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The French RepublicHistory, Values, Debates$

Edward Ducler Berenson, Vincent Duclert, and Christophe Prochasson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449017

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449017.001.0001

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(p.324) 36 Commemoration
The French Republic

Daniel J. Sherman

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers acts of commemoration and the concept of memory in the republican framework. As commemoration seeks to reinforce the solidarity of a community by fixing a common version of events that have in some way disrupted it, the challenge and dilemma of republican commemoration lies in the fact that the Republic's claim on the community, the French nation, has long been contested, and the events it tried to stabilize included those that repeatedly created and destroyed it. However, as a distinctively modern form of political praxis, commemoration has evolved along with the Republic; it has roots in, or connections to, popular festivals, public art, and political symbolism, but its distinct role lies in seeking to prompt affinity and allegiance in a number of registers.

Keywords:   commemoration, republican commemoration, allegiance, political affinity, political symbolism, French nation

The first French Republic began in September 1792 without an official proclamation and in a way that deliberately obscured the past, overturning the old calendar and beginning time anew. “Memory” as such has never been a key word for the Republic, and only within the past generation has it become the object of historical research. But commemoration resembles the Republic—res publica, the public thing—in that both fundamentally concern politics, not memory. Commemoration seeks to reinforce the solidarity of a community by fixing a common version of events that have in some way disrupted it. The challenge and dilemma of republican commemoration lies in the fact that the Republic’s claim on the community, the French nation, has long been contested, and the events it tried to stabilize included those that repeatedly created and destroyed it. If commemoration thus has difficulty representing the Republic as its object, a republican type of commemoration gradually developed, emphasizing public participation, pedagogy, and the values of secularism, progress, and the ideals of the Republic’s motto.

As a distinctively modern form of political praxis, commemoration has evolved along with the Republic; it has roots in, or connections to, popular festivals, public art, and political symbolism, but its distinct role lies in seeking to prompt affinity and allegiance in a number of registers. Four of these constitute the core field of commemoration: the calendrical, the figurative, the genealogical, and the ritual; separately and together they make clear the difficulty of the republican commemorative project. With regard to the calendar, Mona Ozouf has cast the failure of the First Republic to establish a consistent commemorative calendar as emblematic of its inability to stabilize the flux of history. The beginning of the Third Republic, the longest-lived to date, September 4, 1870, logically replaced the name of the street marking the inauguration of its predecessor regime, the rue du 2 décembre. But the 4 septembre, inextricably connected with (p.325) military defeat, did not suit the purposes of long-term commemoration. The 14 juillet, made the national holiday in 1880, was a default date, commemorating a brief time of possibility and relative concord rather than any of the moments of violent upheaval that followed it; its success in defusing controversy ensured its survival.

The act of representing the Republic, whether in official documents, currency, or public art, is not solely commemorative, but it can take on commemorative overtones. Various attempts, from Hercules early in the Revolution to Daumier’s nursing mother in the celebrated competition to depict the Second Republic, showed the difficulty of figuring the abstraction of a sovereign people. But in the decades from the Revolution to 1848 a popular resonance attached itself to one figure, Marianne. This popularity did not forestall controversy when republicans came to power in the 1870s, as different versions appealed to different constituencies: Radicals found a seated Republic by Jean-Baptiste Clésinger and commissioned for the 1878 Exposition Universelle too placid, prompting the Paris City Council to order more commanding figures by the Morice brothers for the Place de la République and by Jules Dalou for the Place de la Nation. As Olivier Ihl has shown, the Third Republic did not have an active program to distribute Marianne busts to the provinces, preferring to respond to local initiative rather than impose a symbol that might foster controversy.

The main genealogical impulse for republicans, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century, was to find prerevolutionary antecedents for the Republic, and the Enlightenment offered a promising source. The centennial of the deaths of Voltaire and Rousseau in 1878 provided an opportunity for republican commemoration, and like an 1867 public subscription for a statue of Voltaire, these commemorations attracted fierce opposition from clerical interests. Observances of the centennial of Jules Michelet’s birth in 1898 depicted the historian as a model citizen, devoted to popular education, rather than a great man in an earlier mode largely discredited by its Bonapartist associations. During his lifetime Michelet had participated eagerly in republican political culture, which elaborated a host of commemorative rituals, from planting trees of liberty, popular in the Second and early Third Republics, to military parades and popular balls on the 14 juillet. The state funerals and burials in the Pantheon initiated during the Revolution and revived during the Third Republic have become the most familiar of these rituals. Victor Hugo’s funeral in 1885, which marked the definitive secularization of the Pantheon, lasted the better part of a day and, with its procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, elaborate decorations, and many orators, provided an enduring model. Over the course of the Third Republic the choice of those accorded the honor expanded to include scientists and artists as well as writers, politicians, and military leaders, staking the Republic’s claim to embodiment in diverse fields and forms of achievement.

(p.326) Like the Republic itself, commemoration underwent a significant shift after World War I, the event that to date has most marked the French commemorative landscape. Though postwar commemoration drew on existing forms and models, notably from the Franco-Prussian War, their fusion marked the emergence of a form of commemoration new in several respects. First, 1870 monuments were limited in the immediate aftermath of the war to regions most touched by combat, and their spread around 1900 was a political phenomenon, chiefly in larger towns or cities where the nationalist Right wished to broadcast revanchist sentiments. In contrast, the massive human loss of the Great War took commemoration to every corner of the country. The large number of unidentified and unrecovered remains made local monuments in effect substitute tombs, sometimes provoking controversy when families or veterans preferred to build a monument in the cemetery rather than in the town center. But whatever the sources of funding for the monument, and subscriptions led by veterans or family groups were common, the ultimate decision lay with the town council or its delegated committee, giving a public character to the monument’s site, physical appearance, symbolic significance, and surrounding rituals. Second, only the existence of a monument industry, from local stone-carvers to major foundries offering a range of standardized products, made possible the proliferation of monuments to the dead. The state attempted to regulate both the industry and the appearance of monuments through departmental commissions of experts, but it had little power to enforce its standards. Often dismissed as futile, these efforts formed part of a larger critical attention that made aesthetic criteria—the idea that even the most modest monument must have a worthy appearance—an inescapable part of commemorative discourse.

The final shift in Great War commemoration came with the institution in 1922 of the 11 novembre as the first truly secular holiday since the 14 juillet. This national day of remembrance ensured the ritual repetition of the tribute to the war dead, their inscribed names the one universal feature of war memorials, and placed it at the heart of French commemoration. Yet frequent controversies engendered by monuments’ iconography, location, and inscriptions, sometimes leading to demonstrations and vandalism, continued throughout the interwar period. Though historians have largely downplayed these controversies, as, for example in Antoine Prost’s influential treatment of war memorials as primarily civic monuments and Annette Becker’s work on the religious aspects of postwar commemoration, it was arguably the very contestation surrounding monuments’ construction and initial use that made Great War commemoration profoundly republican. Monuments bore the traces of the Republic’s complex imbrication of local and national: the ministers and members of Parliament attending dedication ceremonies and subsequent anniversaries intended through their presence to express the Republic’s gratitude to its constitutive communities. (p.327) If these ceremonies often followed closely on religious observances, republican protocol required commemorative ceremonies to be secular. They were not, for all that, apolitical, as speakers ventured to speak in the name of the dead to promote policies deemed in the national interest. The conceit became so widespread, and so irritating to veterans, that the central device in the 1938 sound version of Abel Gance’s J’accuse has the dead literally rising from the national cemetery at Douaumont, near Verdun, in order to prevent the outbreak of a new war. Édouard Daladier’s stop at the tomb of the unknown soldier on his return from Munich in September 1938 offered a political counterpart to this cinematic trope, testifying to the inability of commemoration to knit together a badly frayed polity. The collapse of the Third Republic less than two years later further discredited the objects and rituals associated with its last two decades.

The monument boom of the interwar period thus had another lasting legacy. Artifacts of a disgraced political culture, local monuments became an embarrassment after World War II. Using aesthetic standards as a screen, the Provisional Government instituted and enforced strict regulations on the construction of any type of ambitious or figurative monument. As a surely unintended result, most towns guaranteed approval by simply adding names to the existing monument, thus preserving the Great War’s dominance of the commemorative landscape. But the traumas of 1939–45—defeat, occupation, and civil war—made the prospects for a renewal of republican commemoration uncertain. On arriving in Paris in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle famously refused to repeat one of the most emblematic rituals of the Republic: its proclamation from the balcony of the Paris Hôtel de Ville. According to his War Memoirs he replied to calls that he do so: “‘ The Republic has never ceased. Free France, Fighting France, the French Committee of National Liberation have successively incorporated it. Vichy always was and still remains null and void. I myself am the President of the government of the Republic. Why should I proclaim it now?’ Stepping to a window, I greeted the crowd that filled the square and proved by its cheers that it demanded nothing more.” This was the type of gesture in which de Gaulle specialized, at once decisive and ambiguous, saying one thing but offering room for multiple interpretations. De Gaulle’s questionable attachment to the Republic and its institutions, including those he himself founded in 1958, would haunt republican commemoration for decades, even as his insistence on republican continuity became a form of orthodoxy and a tool of selective forgetting.

The multiplicity of experiences of World War II—of veterans, prisoners of war, Resistance fighters, conscripted laborers, deportees—and their uncertain relationship to each other made fragmentation the predominant characteristic of commemoration after 1945. If republicanism played little part in this conflict of narratives, the proliferation of competing monuments still took place within a republican framework, albeit with messages more specific and sometimes more (p.328) partisan than those on monuments to the Great War dead. Groups with connections and resources acted quickly, erecting a number of major monuments by the early 1950s: what is now known as the Shoah Memorial in the Marais in Paris began as the tomb of the unknown Jewish martyr, dedicated in 1956. Typically site-specific, Resistance memorials drew on earlier traditions of republican commemoration, notably in their reliance on the initiative of private associations, but also in their desire to instruct, made more urgent by the difficulty of reconciling the views of the main components of the Resistance. Heroic acts and martyrs found commemoration most readily in the early years. Thus a monument to the Resistance hero Pierre Brossolette overlooking the harbor of Narbonne was dedicated in 1952, and numerous plaques and two monuments (in Chartres and Béziers) honoring Jean Moulin were in place by 1951. French internment camps and sites of repression, on the other hand, like the deportation camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy, generally did not receive attention till the 1970s or 1980s. Two exceptions prove the rule. A national memorial at the Struthof concentration camp, dedicated in 1960, was in Alsace, juridically German territory during the war; the 1962 monument to the martyrs of the deportation on the Île de la Cité does not list the specific groups deported, and its site has no particular connection to the deportation.

But the larger effect of Gaullist orthodoxy lay in its refusal to acknowledge any connection between the Republic and Vichy, thus exonerating the Republic, and indeed France as a whole (as opposed to individuals subject to judicial penalties) of collaboration. The state and its constitutive entities could participate in memorial observances, grant space to associations seeking to build monuments, and rename streets in honor of Resistance heroes. But the position that the Resistance had incarnated the Republic, taken literally, meant that the Republic had nothing to commemorate other than the Resistance. Even this notion had its limits. The date chosen for commemorating World War II was VE Day, May 8, not June 18, the date of de Gaulle’s appeal to resistance, or any date associated with the Liberation. The result of a prolonged campaign by veterans’ groups, and not made official till 1953, the 8 mai holiday associated France with the victors rather than with its own civil war.

After de Gaulle’s return to power the state took a more active role in remembrance, though more in ritual than in monuments, and with the Republic itself largely absent as an object of commemoration. The Fifth Republic orchestrated a number of anniversaries of both world wars in ways that served its own narrative: observances in 1964 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of the Marne and the twentieth of the liberation of the camps, both cast as French triumphs over Germany, but ignored D day as too American. The year 1966 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Verdun, though de Gaulle, who could never replace Pétain as the emblematic figure of that battlefield, skipped the 1967 (p.329) dedication of a Verdun memorial museum built by veterans, a group in which, after his post-Algeria purge of the army, the President had remained highly unpopular.

After de Gaulle’s departure from the political scene in 1969, the strains of a commemorative enterprise based on selective forgetting became increasingly apparent in calls for a fuller accounting of the Republic’s failures and dark moments. As Henry Rousso observed, the debates unleashed by the cinematic release of Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity in 1971 and the French publication of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France in 1973, beyond their impact on historical understandings of the war years, marked an important shift in the relationship between historians, commemoration, and the media. The centennial of the Revolution in 1889 had enlisted historians, under the leadership of Alphonse Aulard, to provide both scholarly publications, notably compilations of documents, and didactic works intended for popular audiences. Now the resonance of Paxton’s work among French historians made clear that historical scholarship would no longer operate under the cover of apolitical scientificity. Historians and other scholars increasingly offered critique as well as knowledge and challenged the Republic to accept their contributions as consistent with its most profound values. In parallel, filmmakers and investigative journalists both responded to and helped reshape public interest in the war years by asking inconvenient questions and breaking unspoken taboos. Other factors also contributed to a new questioning of Gaullist memory narratives in the 1970s, notably de Gaulle’s death in 1970, the ethical turn on the left after 1968, and the spread of media interest in the Holocaust.

Commemorative practice could not but respond, though with a notable time lag that reflected politicians’ wary response to the changed media landscape and increased militancy of private associations in the 1980s and 1990s. After Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, seeking to distance himself from an old-style Gaullism rooted in the Resistance, caused an uproar among veterans by attempting to end national observance of the 8 mai anniversary in 1975, François Mitterrand promised in his 1981 presidential campaign to restore its status as a national holiday. Acutely aware of the symbolic dimensions of commemoration, Mitterrand began his term with a televised visit to the Pantheon, presided over the lavish commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of D day in June 1984, and then, a few months later, used the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I to stage his celebrated hand clasp of reconciliation with German chancellor Helmut Kohl at Douaumont. During the bicentennial of the Revolution in 1988–89, which produced a raft of historical publications and no lack of debate, Mitterrand, while cautiously espousing the classic argument that revolutionary violence arose in response to external threats, chose to emphasize the symbolic character of commemoration, such as the planting of a tree of liberty in a village in the Vienne, as a way of defusing controversy. His few speeches on the bicentennial emphasized (p.330) the values of liberty and solidarity and for the most part avoided both narrative precision and traditional republican protocol. All these actions served Mitterrand’s larger political strategy of deradicalizing the French Left by moving his Socialists toward the center and claiming to incarnate not only the values of the Republic but those of the nation as well.

By the middle of his second term, however, some of Mitterrand’s commemorative acts were attracting criticism, notably after the revelation in 1992 that he had had flowers placed on Marshal Pétain’s tomb every Armistice Day since 1984. It began to seem as though the President’s attention to large-scale anniversaries of the two world wars were serving as screen memories in the Freudian sense, displacing youthful memories too difficult to confront. In a televised response (July 14, 1992) to calls that he make a public declaration of responsibility for Vichy persecutions Mitterrand recited the Gaullist line: “Let us not ask the Republic for an accounting. In 1940, there was a ‘French State,’ the Vichy régime: it was not the Republic. … I completely share the feelings of those who are interpolating me, but we must be clear: the Resistance, the de Gaulle government, the Fourth Republic and the rest, were founded on the rejection of this ‘French State.’” Two days later, Mitterrand attended the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1942 roundup of Jews at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, but he limited his participation to a wreath laying and did not speak; his appearance prompted scattered jeers and whistles.

The commemorative calamity of 1992 led to the establishment the following year of July 16 as a day of national observance of Vichy racial and anti-Semitic persecution, and to the construction of a monument to the memory of the victims, near the site of Vel d’Hiv on the Quai de Grenelle. By the time Mitterrand presided over the dedication of this monument in 1994, with its inscription beginning “The French Republic in homage,” revelations of his own Vichy past had tarnished his image and largely discredited the Gaullist discourse he had made his own. It was left to his successor, Jacques Chirac, the first Gaullist president since 1974, to make the long-sought avowal of responsibility. In his speech at the Quai de Grenelle monument in July 1995, Chirac declared: “These dark hours forever soil our history and wound our past and our traditions. … Yes, the madness of the occupiers was seconded by Frenchmen, by the French State.” Though he did not address the question of state responsibility directly, Chirac’s speech paved the way for legislation on compensation, restitution for looted property, and new forms of memorialization. As philosophers and historians elaborated the concept of devoir de mémoire, a public and collective duty to remember, the recognition of responsibility and of the need to go beyond symbolism and ritual finally entered republican commemorative practice.

When the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin used the eightieth anniversary of the armistice in 1998 to urge the “reintegration” of executed mutineers (p.331) in the memorialization of the Great War, he made clear that commemoration is never entirely fixed; new scholarship, media attention, and shifting political currents always have the potential to destabilize a fragile consensus. In the case of the Algerian War, no consensus has ever really existed. As Sylvie Thénault observed in the Dictionnaire critique de la République, the great obstacle to a nuanced historical understanding of the Algerian War, the prerequisite for responsible commemoration, lay in the failure to recognize the Republic’s part in the atrocities and brutality of that conflict, and specifically of the continuity of torture and other forms of abuse from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic. The first monuments in the metropole, mostly the work of ex-colonists, went up mainly in southern cities with large pied-noir communities, as early as 1971 (Marseille); the Nice monument, completed in 1973, specifically mentions an Organisation de l’Armée Sécrète (OAS) officer executed by French military justice in 1962. Initial forms of recognition from the Republic, such as Giscard d’Estaing’s attendance at the burial of the unknown soldier from Algeria in 1977, fell under the old paradigm of tribute to those who had died for the patrie, especially since it took place at the Great War cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette. Successive governments of all stripes followed the same policies, which were designed more to repress than to come to terms with the past: a series of amnesties extended to members of the OAS, the award of combatant status to veterans (1974), and in both France and Algeria a refusal to resolve thorny issues of citizenship, military service, and immigration.

Public interest in the war had grown with the publication of Yves Courrière’s four-volume history of the war (1968–71) and, fed by a steady stream of films, television series, and publications, has never ebbed. But only in the early 1990s, with new political turbulence in Algeria, demonstrations by the children of harkis (Algerians who had fought for France), and new books and films about war, including Benjamin Stora’s strongly argued La gangrène et l’oubli (1991) on willed forgetting, did private associations begin to call for a fuller accounting of the war’s effects on France. It took nearly another decade for Parliament to change the official designation of the conflict to “war” (1999), for the Jospin government to ease access to certain archives, and for official acknowledgment that the killing of Algerians peacefully demonstrating in Paris on October 17, 1961, amounted to a massacre. Yet the plaque memorializing that event in 2001 came from the new Socialist mayor of Paris, not the government, and referred only to a “bloody repression” causing the death of “numerous Algerians,” without naming them or those responsible.

Even these tentative steps caused a backlash. In December 2002 Chirac dedicated a national monument on Paris’s Quai Branly to French troops killed in the Algerian war; in the classic mode of a tribute to sacrifice, the monument acknowledged no responsibility other than to remember the dead. Most notably, (p.332) a February 2005 law calling for greater recognition of the contributions of all who had suffered as a consequence of the Algerian War and subsequent population movements also granted state indemnities to members of the OAS. The law attracted notoriety for an amendment calling for school curricula to teach the “positive effects” of French colonialism, which prompted protests from historians, the Algerian government, and others. While this clause was later abrogated, the rest of the law remains in effect. In a sense it paved the way for the more truculent attitude of Nicolas Sarkozy, who in his 2007 presidential campaign called for an end to French “repentance.” In his declarations as President, Sarkozy has acknowledged past abuses, including slavery and colonial massacres, while refusing to apologize for them and insisting on moving on. His absence from the 2007 opening of the Cité National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, a still evolving project to include marginalized populations in the official narrative of French history, struck many as a symbolic repudiation of the devoir de mémoire: the center occupies the Palais de la Porte Dorée, built in 1931 as a didactic museum extolling French colonialism.

In 2007 and 2008, nearly a quarter century after the publication of La République, the first volume of Pierre Nora’s immensely influential collection Les lieux de mémoire, two books appeared in France with titles that played on the phrase “guerres de mémoire,” memory wars. In part, these books responded to Nora’s 1992 afterword to Les lieux de mémoire, which notes the fragmentation of national memory, itself a recent invention, and, without predicting an end date, suggests that our own “era of commemoration” would be fleeting. Historians and philosophers uncomfortable with the omnipresence of memory in public debates may welcome Nora’s prediction, but the pressure the discourse of memory puts on historical practice seems unlikely to diminish soon. If war is a continuation of politics by other means, memory wars make clear that the political stakes of commemoration remain as high as ever. And whatever its risks, by offering a place for multiple commemorations within a republican framework, the idea of memory as responsibility can play a part in constructing a new, more tolerant, and diverse republican community—or communities—in the twenty-first century.


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