Fragile Glory, by Richard Bernstein
Cherchez La France
Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French.
by Richard Bernstein.
Knopf. 349 pp. $24.95.
Richard Bernstein, formerly the Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, where he is now national cultural correspondent, attempts in this book to get a fix on France. Why is that country, once so indispensable an element in what used to be called Western civilization, acquiescing in its own quite obvious decline? Why are the French, still perceived by others and by themselves as somehow unique, becoming indistinguishable from other denizens of an increasingly amorphous “West”? These are interesting and important questions, and in his diligent pursuit of them Bernstein turns up interesting and important insights.
Bernstein divides his book into three sections. The first treats of the putative opposition between Paris and “la France profonde,” a term for the French provincial countryside which the author renders as “the sticks.” In the second section he goes in search of the French themselves, offering brief dissertations on their sense of identity; the way they drive; their attitudes toward foreigners, Jews, Arabs, and Americans; their sense of play and their sense of seriousness; the triumph of the French middle class (the bourgeoisie in its original version); the eclipse of the aristocracy, French taste, and the sense of fraternité. Finally, there is a section on the political elite and its peculiar ways of acceding to and staying in power.
It is this last section which is the most successful. Bernstein has observed closely a phenomenon that has struck all foreign visitors: the paradox of French democracy. Alone among free nations, France has developed a system which is at once extremely representative and yet, at crucial times, astonishingly unaccountable to the citizenry. At its most obvious, the system is exemplified by a presidential regime which simultaneously is plebiscitary and monarchical. Where else could a president, with no questions asked, decide on his own to spend years, and billions in taxpayer money, reshaping the capital city? Where else could a government, with no serious complaints from the press or the legislative branch (not to mention the judiciary), dispose of troublesome opponents by blowing them, literally, out of the water (as the French government did with the Greenpeace ship off New Zealand in 1985)?
Bernstein is interesting not only on the peculiar political culture but also on the historical and social factors that have made France this way; with admirable tact and sensitivity he shows that the almost universal acceptance in France of the principle of raison d’état does not amount to a subversion of French liberty, even if the French themselves are aware that the mentality behind their approach to government must yet evolve.
The same fairminded spirit informs Bernstein’s treatment of his other topics as well. This is, as he says, a book “not written to prove any particular hypothesis,” but which tries instead “to draw a somewhat interpretive portrait of [the French], hoping in the end some notion of what they are really like and how they got that way would emerge.” The approach has its drawbacks, however, as well as its strengths. Thus, the chapter on French driving habits leaves one with the feeling that Bernstein is circling around a topic without quite locating it. He has a theory about those driving habits, but what does it explain? Only that “The French, like other people, are varied and various.” Similarly, Bernstein makes a great deal of the difference between Paris and the provinces, yet in the end the difference seems to elude him. Paris, he allows, is as French as French can be: “It alone stands for Frenchness as we know it today.” Then, when he visits the fast spots of the Alps and the Riviera, Bernstein discovers somewhat to his dismay that there is something Parisian about them. But the people who vacation in these kinds of resorts are, very often, Parisians. In fact, to put the matter in perspective, nearly one out of every six Frenchmen today is a Parisian (counting the region surrounding the capital), so what, in the end, can one expect?
A related shortcoming occurs when Bernstein touches on larger political matters. A theory developed in the mid-1980’s that François Mitterrand, who had fought Charles de Gaulle as a threat to democracy and had opposed the constitution of the Fifth Republic, was turning out, in office, to be the most “Gaullist” of the general’s successors. Bernstein accepts this view. It is not indefensible. On the other hand, so paradoxical a thesis does require some explanation, and it never comes. François Mitterrand may or may not have had the Gaullist virtue of creating a broad consensus around his own solutions to previously divisive issues, but, as a brilliant representative of the political class which the general despised, he merits, if one paradoxically intends to call him a Gaullist, deeper observation than Bernstein offers here.
Fragile Glory is an ambiguous title, and the questions Bernstein raises concerning identity and destiny are left, perhaps appropriately, in suspense. But they are good questions. The French government has itself recently put out a document on “the future of French identity,” drafted by a committee headed by the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. The subject has been in the air for some time, at least since the late 70’s, when it became increasingly impossible to avoid the issues of demographic mutation (declining birthrates, aging population, rising immigration), of European integration, of the blurring of political ideologies.
Bernstein shows how these questions have been transforming the French people’s attitude toward themselves and their country and, gradually, the perception which the rest of the world has of them. He senses that, all things considered, the French are changing gracefully: becoming better allies, less obsessed with making it clear to everyone how gloriously different they are. At the same time, Bernstein knows well that the world will lose something if the French change too much. Concerning that eventuality he is, rightly, not overly worried.