Obituary: Francois Furet

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The Independent Online
Francois Furet's work reached beyond the academic world. It had a significant influence on the public perception of France's modern political culture and its defining source in the French Revolution. Few of his academic contemporaries could claim such wide name-recognition. Even fewer could claim a comparable effect on the public mind. It was this that brought his recent election to the Academie Francaise, though his death has prevented him from taking his seat.

In other respects, however, his career epitomised some of the most characteristic features of the French intellectual and academic world since 1945 - the cast of mind formed in the classes de philo at school, the central importance of Communist Party ideology and connections, the tensions between different institutions, the power of intellectuals to speak to a public beyond academia.

Furet was born in 1927, the son of a Parisian banker, and educated at the Lycee Jeanson-de-Sailly. As a teenager he engaged in the Resistance towards the end of the Second World War. Subsequently, a History student at the Sorbonne, he became active in the Communist Party. He had trouble with the police over his support for Vietnamese militants during the Indochinese War. He himself was to say later that he found formal university study uncongenial, but he did pass the agregation, which was still the obligatory passport to an academic career.

There was nothing very remarkable about all this for a young man of his age and background. A more fundamental - and liberating - choice came in 1956 when he left the Communist Party with a number of friends. It marked a parting of the ways in intellectual and career terms. Certainly, he never lost both his strong interest in and acute understanding of politics. Along with Michel Rocard, he helped found the socialist PSU; later, he was to advise Edgar Faure (whose book on Turgot he had largely ghost- written) on reform of the university system after May 1968.

He was to retain a strikingly wide range of political friendships (outside the Communist Party). Moreover, the nature of the political process and ideas remained central to his work. He also helped to found L'Observateur (and later Le Nouvel Observateur), weekly anti-Communist (though not right- wing) magazines in which for many years he showed considerable talents as a commentator on contemporary political issues. This was one of the platforms for his wider audience. Yet, active politics was not for him.

More significant, he joined the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He was eventually elected its president for eight years from 1977. The Ecole had always been conscious of itself as the antithesis of the formal university world of the Sorbonne. Its interdisciplinarity confronted the university's strict disciplinary boundaries. Against positivist and by now Marxist history, the Ecole was the home of the Annales school. Although Furet did some typical Annales style work in his early years and co-authored a significant book on literacy in France, he was never a true annaliste in the mould of Braudel or Le Roy Ladurie. Indeed, he was later to be rather critical of that school in a muted way.

Nonetheless, the Ecole allowed his characteristic thought to mature: liberal, intellectual, quite eclectic in its sources, suspicious of orthodoxy, anti-positivist and anti-Communist. Focused as it was on the interpretation of the French Revolution, this was to bring Furet into a titanic clash with the Marxist history of the Sorbonne. It engaged him in bitter personal hostilities with Professor Albert Soboul (doubtless rooted in part in their different social backgrounds) and the combat continued with his successor Michel Vovelle (though, one senses, without quite the same personal animosity).

Furet's most influential attempt to offer an alternative reading of the French Revolution appeared as collected essays under the title Penser la Revolution francaise (1978). He repudiated the Marxist vision of the maturing capitalist bourgeoisie defeating the earlier form of socio-economic relations dominated by the aristocracy. He demonstrated that orthodox historiography was no more than an appropriation of the Jacobins' own discourse upon their revolution. Instead, he saw the Revolution as the invention of revolutionary democracy where the dynamic interplay of idea and circumstance created a new political culture in the vacuum left by the collapse of the Old Regime.

Furet spent the next 10 years exploring the instability of this political culture and its long elaboration over the 19th century. He saw the Revolution not as an historic but incomplete social struggle that needed still to be fought forward. He saw it as a century-long struggle to settle notions of liberty and practices of democracy, well-achieved in France by the end of our century. This view was summed up in the Dictionnaire critique de la Revolution francaise (1988), which he edited and largely wrote with Mona Ozouf.

The Bicentenary of 1989 forced Frenchmen to choose what vision of the Revolution to celebrate as giving identity to their political culture. Though the official discourse was not exactly Furet's vision, he won the debate inasmuch as the choice was between jacobin and liberal interpretations. He did so in part because he was more cogent, in part also because he had the access to and the habit of the quality press.

Above all, however, one might argue that Furet's interpretation of France since the Revolution was convincing because it was firmly of its time. His work was both part of and emblematic of the intellectual and political collapse of Communism during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, his brilliant last book - Le Passe d'une illusion (1995) - was devoted to that failure.

To say that Francois Furet epitomised his age is not to diminish the extraordinary clarity and originality of his work. He shaped many minds and changed irreversibly the way we think about this history. His combats made him appear at times harsh and disdainful. Those who knew him well saw this as a mask for vulnerability. He was a man of great personal charm and private loyalty.

Colin Lucas

Francois Furet, historian: born Paris 27 March 1927; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Toulouse 13 July 1997.

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