France’s post-imperial stress disorder

A prizewinning novel explores France’s identity crisis with lyrical panache—and a painful look back at the not-so-glorious past. But hang on a minute. A weird undertow appears to suggest that the answer to present troubles lies in more, er, sexual congress.  Vraiment?  I thought it was more a matter of politics.

Alexis Jenni

L’Art Français de la Guerre (The French Art of War)

(Gallimard, Paris, 2013 folio edition, 776 pp)


France had a terrible 20th century.  One million six hundred thousand dead in a First World War that historians remain at a loss to explain. A squalid struggle with Britain for control of the Middle East, with a continuing legacy of seemingly endless violence.  Defeat and occupation in a Second World War that brought the additional ignominy of a puppet government collaborating with Nazism. Then a barbaric, failed effort to hold on to colonies in Indochina and Algeria. Finally, as the century drew to a close, propping up a crumbling dictatorship in Rwanda and intervening to protect its génocidaires. This was a long and hard fall for a nation whose 18th and 19th centuries saw prodigious scientific, intellectual and cultural achievement, prodigious imperial power, and prodigious belief in the virtues of French civilisation.

The French Art of War explores France’s existential anguish through two, interwoven stories. The first is that of Victorien Salagnon, a schoolboy in Vichy France who, towards the end of World War II, trains with the resistance and joins the allied liberation forces. He then enlists in the regular army and serves in Indochina and Algeria.  No holds are barred in describing what would today be called the ‘gross human rights violations’ of those campaigns. Indochina was horribly inept: struggling with cast-off American equipment against an invisible enemy who the French generals repeatedly underestimated. Algeria was, by comparison, brutally efficient—combining overwhelming force with systematic torture; but this alienated the entire population, not just the nationalist minority, to the extent that continued rule became impossible.  (And not just in Algeria; news of the débacle, fanned by the excoriating prose of Franz Fanon, the Martinique citizen-subject, spread across the French empire, speeding its collapse.)

All of this is a matter of historical record but, beyond France and her former colonies, it is not engraved deeply in the consciousness of recent generations. This doubtless owes something to American cultural power.  We’ve all seen the Vietnam (and, now, Iraq) war movies. America effortlessly eclipses other stories with its own preoccupations and soul-searching.  Yet the mainstream French film industry has avoided such soul-searching, at least when it comes to international, box-office hits, preferring soft focus on the chic and stylish: Amélie; Chocolat; Amour.  This is the charming France that Anglophones love to love.

Disinterring the past

At home, too, France has had trouble coming to terms with the past.  Jenni’s narrator, whose name we never learn, is a vaguely anti-establishment guy, a generation younger than Salagnon,who drops out of a corporate job and a steady relationship in search of he knows not quite what.  As a child, he and his friends disinterred a pile of bones around the new apartment complex where they lived. It transpired that the complex was built upon a cemetery. When the adults found out, the bones were unceremoniously re-buried and the subject was closed. The past was not up for discussion, not permitted to haunt.

The anonymous narrator (who I shall call aleXis) reflexively scorns the military and police, and loathes Gaullist cant, but has drifted into a professional, bourgeois lifestyle. His dissident self is stirred into inchoate rebellion when he sees on TV that French soldiers are being deployed to Kuwait in Opération Daguet—France’s contribution to the 1991 ‘Desert Storm’ Gulf War. He wrecks a posh dinner party (and his relationship with his girlfriend) by serving up semi-cooked offal to his guests, and embarks on a new life as a low-paid delivery man renting a bedsit garret. It is now that he meets Salagnon, who fascinates him because, it turns out, the retired captain is a gifted artist.  aleXis has always wanted to paint, so he starts taking lessons with Salagnon and hearing his story.  Re-living (and re-counting to us) the veteran’s past becomes a process of growing admiration and empathy—with the man, not the lost causes. aleXis continues to attend anti-war marches that anti-riot police break up with routine violence.

Banlieues and burquas

Salagnon lives out in Voracieux-les-Bredins (“Mention the name to a [white] Lyonnais and he will shudder” [p. 284]), one of Lyon’s shabby, densely-immigrated banlieues beyond the end of the metro line.  Waiting for the bus one day when his throat is still scorching and his head still fuddled from tear gas, aleXis studies the unfamiliar greeting etiquette of people on the street—men touching each other’s shoulders, etc—and wonders “How can we live together if the gestures that allow contact are not the same?” [287] A common langue—and love of the French language flows throughout the book, with interesting digressions on capital letters and the passive voice, but also, in the early stages, dismay at the strange accents and intonations of immigrants—is seemingly not enough to ensure community of langage.

The sight of two veiled women brings a sharper response.  They are “privatising” and “enclosing” public space [288].  The veil’s effort to protect women from casual “concupiscence”—and this is an intriguing argument—reduces the human relationship to a purely rational, impersonal plane, and “nothing is more erratic than reason.” Indeed, “the reign of reason alone turns me into a monster.”  (An evident riposte to Goya’s The sleep of reason produces monsters and, possibly, an allusion to Tolstoy’s startling claim, in the epilogue to War and Peace, that “Once admit that human life can guided by reason, and all possibility of life is annihilated.” [Constance Garnett English translation, Heinemann, 1971. p. 1221])

Voracieux-les-Bredins is also home to one of Salagnon’s former comrades in arms, Mariani.  He is a cheerfully racist oaf who has assembled a group of young, armed thugs to command, and has fortified his tower block apartment windows with sandbags, in the belief that:

“We have been colonised. You have to use the word. You have to have the courage to use the word because it fits.  No-one dares use it, but it describes our situation exactly: we are in a colonial situation, and we are the colonised.  It has to come to force to fight back.” [298]

Mariani and his ‘lads’ are, in many scenes, clownish figures, but they are making political progress, having recently had a meeting with the newly elected mayor who, Mariani says, “knows and understands our ideas.” [583] The comic element—Mariani’s ridiculous clothes, his expostulations against a black Irish athlete on the TV—seems to be a way of softening, humanising rather than demonising, him.

Salagnon is no sympathiser with Mariani’s views, tolerating him only because Mariani saved his life in Indochina, carrying the injured comrade for hours through the jungle.  (Hmm. That’s just a little trite.) For Salagnon:

“Race is just wind.  A sheet hung across a room for a shadow play.  The lights go out, we sit down, and now there’s just a lantern projecting shadows.  The spectacle begins.  We get excited, clap, laugh, boo the bad guys and cheer the good ones, but we’re only seeing shadows . . . [394]

“Race is not a fact of nature, it only exists if you talk about it . . . [394]

“We infer wind from its effects, so racism leads us to suppose that race exists. They [Mariani et al] have won, everyone thinks like them, no matter whether for or against: people believe again in the division of humanity. [394-5]

Jenni works hard to make Salagnon an almost mystical figure: first lured to arms by outrage at humiliation; progressively disillusioned, yet trapped in a life of professional violence by comradeship and a sense that this has become his inescapable fate—what else could he do?; finally transcending the common stupidity of humankind through the art of painting, which “saved his life and soul.” [700] That his painting was more a spiritual than merely aesthetic journey is underlined by the fact that he has not bothered to modify in any way the tacky furnishings and cheap prints in the apartment where he and his pied noir (European Algerian) wife, Eurydice, are living out their childless old age.  They accept, yet transcend, their surroundings.

Painters and poets

However, the narrative centrality of visual art lacks the support of strong visualisation. (See endnote) There is not enough of the artist’s eye in Jenni’s prose to convince us of the bond between Salagnon and aleXis, and the supposed transcendent power of art.  We have to take this transcendence on trust, as a nice idea but one that Jenni has not really established. This risks the idea becoming a mere cliché (as it does when Salagnon finds an old Chinese master in Hanoi to teach him the oriental mysteries of brushwork.)

If lack of visualisation is Jenni’s critical weakness, his strength is the play of ideas in fluid monologue: engagingly digressive, forested with metaphor, sonorously repetitive, returning to the riffs of blood, appearance, violence and defeat.  His is more a musical than a visual gift. And the melodies do not put too much strain on a British grammar school grasp of French.  For example:

Nous aimons tellement la force, tellement, depuis que nous l’avons perdue. Un peu plus de force nous sauvera, croyons-nous toujours, toujours un peu plus de force que celle dont nous disposons. Et nous échouerons encore.  (584; We love strength so much, so much, ever since we lost it.  A bit more force will save us, we always believe, always a bit more force than we have just now. And still we fail.)

This is clearly not just a French disease, as Jenni tacitly admits through a significant, ancillary character.  Salagnon’s uncle, who first led the young man into the Resistance and thence a life of professional soldiering, followed the same career at a more senior level (and was eventually condemned to death for his role in the failed coup to oust De Gaulle).  The uncle’s constant companion in the colonial wars, we learn, was a battered copy of Homer’s Odyssey, which he was rote learning. “Homer is talking about us, much better than the newsreels,” the uncle says. “They make me laugh, those pompous little films they show in the cinemas; the ancient Greek’s story is much closer to the Indochina I’ve been in for months.” [361] Years later, as he awaits execution he has finally got the whole epic off by heart.

Jenni must, surely, be aware of his compatriot Simone Weil’s superlative essay, Iliad, Poem of Might, written during World War II. Might (violence, force), Weil argues, is the real hero of the epic, turning all men, whether victors or vanquished—both temporary conditions—into things: either corpses or ‘stones,’ equally devoid of souls.

The human race [Weil wrote] is not divided, in the Iliad, between the vanquished, the slaves, the suppliants on the one hand, and conquerors and masters on the other.  No single man is to be found in it who is not, at some time, forced to bow beneath might . . .  [160-161]

The strong man is never absolutely strong nor the weak man absolutely weak, but each one is ignorant of this. They do not believe they are of the same species. . . He who possesses strength moves in an atmosphere which offers him no resistance. Nothing in the human element surrounding him is of a nature to induce, between the intention and the act, that brief interval where thought may lodge. Where there is no room for thought, there is no room either for justice or prudence. This is the reason why men of arms behave with such harshness and folly.  Their weapon sinks into an enemy disarmed at their knees; they triumph over a dying man, describing to him the outrages that his body will suffer; Achilles beheads twelve Trojan adolescents on Patroclus’ funeral pyre as naturally as we cut flowers for a tomb. They never guess as they exercise their power that the consequences of their acts will turn back on themselves.  [163]

Such is the nature of might. Its power to transform man into a thing is double and it cuts both ways; it petrifies differently but equally the souls of those who suffer it and those who wield it. [173]

The art of war is nothing but the art of provoking such transformations. [174]

(Panichas, [ed], The Simone Weil Reader, McKay, New York, 1977)

This is very close to the pathology of warfare that Jenni describes, wherein men feel themselves to be driven by ‘destiny’ or ‘necessity’ (as Weil puts it), such that barbarism becomes routine, and “the soul [is] screwed up with terrible creases, impossible to iron out” [Jenni, 768.]  There is nothing French about this. Describing it as a ‘French’ art, I can only guess, was a deliberate effort to provoke national self-examination, and it succeeded to the extent that the book won the prestigious Goncourt prize for 2011—although that, it seems, has done nothing to arrest the steady advance of the National Front. 

The silent Other

If Jenni’s diagnosis of France’s malaise seems convincing, his implied resolution of the disorder is somewhat less so.

He offers us sympathy for the lost souls of war, and the need to re-examine and re-evaluate the past (implicitly, perhaps, without quarantining any constituency in a gesture of political correctness.) Fine, I’ll sign up to that.

He offers us the transcendence of art. Okay, I’ll swallow that, too—but more as a matter of faith than persuasion, since the case here is not well crafted.

Finally, he offers us the mixing of blood in “the urban cauldron [where] the precious soup simmers and changes, always diverse, always rich.” [743] By this stage, aleXis has a new girlfriend. It gradually emerges that her family originates from an “elsewhere” that is never specified: Algeria, probably, though it could also be Lebanon or Syria.  Either way, as he rides with her on the bus through the banlieues, his previous feelings of alienation and un-belonging have softened significantly, melting into the general pot. The novel ends, one evening after aleXis has been on a fishing trip with Salagnon and Mariani, and to the background sound of a street disturbance that Mariani has since stirred up, with aleXis ejaculating inside this nameless and voiceless lover. (“I swelled up completely, my member too, I was full and I was coming inside you.  And at last I was well.” [774]). Fin. Curtains.

This is a less than satisfactory climax. It recalls the old (Anglo-American) Blue Mink pop song, Melting Pot:

What we need is a great big melting pot

Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more

And turn out coffee coloured people by the score

That was perhaps, in 1969, quite a ‘progressive’ thought to throw into the popular culture pot (although ‘miscegenation’ has been going on throughout human history without yet producing a ‘coffee-coloured’ world; and doesn’t the latest science suggest that the rest of us are all descendants of a bunch of Africans who wandered out of their continent a hundred thousand years or less ago?) Young aleXis’ cauldron follows more up-to-date, liberal thinking in emphasising new diversity--"always rich"--as opposed to new homogeneity.

Yet one problem is that his girlfriend exists for us not as a person but only as a geographic or ‘racial’ token. All we learn about her is that she has a low bed, that she drinks very strong and very sweet mint tea, and that aleXis adores her “almond curves” and “the splendid arrogance of [her] nose, which is the gift of the Mediterranean to the universal beauty of women.” [744] He acknowledges and defends the concupiscent nature of his passion: “The properly polite thing is to prefer the whole being to the outward form, but the being cannot be seen except as manifested in the body.”  (Il convient par politesse de préférer l’être à la forme, mais l’être ne se voit pas, sinon par le corps. [610] I can’t quite capture that elegance in English.) Okay; but surely that’s just the pick-up stage?  Can’t we proceed to at least a peek at the being within the lovely curves?  Not in this book. The 700+ pages of lyrical prose are overwhelmingly scored for male voices, with passing (and weak) contributions from Eurydice. Almond Big-Nose barely speaks at all and the immigrant masses of Voracieux-les-Bredins are seen, observed, but not heard. To be sure, Jenni might reasonably prefer to stick to what he knows best—the thoughts and feelings of white men—and leave the women and the immigrants to write their own books. But still, to incorporate a character from this Other world as a token—and a critically important one—rather than as a person, surely underlines Salagnon’s point that the racistshave “won . . . no matter whether for or against, people believe again in the division of humanity.”

Even more troubling, though, is that we appear suddenly to be in a strange realm of morally imperative biology. “Sex draws us together and unites us; the veils people wear to disguise this truth are hateful.” [743] Hateful because they are opting out from the genetic free-for-all?  Is the message, then, that it is okay to receive people from “elsewhere” as long as they are sexually available? That doesn’t seem quite proper to me.  A purely descriptive biological determinism or ‘socio-biology’—the ‘we’re just naked apes’ story—is at least somewhat coherent, however upsetting to our ideas of freedom and responsibility.  But claiming that biology tells how we should behave is quite another matter, and a dangerous one.  After all, was it not just this kind of thinking that poisoned the revolutionary idea of universal equality with ‘survival of the fittest,’ ‘born to rule’ and ‘master race’ claptrap, and kicked off France’s horrible 20th century?


Why would anyone in France care about imperial decline?

French thinkers, after all, have continued to make a profound mark on the world, or at least the world of talk. From the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, through the semiotics of Roland Barthes, the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, the de-construction of Jacques Derrida, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard, to the whatever-you-call-it of Michel Foucault, has poured a stream of semi-intelligible ideas to stir up dull old Anglophone empiricism. Their contribution to ‘postmodernity’ today is no smaller than was the contribution of Voltaire, Rousseau and all the old philosophes to the making of the modern, Western world.  Without them, the new French intellectuals, the words ‘narrative,’ ‘discourse’ and ‘text’ would not pepper the work of today’s fine writers and professors of this and that, from Kansas to Kuala Lumpur. The ‘follow your dream’ and ‘be true to yourself’ mantras of corporate advertising froth owe a clear debt (a mere 50 years behind the intellectual trend) to existentialism, as the apotheosis of Western ‘individualism.’  And Frenchwomen have also spoken to the wider world. De Beauvoir was not just a major force in late 20th century feminism; her 1970 book, La Vieillesse (Old Age), meditated on matters now repeatedly echoed across the ‘greying’ first world. The other Simone, Ms. Weil, left a quieter but enduring mark in theology and moral philosophy.

What’s more, France’s GDP is still pretty good, and a bit more evenly distributed than that of the USA or UK (as Thomas Piketty, the latest global, French intellectual, informs us). They have powerful multinationals, great cuisine (if you’re not a vegetarian), cool architects, expanding prospects for quality wine, cognac and architecture in Asian markets, and an exquisite langue (to a British ear, anyway.) So why don’t they just relax?  Like, say, the Netherlands, which, although harbouring some rather unsavoury elements, seems to have recovered more easily from the intoxication of imperial might. (Although, let me be clear, I know very little of their story.)

I don’t know the answer, but I fancy it must have something to do with the staggering scale, the vast conceit of France's revolutionary and Napoleonic imperial ambition, and the hitching of personal identity to the state, with the simultaneous forging of the thought that this conferred freedom, not subjection. What big things ideas are, and this was surely the mother of grands récits that later French thinkers have been trying to unpick.

The only real analogue to France is her historic rival, Britain. In several ways, Britons had a softer landing than our Gallic cousins. We ‘won the war’ (World War II) we tell ourselves. The ploy of ‘Commonwealth’ was relatively successful as a face-saving colonial exit strategy. We’ve got big offspring: not just the USA, but cuddly Canada (well, barring Québec, anyway), Australia and New Zealand. And ours is the ‘global’ language.  Such comforting thoughts long nourished an enduring smugness.

Yet it seems to me that Britain and France are still sailing in much the same waters. We have our share of outright racists, a lot of panic about immigration (although we need the labour to do our low-paid work, like looking after our aged parents), a lot of liberal anguish over ‘British Muslims’ who don’t seem to share ‘our values’—although it’s far from clear what 'our values' are—and a couple of million Scots who want to jump ship (after much sterling service in the engine room of empire, and a pretty good showing in the posh cabins too).

These identity crises are real--although by no means the first in either country’s history: identities never stood still.  But I don’t think they have much to do with ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture.’ (Interesting how racial prejudice is now almost universally reviled, whereas deploring other people’s ‘culture’ is okay). I think they have more to do with configurations of power.

The people elsewhere, and especially in Africa, on whom France and Britain imposed the dubious gift of the nation state, are still struggling to make sense of it; and now, it seems, so are we. Somehow the state captured our identities, and somehow our elites captured the state.  The political ideas of the ‘Enlightenment,’ especially in France, were inherently ambiguous, both ‘universalising’ and yet imposing a very specific, bureaucratic belonging and division of humanity.  Small wonder, then, that questions about exactly who belongs where should become so intensely felt—especially at a time when the entitlements of ‘belonging’ to the old powers are being pared back.

October 2, 2014 Kigali.



I would defend this rather damning judgment with a counter example: John Banville’s short novel, The Sea. Banville’s central character is an ageing art historian who, for more years than he cares to remember, has been trying to write a monograph on the French painter, Pierre Bonnard.  From the very first page, the text is studded with pictures:

The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. [Picador, 2006, p. 3]

Banville’s constant, detailed and intensely visual attention to form, colour and light, is all the more remarkable for the fact that, as the paperback’s blurb tells us, is not ‘about’ art at all, but about “memory and loss.”