France Faces Its Extremes

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

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 …