From imperial inclusion to republican exclusion? France's ambiguous postwar trajectory

Frederick Cooper

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    When one opens a French newspaper or listens to television news today, the word "republican" appears again and again. The suburban disorder of 2005, to critics of the status quo, represents the incapacity of the republican model of governance to integrate fully recent waves of immigrants into French society. The same phenomenon, to others, reveals the incapacity of immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, to adapt to a republican order. Both sides of such debates assume a basic core of republican ideology: A one-to-one relationship of individual citizen and state, stripped of mediating social affiliations, be they the "estates" of the eighteenth century (nobility, clergy, third estate) or race, religion, gender, or ethnicity in the twenty-first. The citizenry elects its representatives by universal suffrage, and the state, in turn, guarantees them equal rights and duties along with equal access to state institutions, independent of any social affiliations or markings. To many French people brought up in the republican ambiance, any deviation from such principles would be destructive not only of the state, but of individuals' aspirations for equality. To others, the republican edifice is built on foundations of hypocrisy, for it has always been juxtaposed with colonialism, the negation of any principle of equality. The present situation is a continuation of the colonial past-prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion directed at French citizens and residents who were born in North or sub-Saharan Africa or whose parents or grandparents came from once-colonized regions-leading to despair and anger.1 Both the insistence on a singular, unitary vision of French republicanism and the exposé of the continued colonial nature of French society rely on two different readings of the last two hundred years of French history. One points to a continuing republican tradition emerging from the French revolution. The other sees a French nation exploiting "others," from the slaves taken from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies to Africans exploited on their own territory. These two readings are mirror images of one another; they posit a very French France exploiting a very African Africa. The virtue or the evil of "France" is that of a singular nation moving through time and acting for or against other societies. France's "others"-yesterday's colonized people, today's "immigrants"-lie outside this France, either the innocent victims of French racism and exploitation or else aliens whose own culture makes them difficult to assimilate to French society. But might not both readings of history represent backward projections of a "national" France whose historical depth is in fact much less than either story allows? Might not the claim that France has been, is, and must be governed by a set of republican principles miss out on the much more varied and contested course of republicanism in France? And might not the story of a colonial France, accurate as it is in revealing the dark side of French history, miss out on something important too: That colonial rule wasn't such a solid, implacable edifice, that political action on the part of Africans and others among the "colonized" had their effects, that struggle wasn't always in vain, that French political institutions and ideologies weren't givens that one either accepted, rejected, or stood outside? Historical analysis will not settle policy debates over such questions as whether affirmative action is a good policy or a bad approach to remedying inequality and discrimination or what the range of practices of marriage or gender relations in a republic should be. But historical analysis can respond to attempts to exclude certain possibilities from consideration at the outset-on the grounds that such possibilities aren't "French" or aren't "republican." It can show that the spectrum of political possibility in the past was wider than people in the present- projecting backward their own positions-allow it to be. Perhaps a less closed past could help us at least to recognize the possibility of a more open future. Let us look briefly at the relationship of national and imperial France since the 1789 revolution, then in detail at the openings and closures of the two decades after World War II.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationFrenchness and The African Diaspora
    Subtitle of host publicationIdentity and Uprising in Contemporary France
    PublisherIndiana University Press
    Number of pages29
    ISBN (Print)9780253353757
    StatePublished - 2009

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Arts and Humanities


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