History is an important participant in French politics. As, for example, FranÃ§ois Hincker, notes, the lasting impact of the French Revolution on the contemporary French polity can never be underestimated – â€ž[c]ertes, […] que lâ€™essentiel de la France conÂ¬temÂ¬poraine sortit dâ€™elle est une idÃ©e dont la banalitÃ© nâ€™efface pas la vÃ©ritÃ©.â€œ (FranÃ§ois Hincker, La RÃ©volution franÃ§aise et lâ€™Ã©conomie â€“ DÃ©collage ou catastrophe?, p 5)
The Revolution forged a nation based on Ernest Renanâ€™s universalist â€œplÃ©biscite de tous les joursâ€ and introduced the French notion of the Republic, which is, according to the political scientist Michael Leruth â€œ… all at once a form of government, a collection of venerable lieux de mÃ©moire and familiar symbols, a political philosophy, and a secular substitute for religious faith.â€ (1998: p 60) Moreover, it is an ideology built on inherently conflicting, sometimes contra1dictory, concepts â€“ libertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ© and fraternitÃ© â€“ leading to a normative aim of active statism that is markedly different from the liberal political philosophy of other Western democracies. While French Republicanism is founded upon the rejection of all kinds of privileges and expects the state to intervene and protect the rights of the individual, other philosophical traditions are far more critical of the state, regarding it as one major source of arbitrariness.
The Republican tradition remains at the heart of the national identity of Napoleonâ€™s and de Gaulleâ€™s â€œGrande Nationâ€ and continues to influence contemporary French politics, from foreign policy ambitions to the European Monetary Union. However, it is obviously difficult to determine to which extent the concept has been constructed and used as a political tool. Thus, its contemporary discursive relevance is to a large extent due to De Gaulleâ€™s post war efforts. De Gaulle used it to offer his â€œcertain idea of Franceâ€ to a nation deeply troubled by the post-war global order, the loss of the remainder of its empire and internal political turmoil.
But his idea has recently been turned into a more pessimistic world-view, reflecting the once again increased importance of the economic dimension in politics: France, just like other industrialised nations, has to deal with a cleavage between the better-educated and better-off, who are considered to be politically centrist and more urban than rural, and those who fear the new, allegedly economically dominated world order – a cleavage very well visible in the current Presidential candidates’ positioning.
Thus, it remains an open question to which extent the current Republican discourse is simply a fresh label for linguistically discredited socialist values, used to oppose the alleged American style capitalist â€œpensÃ©e uniqueâ€, for example during the strikes against the JuppÃ© reform package in 1995. Most contemporary interpretations of Republicanism appear to have become deeply conservative and thus seem actually squarely opposed to the revolutionary spirit of 1789.
To remain in the revolutionary context, in my opinion, this debate to a certain extent mirrors patterns of the ideological battle between Girondists and Montagnards during the French Revolution. But the dichotomy of â€˜economic freedom or the right to liveâ€™ was more about crisis management and appeasing hungry masses than ideologically driven public policy. Debate and terror ceased when the immediate economic threat to the Revolution ended with military successes abroad. Likewise, today, as in the 1790s, an important feature of French politics is the gap between immediate action and public discourse on the one hand and long-term public policy and elite perceptions on the other.
In France, the combination of the Republican social heritage with the self-perceived French national mission to oppose the global/American challenge to the â€œFrench way of lifeâ€, and the consequences of the changed geo-strategic environment after 1989 offer a politically especially salient mixture. At least in this respect, French exceptionalism does exist and continues to be politically employed and reconstructed in the present context.