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France Faces Its Extremes

The Right and the Left Call on Intellectuals to Shore Up a Failing Center

Bellamy at a rally in Villeurbanne near Lyon, France, May 2019 Emmanuel Foudrot / REUTERS

Charles de Gaulle famously asked how one can govern a country with 246 kinds of fromage. Historians could just as easily ask how one can understand a country with even more kinds of lieux de mémoire. A term coined by the historian Pierre Nora, a memory site is a shape-shifter. It points to those ideas or individuals, movements or monuments, literary works or legal texts which take on and take off different meanings over the centuries. In their three-volume work Les Lieux de mémoire, Nora and his colleagues applied the concept to a dazzling array of such sites, ranging from Verdun to Versailles, the Tour de France to the Tour Eiffel, the civil code to the paintings at Lascaux.

In this Baedeker guide for semioticians, one of the most intriguing sites is la gauche et la droite. The twinned concepts of the left and right were forged in the crucible of the French Revolution. At first, they were spatial markers, based on the two sides of the assembly hall where opponents and supporters of the monarchy sat in 1789. The terms slowly morphed during the nineteenth century, however, identifying supporters of the republic and supporters of the empire. By century’s end, as both camps came to terms with the republic, there was yet another transformation, with a conservative right and socialist left now squaring off against one another.

This particular dynamic, which held fast for the twentieth century, was enriched by another French tradition: that of the engagé intellectual. Ever since the Dreyfus Affair, as the late historian Tony Judt observed, French intellectuals considered it their duty “to choose sides, to align themselves with one or other side in the great national conflicts.” For the French, an unengaged intellectual is a literal and historical oxymoron. As René Descartes—yet another entry in Nora’s work—might have said, “I think, therefore I act.”

Just as the intellectuals rose with the traditional right and left, today they are falling with them.

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