France’s New Deal – From the Thirties to the Postwar Era

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France’s New Deal – From the Thirties to the Postwar Era

By Philip Nord

Princeton Univeristy Press – £19.95

”Bourgeois life now revolved around comfort and distraction, the once vigorous individual making do with a placid existence spent tuned in to the radio or gaping at sports events. The Republic, with its parliamentary blather, its pandering to low desires, its moneygrubbing mores, suited such ”individuals” all too well, and so France got the regime it deserved, spineless and decadent, unable to make the hard choices necessary to bring vitality and order back to the public domain.”

So writes the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, Philip Nord, in an early chapter (‘The Crisis of the Thirties’) of this overtly powerful and engaging book, France’s New Deal – From the Thirties to the Postwar Era. And hey, he’s not holding back either, which, apart from being as it refreshingly should be – but more often than not, isn’t – is a politically translucent vision of a time when France was perhaps holding itself to ransom.

Hence, the country’s inate need and acute acknowledgement for a period of (begrudging) state rebuilding.

A period that many up until now at least, have always considered took place after the Liberation. But, in tracking the nation’s evolution from the nineteen-thirties throught the post-war years, Nord herein describes how a menagerie of political figures – be they Socialists, Christian Democrats, Technocrats or Gaulists – were clearly instrumental in the making of the France of today.

Although more to the point i.e., this book; given the era and the vast, tempestuous subjet matter, there’s no doubting that many might consider the above opening assessment as being a tad risque. A tad colourful. A tad bare-knuckle.

Then again, we are talking about a turbulent time in France’s history.

Then again, I hear many a wisened-old-sage, ask: when wasn’t there a turbulent time in France’s history?

In and of itself, this is clearly an exceedingly valid point. One that warrants remembering at all times, especially with regards France’s socio-politico place in the historical context of the twenteith-century. One need only refer to the Vichy regime, as Nord does so importantly if not powerfully, in ‘The French Model,’ for (beacoup) clarification: ”The phenomenon cast an interesting light on the Resistance itself. In the popular American imagination, Free France appears the natural reflex of a freedom-loving people in the face of a vicious Occupation. But it is worth remembering just how variegated the Resistance phenomenon was. The movement contained elements that, however anti-German, were more ambivalent about Pétain himself, objecting not to Pétain’s National Revolution per so but to the attempt to make it happen in an Occupation context. The Resistance contained elements, however anti-Vichy, that espoused an elite-led, technocratic vision of national regeneration, which echoed certain themes of Vichyite rhetoric. And the Resistance contained as well a Christian component that reviled Vichyite racism but aspired to a moralization, a purification of public life that resonated with many Catholics at first drawn to Vichy. The sometime proximity between Vichy and the Resistance vanished during 1942-1944, as Pétain’s regime degenerated into Fascist squalor and as the Resistance itself clarified its democratic commitments. But it was a proximity that, while it lasted, permitted crossovers and that stands as a reminder, if one is needed, that the Resistance was a house of many mansions, anchored on the Left but home as well to dissidents of various stripes, some of them ex-Vichyites.”

The above paragraph is as dense as it is didactic, which is why France’s New Deal – From the Thirties to the Postwar Era is more than capable of triggering many a heated debate amid the countless corridors of (French induced) political intervention. Not only that. ”It will,” according to Richard F. Kuisel of Georgetown University, ”supersede any current literature on the subject.”

David Marx

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