This blog (written by me) was originally posted on the French History Network Blog
Date & Place: Monday 5 October, at the IHR, London.
Speakers: Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) with responses from Julian Jackson (QMUL), James McDougall (Oxford), Claire Eldridge (University of Leeds) and David Priestland (Oxford)
Paper Title: A roundtable discussion of Emile Chabal’s ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’
Chair: Iain Stewart (QMUL)
Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the discussion (right click to save).
This week was the rarest of events: a book launch for a sold out book! A packed room gathered to hear an interesting and esteemed panel discuss Emile Chabal’s rich and insightful new book on the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of contemporary French politics. The book sets out the negotiation between Neo-Republicanism and the liberal language of politics in an age of uncertainty. Speaking first, Dr Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) introduced the book in general, and welcomed the panel. We then moved on to a panel discussion in which a series of scholars responded to the ideas and challenges of Emile’s book, posing him questions to consider in discussion.
First up, Professor David Priestland (St Edmund Hall, Oxford) offered a comparative perspective on the framework established in Emile’s book. He stressed that the French political project was not unique in its focus on relating contemporary debates on liberalism to identity politics (and national identity), citing Russia and the Czech Republic as binary examples of that process being taken to extremes. Likewise, in discussing migration, ethnic relations and post-colonialism, David classed France as an outlier, owing to the reticence of its intellectuals to get behind these concepts. He noted, in particular, the way in which Neo-Republicanism salvaged Republican values as a fresh and blameless force in the discourse of contemporary French politics, springing from a strong heritage of technocracy. In this regard, he offered China as a tentative comparison which may generate fruitful work in future. As a historian of the Soviet Union and of communist regimes, David’s comparisons contextualised and broadened the discussion of the books issues.
Next, Dr Claire Eldridge (Leeds) praised the way Emile’s book contextualised the political debates of contemporary France in biography and narrative, offering a sense of how debates around social and political fracture were challenged and controlled. Her own focus on postcolonial France allowed her to draw attention to important issues surrounding interest groups and debates that emerged from France’s history of empire. Claire noted that the international context of the book focussed primarily on the West (Europe and the Anglophone world), and that Emile might in future work consider the important debates around Francophonie which coincided with his period of study. She also highlighted how the competition between Neo-Republican and liberal ideas was echoed in the regional context, and asked how this mapped onto the world of civil society and grass-roots activism. Giving the example of how pied noirs mobilised the rhetoric of republicanism and dominated the commemorative landscape, Claire contextualised Emile’s work, and drew attention to other pieces he produced focussing on Georges Frêche in Montpellier.
Dr James McDougall (Trinity College, Oxford) also praised the book, remarking on the way in which historiography contributed to the discussion of citizenship in French society. James is principally a historian of North Africa, and the broader Arabic and Islamic worlds. Building on this, he discussed republicanism as a framework for thinking about the state and questioned whether it had become a “lieu vide” around which the two poles of Neo-Republicanism and liberalism gravitated, and in which space political standards were trouped. McDougall discussed the flexibility and possibility that Republican discourse contained, highlighting one instance in particular. He described the Vichy-era post that vaunted the Empire, with its repurposing by ‘Indigènes de la République’, showing agency and a desire for Republican “appurtenance” in the wake of the Loi Foulard (2004). Within this repurposing of a colonial metaphor is a useful idiom for staging debates about republicanism. James’ reflection on postcolonial identities offered a useful nuance to Emile’s discussion of cultural pluralism within the book, illustrating an important element of contemporary French political discourse.
Professor Julian Jackson (QMUL) described the book as a timely intervention, praising the way in which it harboured a real sense of optimism about French political discourse. In particular, he felt it a useful companion piece to Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think, and felt the books worked well in dialogue with each other. He discussed the tensions between abstraction and the empirical in French politics, and noted that Emile’s book largely devoted its first part to those that abstracted debate, and its latter part to those that dealt in empiricism. He highlighted two key periods that framed the study: 1989 and 2005. The former invoked the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Foulard affair, the latter the banlieues riots and the EU referendum. Julian challenged Emile’s definition of ‘liberals’, which Emile conceded was a term offered in absence of a more appropriate soubriquet. Julian ended by discussing contemporary issues in France, in light of the book’s ideas. In particular, he discussed the impact of Emmanuel Todd’sWho is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class, and the political scandal surrounding Nadine Morano’s use of the phrase “race blanche” and subsequent visit to the tomb of General De Gaulle.
Responding to questions, Emile recounted his experience of first discussing his topic with colleagues and fellow scholars. He recalled reactions to his proposed study in which people suggested Neo-Republicanism was a flash in the pan, set against a stultified French political sphere. Yet, convinced that France retained a meaningful message for contemporary European politics, Emile carried on in his attempt to forge new tools of enquiry. His intention was to avoid rehashing the culturalism of studies that projected staid historical debates forwards, and to create a space to analyse the debates and divides within the French political sphere. I am sure that historians and scholars of France will agree that his accomplishments in creating these new tools have furnished a vibrant field for debate.
The book provoked lively discussion, and the commentators were unanimous in their praise for Emile’s achievement in producing this text. Emile himself expressed the hope that it will provoke further and sustained debate; while willing to concede that his framework could be superseded in future, he declared that he would be grateful for the historical and intellectual engagement from others that this would entail. Despite Emile’s modesty, the book offers a valuable perspective on French politics, framing and systematizing discussion in a way that will doubtless shape how others approach French politics in the future. It will surely be a fixture on reading lists and bookshelves for all those interested in the way the French talk about nation, state and citizenship.
Thank you to Emile and to all of our panellists for a fantastic event, which was widely enjoyed. All four commentators from the event will be writing up their comments for a ‘review forum’ in the Journal of Politics, Religion and Ideology. Please do take a look at the schedule of future speakers for the seminar. There are a number of excellent papers and events coming up, and it would be wonderful to see you there!