A la recherche des memoires perdues

La Vie en Bleu - Vichy, Resistance, Liberation - Vichy et la Chasse aux Espions Nazis 1940-42
March 31, 2006

Gritty details of daily life among the upheavals of France's turbulent 20th century help highlight the kaleidoscopic complexity of memory, says Richard Parish.

The central panel of this multiply interlinked triptych is provided by Rod Kedward's indispensable survey of France and the French since 1900. Even if the French 20th century did not have to endure the bewildering succession of regimes of its predecessor, more modestly limiting itself to a shift from the Third to the Fourth Republic after the multifaceted ordeals of the Second World War, and then to the Fifth in the aftermath of the Algerian debacle, the network of military, political and, above all, ideological arguments that it witnessed makes for a complex picture, and one that Kedward's concluding image of a kaleidoscope serves as well as any to describe. At the same time, there is a nexus of recurrent issues that informs his account, some erupting to the surface at moments of national crisis, others remaining as constants in the historical conspectus.

The evolution and definition of the role of women is the first of these. Women are portrayed as a group that was crucial in the Resistance yet denied the vote until 1945, thereafter to become increasingly organised and influential, as single-issue politics came to the fore in and after les annees soixante-huit. Alongside this, the omnipresent dilemma of the French colonies and the range of solutions as to their status, the degree of integration of successive waves of immigrants, and the questions of regionalism and Corsican autonomy, are similarly durable. Third, Kedward singles out the shifting relationship between the secular state and a range of expressions of religious belief, first of all manifest in attitudes towards the Catholic Church and Judaism, as highlighted in the attendant phenomena of anti-clericalism and anti-Semitism, before the Islamic dimension moves increasingly centre-stage as the century ends. And finally, while other parties and alliances come and go, and for all its scrapes with death, periods of vilification and questionable compromises, the French Communist Party (PCF) endures, and the advocacy of a range of variants on worker control, or autogestion , continues to be heard.

Internationally, France's position is defined with reference to a protean coexistence with her European neighbours, with the US and (as it was for a significant part of the century) the USSR, and with Israel and the Arab world; but such a global perspective is always held in tension with the love of the land, of its diverse pays and of its traditions of food and wine.

Working from a more evolutionary angle, the primacy of the republic, as a model of reason, justice and enlightenment, is shown to dominate the early decades of the century, to be succeeded by an (interrupted) search for modernity and, in due course, by the abandonment of French exceptionalism.

Certain 20th-century experiences marked the national psyche indelibly: the battle of Verdun, the Occupation and Resistance (a noun that Kedward would more comfortably use in the plural), the bloody denouements to the French colonial presence in Indo-China and Algeria, the failed experiment of political cohabitation and, singled out among a persistent (and persisting) tradition of strikes, marches and intra-French riots, the événements of May 1968. Due attention is also given to the individuals who dominate perceptions of these and other catalytic episodes: to Marshal Petain, hero of the Great War and figurehead of a disgraced government; to Charles de Gaulle, autocrat, résistant and decoloniser; to Francois Mitterrand, socialist victor of the 1981 elections, cynical survivor and patriot; and to Jean-Marie Le Pen, representative of an enduring tradition of the far Right as manifested by a poujadiste legacy of ruralism and nationalism.

In all these domains, Kedward marshals a formidable corpus of evidence into a compellingly readable narrative and affords a magisterial panorama of a nation and its identity that goes far beyond a simple political history. Of course he aims to provide, and succeeds in giving, a clear sense of the historian's take on any given event or player, always willing to refer the reader to a fuller study, to recognise that a case is still open, or indeed simply to leave us with a juxtaposition of contrasting interpretations. But it is his incorporation of the daily experiences that accompany these and other world-changing moments that above all informs Kedward's historical idiom and that allows him in turn to call on photographers and film-makers, novelists and poets, dramatists and philosophers, to say nothing of chansonniers , journalists, cartoonists and a whole cast of more or less reputable national personalities, to enliven and refine the depiction of a particular frame of mind or sequence of events. Kedward's style is elegant and clever, if at times slightly gallicised; and his more expansive sections are brilliantly punctuated by the provision of sometimes startlingly oxymoronic resumes and cameos. In his treatment of personalities in particular, Kedward typically moves from a brief biographical introduction, through an account of the noble and/or ignoble deeds that merit historical analysis, to a nuanced, more complex reappraisal of their status.

It would be too simple to say that the book is organised diachronically, other than in the broadest sense. Rather, what Kedward does is twofold. Much of the time he takes overviews of what he recognises to be randomly defined periods, such as the 1950s, but also identifies within them key episodes whose origins and impacts are thus situated in their fullest contexts. But elsewhere he looks at a specified block of years from two or three successive but complementary angles. This is telling in his parallel treatment of Vichy and collaboration versus resistance and liberation; but it makes its mark above all in the final trio of chapters on the 1990s and 2000s (and it would be difficult to identify his exact terminus ad quem , so seamlessly does his narrative connect with the issues of the present moment). Here he builds up a picture of France's tortuous engagement with plurality and multiculturalism against a backdrop of shifting political alliances. But most potently of all, Kedward looks at memory and identity, influenced, as he acknowledges, by Pierre Nora's monumental study of les lieux de mémoire , and in particular at the reassessment of the nature and extent of national responsibility for the Vichy regime, an inquiry triggered academically in 1972 by the US historian Robert Paxton, and pursued politically in subsequent years in the shadow of a series of high-profile trials culminating in that of Maurice Papon in 1997-98.

Key French terms are provided as required; there is a copious guide to further reading and a glossary of the dizzying array of acronyms of which the French are so notoriously fond. But if one remark remains in the memory for its characteristic combination of groundwork, francophilia and wit, it is the description of the (improbably) clerical mayor of Dijon, the octogenarian Chanoine Kir, forbidden by the church authorities from meeting Khrushchev on his visit to Burgundy in 1960, and isolated in an agricultural college to that end. "The visit," Kedward concludes, "inspired a highly disparate range of... press coverage, no less of a mix than the 'kir' of blackcurrant liqueur and white wine to which the eminent canon had given his name."

Those features of Kedward's range and distinction as a historian of France to which this survey bears witness are explicitly recognised in the collection that constitutes his festschrift, Vichy , Resistance, Liberation . This begins with an appreciation of his historical idiom, perfectly in accord with its manifestation in La Vie en Bleu , and an interview with its honorand, before grouping a dozen articles, mostly by former pupils turned current colleagues, into the two broad categories of communal and individual trajectories. All show, albeit in more narrowly focused formats, the signs of Kedwardian (if such is the adjective) inspiration, balancing, in Sin Reynolds's formulation in the first piece, "the complexity of messy human lives with the broader movements of history", although they are not equivalently well prepared for publication in book form.

The first set looks successively at female peace protesters in 1938, gender and resistance (a vast subject, here somewhat cursorily treated in stilted English), miners' strikes in Provence between 1930 and 1950, rumours in wartime France (arguably the most fertile inquiry of the series), Jewish life in Nice between 1939 and 1943, the role of the BBC in the Resistance, and relations between American forces and the indigenous population of Cherbourg in 1944. The second series treats in turn the two versions made by Abel Gance of the film J'Accuse (in 1918 and 1938), the careers of the pacifist revolutionary and homosexual activist Daniel Guerin, of the social economist Francois Perroux, in his evolution from an ethos of collaboration to one of liberation, and of Paulette Bern ge, torn between the novelty of scientific management and the atavistic certainties of a return to the land.

In the course of these pieces, the methodological trademarks of Kedward are much in evidence: a concern for gritty day-by-day evidence drawn especially from communities of women, regional and temporal variations in Resistance experience, the unofficial transmission of information, the limits of "scientific" inquiry and the diversity of cognate narratives. The devoir de mémoire is recurrently articulated, too, since, as Miranda Pollard succinctly states, "it's important that people know and remember". And the three biographies powerfully illustrate what Julian Jackson calls Kedward's "[exceptional sensitivity] to the ambiguities of the Vichy experiment". The book concludes with a study of the ethics of populationism after the liberation and with a bibliography of Kedward's works.

Finally, Simon Kitson, writing in French, zooms in more precisely again on the vexed questions of spying and counterespionage under Vichy, affording an extended example of the kind of detailed research that must underpin any reinterpretation of the années noires . Using archival material that has only recently become accessible alongside a circumspect exploitation of contemporary memoirs, Kitson examines the complex interactions of competing intelligence services and of conflicting loyalties. He presents his findings as an object lesson in ambiguities and inconsistencies, and as symptomatic of that governing paradox of the Vichy regime, whereby collaboration with the occupier was perceived as a means of ensuring national sovereignty.

Whether these three studies offer a synthesis, a thematically linked series of briefer articles or an in-depth reappraisal, they all bring the richness of everyday detail into their broader understanding of 20th-century France, and into their composite achievement of une histoire du temps présent .

Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.

La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900

Author - Rod Kedward
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 741
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9041 4

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments