Commentary Magazine


In Search of France, by Stanley Hoffman & others

The Tides of Chance

In Search of France.
by Stanley Hoffmann, Charles P. Kindelberger, Laurence Wylie, Jesse R. Pitts, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, François Goguel.
Harvard University Press. 489 pp. $8.95.

In the inter-war years, there was a popular English journalist called J. B. Morton who wrote a series of highly emotional, subjective travel books under the title: In Search of. . . . I don’t remember whether he did France, but he certainly produced In Search of the Holy Land and In Search of Scotland. The first thing that strikes me about this Harvard volume is how remote it is from such facile, individual lyricism. Not only is it the work of five professors (four American and one French), but unlike most symposia, it was composed in collaboration. The five sections are the fruit of two years of seminars in America, to which various eminent people were invited, followed by an equally eminently attended study conference in Paris. To guarantee the reliability of the operation still further, the book contains its own built-in criticism in the shape of a commentary by M. François Goguel, Secretary-General of the French Senate, on the five preceding chapters. The whole undertaking can, therefore, be praised as a monument to academic thoroughness and fair-mindedness. One sometimes wonders why politics and government remain such a haphazard affair when so many experts now devote themselves impartially to the elucidation of social problems. If a few thousand copies of this book were distributed free in France, would they not help the French to find themselves? A dozen copies should certainly be sent to President de Gaulle and his entourage.

Before summarizing the general thesis of the book, with which it is impossible to disagree, I may as well clear away those incidental points about which I have doubts. Although French culture, especially the literary culture, is mentioned on several occasions as being exceptionally important, the volume contains no contribution by an expert in French literature, language, and philosophy. If some such person had been present at the seminars, he would, for instance, have prevented Professor Wylie’s attributing the play, Topaze, to Jules Romains, when in fact it is by Marcel Pagnol. He would have brought out the significance, even for the technological elite, of such didactic literary figures as Alain, Valéry, Gide, Malraux, Camus, and Sartre. And I think he would have queried, more vigorously than M. Goguel does, the first part of the chapter, “Change in Bourgeois France,” in which Professor Pitts makes some sweeping generalizations about French psychology.

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Professor Pitts’s theories are the only part of the contents of the volume which make me scratch my head and conclude that either he must be quite wrong about some things or I must have been very imperceptive during the last thirty years. He sees France as being essentially Catholic, and he divides the Catholic tradition into two trends: the “doctrinaire-hierarchical” and the “aesthetic-individualistic.” These seem to correspond more or less to what I would have called the “Catholic-authoritarian” and the “humanistic-free-thinking” strains, and I cannot see why Professor Pitts wants to link the second as well as the first to Catholicism. It is true that there are all sorts of cross-connections between them. Authoritarian centralism, for instance, may be as much a feature of the secular Left Wing as of the Catholic Right, but this is because, at the Revolution, the new men inherited an already centralized state, which was still further centralized by Napoleon. On the other hand, a certain kind of republicanism may be just as characteristic of the Right Wing as of the Left. One of the most puzzling features about de Gaulle is that, in spite of playing fast and loose with parliament, and behaving like a monarch and sending congratulatory telegrams to the Orleans-Braganza family, he is, in his own peculiar way, a republican, who can sound the appropriate note when occasion requires. There is a Voltairean wit and a free-thinker in him, as well as a Right-Wing Catholic, and this helps to explain how he can be all things to all men and enjoy such liberty of maneuver. I see no reason to doubt the normal division of France into Catholic and non-Catholic, provided we remember that the two strains have influenced each other for generations. On the whole, individualism has been characteristic of the secular, rather than of the Catholic, tradition, in spite of such religious individualists as Huysmans, Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy, and Simone Weil; in any case, the last two are almost as representative of secular as of Catholic France. Professor Pitts does not bring out the fact that the majority of able Catholics go through the state schools, where they imbibe a great deal of the anti-Catholic tradition. I think he seriously underestimates the strength of secular France.

At the same time, I fancy he overestimates the survival of the aristocratic ethos. He makes great play with the concept of “prowess,” which I have never heard mentioned in France. The word exists mainly in the plural, in the phrase “faire des prouesses” which is usually ironical and can be applied, for instance, to sexual proficiency. I cannot follow Professor Pitts when he says:

The creation of a piece of jewelry by a Parisian craftsman, the peasant’s careful distillation of a liqueur, the civilian’s stoicism in the face of Gestapo torture, Marcel Proust’s suave gallantry in the salon of Madame de Guermantes—all are examples of prowess in modern France.

The first two phenomena are related not so much to an imaginary “prowess” as to the survival of the notion of craftsmanship and individual endeavor in a society which escaped the wholesale regimentation of the Industrial Revolution. Jewelry, like wrought-iron or cooking or dress-making, is aristocratic in the sense that the standards reached during the ancien regime (and especially during the 18th century, under that ex-bourgeoise, Mme. de Pompadour, when France set the tone in luxury for the rest of Europe) have never been quite forgotten. In Great Britain, we have such standards in hand-made men’s shoes, Savile Row tailoring, and malt whisky, but certainly not over a wide range of crafts. What Professor Pitts calls “prowess” may be a survival of the artisan spirit, or a manifestation of the individualistic tradition of wangling which naturally develops in a centralized state, or a sign of sturdy republican independence or Napoleonic adventurism, or the quixotic gallantry of la vieille France. These various things may intermingle in a bewildering way. If you dine, for instance, at the table of a Fifth Republic préfet, in a palace built by Napoleon III, the meal will normally be reminiscent of 18th-century standards and will be presented with some of the formality of the ancien régime. The guests will be largely middle-class but with peasant roots. The military or diplomatic gentlemen may have a slight vieille France aura. The conversation will be middle-class, rationalistic, and realistic in a Napoleonic way, with many references to power politics, intellectual disciplines, and peasant wisdom. All this cannot be reduced to the few simple concepts employed by Professor Pitts.

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However, when Professor Pitts goes on to define the changes that have occurred in the bourgeois family, his reflections are more concrete and coincide with the findings expressed in the other chapters. The theme running through them all is that France has undergone a profound transformation since 1939. Before the war, the country was in many ways old-fashioned and content to remain so. Now it has been forced into the modern world, the population is growing steadily, industrialization is proceeding by leaps and bounds, agriculture is being modernized, family life and the general social pattern are undergoing surprising modifications, and France is again claiming the right to play a major part in world affairs. The problem, in each instance, is to decide how far-reaching the new developments really are, where they are leading, and whether they reinforce each other or to some extent conflict.

In the first section, Professor Hoffmann describes the stagnant equilibrium, the “stalemate society,” of France since 1870. For generations, France had been run by the moderately prosperous middle classes whose ideological differences tended to cancel each other out. The essential social unit was the family, based on the possession of property and the economical administration of a relatively small income. A similar atomization of society was noticeable among the peasants, with their small holdings and their resistance to modern methods. In spite of the gap between the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the peasants and workers on the other, France could be termed a democratic country, because the mosaic of small sectional interests was a fair representation of the various traditions making up French society. The flaw in this democracy was, of course, that republican institutions expressed the diverse wishes of the population but kept the executive correspondingly weak. In the stresses of the postwar world, the hesitations of successive French governments in face of the internal and external problems produced a series of crises and—in connection with the Algerian question—almost led to civil war. Many Frenchmen have pressed for a strengthening of the executive. General de Gaulle, after an initial withdrawal from the political battle when he felt he could not impose his will on the politicians, followed by a twelve-year wait for a favorable opportunity to return, came back in 1958 with the paradoxical support of the various groups of contenders, each of which supposed the General to be on its side. At first, the General moved very cautiously toward a solution of the Algerian problem, a task which lasted more than two years. Having completed it, and having eliminated all institutional opposition to his personal reign, he is free to put into execution his “grand design” for the building up of France as the chief European power, capable of existing independendtly of America. Whether this is proof of political realism or of mythomania, and whether the country as a whole is really prepared to follow de Gaulle all the way, are very debatable points.

Also, says Professor Hoffmann, and in this he is echoed by others, the political question of government remains unsolved, because de Gaulle’s presidential regime is a personal one, which may very well disappear with him. What form of regime will emerge when he has gone, it is impossible to foresee.

It seems certain, however, that the technological and sociological changes described in the other sections are irreversible. Professors Wylie and Pitts emphasize that the total family unit is no longer as important as it used to be—that is, parents and grandparents have lost the authority they once enjoyed. Arranged marriages have practically disappeared, and the new qualification of technical expertise and potential earning power is replacing the old conception of property and the prudent administration of small businesses. French family life remains more authoritarian than its English or American counterparts, yet the whole social structure is being loosened up. As Professor Kindelberger shows, one reason for this has been the emergence of so many “new men” in the field of industry and economic planning since the end of the war. A large proportion of the older generation was discredited by compromise during the Occupation; the younger men suffered very few casualties and were psychologically prepared to introduce reforms after the Liberation. Hence the development of a strong “managerial” class, which lays stress on long-term development, mechanization, collective groupings, international trade agreements, and so on. Economic expansion has not been uniform over the whole country, but it has been spectacular.

After pointing out the changes and indicating reasons for them, each section ends on an inconclusive, interrogative note: whither France in the immediate future? This is not merely because professors of politics and sociology tend to eschew forecasting and to content themselves with the analysis of accomplished fact, outside the framework of any optative philosophy; it is also because there has perhaps never been a time when the future of France was less foreseeable. The country has begun to move, but its relations with itself, with Europe, and with the rest of the world are so uncertain that an endless number of combinations is possible. No one, not even de Gaulle’s closest associates, expected him to romp home at the last elections, and there were many red faces among the préfets who had reported on local opinion. But de Gaulle’s own instinct is not infallible, since, when faced with the miners’ strike only a few months after this success, he signed the order requisitioning the mines and provoked nationwide opposition just as complete as his former nationwide success. The General’s position is really based on an interlocking system of misunderstandings, and it is anybody’s guess how that system will break up. However, France is not unique in moving shakily and uncertainly into the future. The observer watching from across the Channel is conscious that his own background is evolving rapidly and unpredictably. Every day, there are things in the press and on television programs which make even progressive, middle-aged Englishmen wonder where their country is heading. Perhaps, to clear the ground, the Harvard Center should now go on to produce a companion volume entitled “In Search of England.”

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