Arguing revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France - Sunil Khilnani: Yale, pounds 19.95

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The Independent Culture
WE HAVE got used to the idea that many of the characteristics traditionally supposed to divide European nations from one another are being eroded. These two studies, however, are reminders that, at the level of political culture, there really is something quite distinct about the French. Their life is no more centred on petanque and chevre than life here accords with John Major's vision of warm bitter and the village green, but they are preoccupied with their past in a way the British - or at least the English - are not.

When, at the end of the 1980s, London and Paris celebrated the anniversaries of their respective revolutions - two centuries for France, three for Britain - it was a tale of two very different cities. Banqueting House offered an unremarkable exhibition, complete with life-size talking effigies of William and Mary - the standard stuff of heritage centres; the French had extravagant ceremonies, a programme of monumental public building and furious historical debate. This was in keeping with a long tradition. French intellectuals and politicians invoke and argue about the distant past - even someone as distant as Joan of Arc - in a way that finds no counterpart here.

The repudiation, both intellectual and popular, of Napoleon Bonaparte after his nephew Louis-Napoleon led France to crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 illustrates the point. Gildea's volume shows a wonderful photograph taken in 1870 of Parisian Communards standing around a statue of Napoleon, just toppled from its base. It also quotes the contemporaneous verdict of the plain-speaking journal Le Pere Duchesne: 'if ever a man landed us in the shit it was certainly that bugger Bonaparte the first.' Even then, the French had long memories.

Historians such as Pierre Nora have already written about French commemorative practices, but Gildea's book is the first to offer a general survey of the way in which the past has been interpreted and used in post-Revolutionary France. His book is, in fact, almost entirely devoted to distinguishing between the conflicting meaning that different political groupings have given to the major icons and events of their shared history.

This is scarcely an original notion and not many historians would quarrel with Gildea's argument. The book's strength lies elsewhere - in the sharp individual insights it offers and in its encyclopedic mastery of detail. Some of its least expected chapters - such as the one exploring the construction of icons of French grandeur such as Joan of Arc and the Soldiers or Year II - are the most successful, but Gildea does not offer much by way of comparative perspective or a narrative to help carry the reader along.

Sunil Khilnani's fine work on the intellectual left in postwar France is more narrowly focused than Gildea's, but there is a sense in which it stands as a case study of the same sort of themes. As Khilnani makes plain, French postwar left-wing thought has remained deeply preoccupied with revolution, and with the French Revolution in particular. He shows how the left's attempt to rejuvenate the revolutionary tradition offered a way for France to redefine its shattered sense of political identity after the Second World War: the advantage was that it combined an appeal to both universal principles and a distinctively national practice. Whatever divided Sartre's existentialist Marxism from Althusser's reformulation of Leninism, both were readily situated in a French, and therefore patriotic, tradition.

Nor, as Khilnani demonstrates, has the collapse in revolutionary hopes after 1968 put an end to intellectual debate about the character and meaning of the French Revolution. Since the 1970s, liberal historians and intellectuals, led by Francois Furet, have sought to reconcile the French to social democracy by arguing that the French Revolution was inspired, at least until 1792, by liberal principles. Evidently Khilnani is himself a liberal, and though he makes a brave effort to offer an objective treatment of the thought of Sartre, Althusser and others, his exasperation increasingly betrays itself; one can almost hear the bugles of the friendly cavalry when Furet and his associates, armed with their social democratic histories, finally appear over the hill.

(Photograph omitted)

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