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January 15, 2014
History shapes modern French society in a way that affects few other nations. While Britain’s political system is well-established and memories of the last true civil war fought on British soil far from the stuff of everyday discussion, France is a very different case. The present Fifth Republic stretches back only as far as 1958; since the Revolution of 1789, there have been no fewer than ten separate political regimes in France. This year, 2014, is special even by French historical standards, marking the anniversaries of several events that have shaped France into the nation it is today. Some anniversaries, like those of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I and the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, will be marked by solemn commemorations; others might be more joyful occasions, with the festivities following the Liberation of Paris more likely to be celebrated happily than the bloodshed of the Battle of Normandy. The twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel must surely also mark a cause for celebration of Franco-British engineering triumph.
There may also be some events that France collectively would rather forget: the sixtieth anniversary of the series of attacks on French civilians in Algeria, known as ‘Le Toussaint rouge,’ which heralded the start of the Algerian War, may well be commemorated, but with less pomp and circumstance than the events connected to the two world wars. The existence of a ‘war’ in Algeria was only admitted in the French National Assembly in 1999, and French involvement in torture and in mass executions of Algerian activists have only ever been implicitly acknowledged and only then in 2012 by the newly-elected François Hollande. For the Algerian people and perhaps even for Algerian immigrants in France, the event is both the subject of celebration, marking the start of the fight for independence, and for commemoration of the millions of Algerians killed on either side of the fighting. No apology has ever been issued by the French government for its systematic use of torture and for its treatment of Algerians from both sides: not only the members of the FLN and its supporters in France, but also the pro-French Harkis, many of whom were left behind to be slaughtered at Independence in 1962.
French commemorations of the event will surely be marked by the continued marginalisation of Algerian immigrants in French society. Many young French men and women of Algerian origin are still obliged to live in low-income housing in the banlieues, often in precarious economic situations, without much opportunity for jobs or to gain more skills. The mass dissatisfaction with Hollande’s government and the lack of meaningful opportunities amongst young men and women of North African origin has most recently manifested itself in the ‘performance’ of the quenelle gesture, pioneered by the controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, ostensibly an inverted Nazi salute. The gesture, with its anti-Semitic connotations, demonstrates the continued fractious nature of French society, while the support for Dieudonné from dissatisfied immigrants across France only emphasises France’s failure to integrate immigrants into French society, despite its long history of immigration, especially from Algeria. The quenelle furore has recently lost out in news coverage to Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet, but the anger expressed by young French people with ties to North Africa will only intensify as France marks the sixtieth anniversary of la guerre sans nom, the war without name, and thus the collective commemoration of France’s fierce opposition to Algerian independence.
In all of these commemorations, though, the Republic will be all-important. A political system both revered and reviled in equal measure over the past two centuries, the Republic, and its tradition of liberty, is playing an important role both in the quenelle debate and in the so-called ‘Affaire Closer.’ Hollande has defended his right to a private life and supported the restrictions on the freedom of the French press to report such allegations, while Dieudonné has excused the quenelle as a challenge to the limits on freedom of expression in France. The three significant military events commemorated in 2014 each marked different stages in the history of the Republic:
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, political, intellectual and public support for the Third Republic was cemented around the need to defend it against the perceived enemy of Germany. After years of uncertainty and violent beginnings with the bloody crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the vitriolic division of French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards in the 1890s, the Republic had prevailed. Where in the 1890s counter-revolutionary and hard-right anti-Semities like Maurice Barrès, Paul Déroulède and Éduoard Drumont were household names in the 1890s, by the time of World War I, their influence had waned, replaced by a broad consensus around the Republic as political regime.
In 1944, at the Liberation of France following the Allied landings of D-Day, support for the Republic was also high. The difference, though, was that the Liberation followed four years of Nazi Occupation and Vichy rule, in which the Republic had effectively been demolished to be replaced by Pétain’s État français, or French State. The Vichy regime was widely unpopular by the time of the Liberation, yet four years earlier support for the reform of the Republic was high. The 1930s, with increased economic uncertainty, a high turnover of governments and the presence of organised, populist right-wing groups, or ligues, placed a significant strain on the institutions of the Republic. Political figures from left and right, from Léon Blum to Charles Maurras, demanded reform to the Republic. Vichy’s initial dissolution of the Republic thus met with little formal opposition. While this can be put down to the feeling of relief amongst most French people at the end of the fighting, it also reflected a long-held consensus in favour of reform. By the end of the Occupation, the French greeted the return of the previously obscure de Gaulle as their saviour, and welcomed the return of the Republic. De Gaulle in fact refused to reinstate the Republic, arguing that it had continued to exist in his presence, and thus founding the Gaullist myth that continued to dominate the French history of the Occupation until 1969.
Finally, the outbreak of the Algerian War marked a further consolidation of the ideals of the Republic around the importance of the French ‘civilising mission’ and defence of French interests abroad, if not support for the actual institutions of the then-Fourth Republic. When full powers were vested in the government’s representative in Algeria, Robert Soustelle, in 1956, they were agreed with a near-majority of the National Assembly, including the Communist Party, emphasising the widespread support for the defence of the Republic’s interests. Yet the Algerian War also marked an important turning point in the history of the Republic, prompting the creation of the Fifth Republic under de Gaulle, with its strong, patriarchal and even aloof executive in the form of the President.
Like the events themselves, the Republic looms large in French life today. While 2014 will be a year for commemoration and celebration for a whole series of events in France, it will also be a year in which these events, and other more contemporary incidents, like the ‘Affaire Closer’ and the quenelle controversy, both challenge and consolidate the Republic, its values and its traditions.