La Difference

A historian’s tone may leave its mark long after a reader has forgotten the details of the book; it may make all the difference. This is even more true when the subject is well-known and controversial, and the arguments familiar. For many years now—since Robert Paxton’s pioneering study Vichy France—the tone taken by Anglo-American historians in works related to modern France has been procuratorial, when not triumphant: the able prosecutor thumping home a winning case, or, to switch metaphors, the old poker pro who cannot resist a sneer as he turns over a full house. And memory of the sneer may linger longer than memory of the hand or even the game itself.

Perfect pitch, then, is one of two main qualities that lodges Philip Nord’s fine book in the reader’s mind. The other is the novelty of its periodization: the Princeton professor’s stubborn focus on 1930 to ’50 in the face of an all-but-implacable resolve on the part of historians, particularly French historians, to observe the traditional caesuras: 1870–1940 (the Third Republic), the État français (Vichy, 1940–44), and the Fifth (Gaullist) Republic (1958–present).

Most of the time, reading a work on controversial eras of French history—and especially the Vichy regime—imparts a teeter-totter effect, as the historian seesaws between contrasting sides. Philip Nord, instead, quietly presents a convincing analysis that integrates and harmonizes the opposing sides without disservice to truth: exit motion sickness. In his previous books (on shopkeeper politics, the birth of republicanism, and the politics of Impressionist painters), Nord has not been afraid to throw a few punches where he thought they were deserved (at protofascist wine retailers or authoritarian Bonapartists, for example). In France’s New Deal he has written a broad, deep, and deeply irenic portrait of something we know, or thought we did: “the ‘French model,’ part ‘concerted economy,’ part ‘parental welfare state,’ part ‘technocracy.’” This smooth-working political syncretism was lashed together in a burst of institutional activity just after the Liberation, and proves to be nothing like the break with Vichy France or the disparaged Third Republic that we are used to hearing it is. Au contraire, modern France’s tap roots extend four generations back.

The men (alas, few women) who crafted the “French model” were, as often as not, Catholics, some of whom had served Vichy, some of whom opposed it, and probably most of whom did both. (Nord notes that “a heroic Resistance record...did not preclude a preceding period of more-or-less faithful service” to Vichy.) On the author’s insightful telling, what was new on the modern French scene was the presence, and concerted action, of Christians committed to democracy, some of them engaged as organized partisans, others as unaffiliated individuals. In 1944–46, the very Catholic Charles de Gaulle, who belonged to the latter category, seduced and/or outmaneuvered nearly everyone in sight, especially Communists and Socialists. The result was a fourth incarnation of the Republic that was a long way from being the presidential Fifth, yet by no means a replica of the parliamentary Third. Nor was it government by the Maquis, nor your generic social democratic welfarism à la Sweden. It wasn’t classic Italian or German Christian Democracy, either, though it had in common with the latter a shared enthusiasm for European unity, neocorporatist forms of social organization, and anticommunism. Peasants and shopkeepers felt at home in the Fourth Republic, but so did most trade unionists, workers, and technocrats.

The emergent model—what Nord calls “France’s ‘new deal’”—was a thoroughly French version of the activist state: modern and modernizing in economic life, yet allergic to liberal laissez-faire individualism, which it took to be the culprit of the ’30s “stalemate society” that had “lost France.” Grateful to the United States for wartime succor, and deeply desirous of American aid and investment, the “new” France was reflexively opposed to any overweening American influence. Long before “le Général’s” return to power in 1958, Nord argues, the French state “had already begun to assert its prerogatives.”

It did this famously and successfully in a tour de force of social policy (for example, pronatalism), economic planning, education (the creation of the National School of Administration, ostensibly a Resistance-inspired institution but with strong roots in the reform Catholicism of early Vichy), and of course—this being France—in culture. Nord covers the field comprehensively (perhaps too comprehensively: the alphabet soup of new agencies can become wearisome), but he is strongest and most at home talking about culture.

Plays and films command a privileged share of his attention. What Nord deftly shows, with no trace of a sneer, is that France’s postwar état culturel was so formidable precisely because it rested on formidable (if unacknowledged) shoulders: mainly those of Vichy, but also those of a Third Republic that by the end of its long day was reacting against the crass commercialization of much of the capital’s boulevardier scene. Vichy’s effort to professionalize show business and to raise the general tone of popular culture throughout unoccupied France—right down to its inspired renaissance of handheld puppetry and the “funambulesque”—were not abandoned after the Liberation. Its censorship and racist authoritarianism were. Nor was the old resistance to the “Hollywood invasion” of movies forgotten just because American forces had cleared the way for de Gaulle. What Nord calls “the dogma of high quality” remained, manned by a vigilant state, always France’s single biggest investor in culture—a “model of growth that Americans to this day have a hard time even imagining.” But then, as Nord points out, it was in part “defined against” the American model. In this connection, our author gets off a line that is, for me, worth the price of the book. He notes that the heroes of the Vichy stage tended to be Claudel, Vilar, Montherlant, Anouilh, whose characters could be Joan of Arc or Rodrique (from Corneille’s Le Cid). There was an awful lot of Corneille performed, Nord admits, but then asks, “Is there ever too much Corneille?”

The reader learns that already by the late Third Republic, Jews were “disinvited” from the world of the cinema. This policy continued with a ruthless vengeance under Vichy. If Jews hadn’t already left, they risked deportation and death. But what is striking is that even in the years following the Liberation, the Jewish presence never returned to what it was in the 1930s. Nord carefully states this, with a steady hand, but he does not fulminate (as I might have).

Nord sees shades and pastels where others see primary colors. He doesn’t go out of his way for a fight, but he doesn’t pull punches either. He praises “the painstaking craftsmanship, the choreographed shots, the alternating effects of distance and confinement” of French neoclassical filmmaking in the period between 1940 and ’50, then gently chides the self-styled “revolutionary” cinéastes of the ’60s (François Truffaut, Louis Malle, et al.) for disparaging their neoclassical predecessors. There would have been no New Wave, he notes, if Vichy and the Liberation had not already organized, unionized, and professionalized production and standards, or if there hadn’t been large subsidies provided by the much-maligned État.

Whether the French New Deal abides in today’s France is another question. Nicolas Sarkozy has not only ended the season on anti-Americanism, he has famously sought to “liberalize” the economy by reducing the role of the state. His initiatives and rhetoric have run into strong street resistance among those who cherish la difference Française and want nothing to do with the British/American model of capitalism. But Sarkozy has also made overtures to the Vatican and the French bishops in an attempt to end the long battle between the church and republican laïcité. And in that respect, at least, he is reminiscent of the early Catholic reformers of Vichy.

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.

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