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Saturday, January 30 2010
France/ Collision of Church and State
War, revolution, Dreyfus and an era of religious and political turmoil.
Two monuments in Paris are so prominent that they're hard to miss. One is the Eiffel Tower, of course, the all-iron tour de force of engineering, standing by the Seine amid the city's spacious and supremely elegant West End. Then to the north, atop Montmartre, there is the Sacré-Cœur: a tall, immaculately white Catholic basilica that looks like a digitized pre-Raphaelite set from Lord of the Rings. What most visitors—and in fact most Parisians— don't realize is that both monuments were designed and their construction begun at about the same time, in the 1870s and 1880s. Even more surprising: The tower and the church were intended as antagonistic national symbols during times of cultural, religious and political conflict that roiled France for decades.
Frederick Brown tells the story of that tumultuous era in For the Soul of France. From 1830, the historical moment he starts with, to 1905, his final station, France passed through no less than four different constitutions; three dynasties (the Bourbons, the Orléans and the Bonapartes); two republics; three revolutions (1830, 1848 and 1870); one coup that worked (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's in 1851) and two that were either merely attempted (in 1877) or fantasized (in 1889); two civil wars (the June crisis in 1848 and the Commune in 1871); one disastrous defeat to a nascent Germany (1870) that led to the momentary occupation of more than one-third of the country; two major financial scandals, in 1873 and 1892, that swept away most upper- and middle-class savings; and, finally, a turn-of-the-century judicial scandal (the Dreyfus Affair) that prompted a far-reaching law in 1905 mandating the separation of church and state.
Mr. Brown does not omit a single episode in this narrative, nor does he stint on the vignettes and human angles that bring the story to life. He is the author of noted biographies of Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, and For the Soul of France clearly benefits from his long immersion in the lives and works of these two great novelists, who flourished during the era he describes. Mr. Brown's storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. (Historian Theodore Zeldin, by contrast, allotted himself five volumes to cover the period 1848-1945 and still ended up concentrating on broad themes and dispensing altogether with chronology.)
Then again, Mr. Brown simplifies his task by operating with a single organizing principle: Most of the turmoil in France during this period stemmed from battles over the restoration of the Catholic Church as France's main societal institution. Under the ancien régime, the country was deemed the church's « elder daughter, » and the French king's legitimacy was derived from being anointed at Reims Cathedral in a ceremony with biblical overtones. The Revolution in the late 18th century negated both royalty and the church. In the early 1800s, Napoleon fused the ancien régime and the Revolution, in both political and religious terms: He founded a new monarchy compatible with civic equality and representative government, and he re-established Catholicism as the national religion even as he made provisions for religious freedom.
Napoleon's arrangement more or less held firm for several decades, although tensions mounted between the clerical and secular camps. French Catholics generally were not averse to democracy and Enlightenment ideas, so long as the church's special status was recognized. But with the election in 1848 of Pope Pius IX, a dogmatic theocrat (he decreed papal infallibility in 1869), traditionalists in the church began agitating for a restoration of the ancien régime's power. In reaction, secular militancy increased.
The two camps failed to reconcile when France itself was threatened by war with (Protestant) Prussia in 1870, but dire events soon followed: defeat, the partial occupation of France by the newly minted German Empire and the short-lived rule of Paris in spring 1871 by the left-wing Commune, followed by the slaughter of the communards by government troops. « Thousands had been given summary justice and brought before execution squads, » Mr. Brown writes. « Blood ran down the gutters, coloring the Seine red. »
Catholics took the disastrous events of 1870 and 1871 as an omen that France had strayed too far from its religious roots. « An observant tourist would have found ample evidence to support the view that God seemed happier in France during the early 1870s than He had been for some time, » Mr. Brown says, noting that « many young people took holy orders after the war. » Secularists insisted that France would betray the best of herself if she did not remain loyal to the Enlightenment thinkers who had fathered the Republic, but the die-hard clericals believed that France could be restored only through the divine grace that would be granted if she atoned for her sins.
For a while, it looked as if the ultra-conservatives would win by democratic means: Though they were largely royalists, they won a majority in the National Assembly, which in 1873 authorized the construction of the Sacré-Cœur shrine as a national symbol of repentance. A reactionary regime known as L'Ordre Moral (« The Moral Order ») was introduced. Then things turned sour for the clerical crowd. There were too many pretenders to the French throne, and the most legitimate of them, Count de Chambord, a Bourbon, was out of touch with the country's mood. He proposed, for instance, to replace the national tricolor flag with the ancien régime's white one. Perhaps not surprisingly, secular republicans came to power in two successive national elections in 1877. They soon ordered up a riposte to the Sacré-Cœur on the Parisian skyline: a tower designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel that would be a symbol of modernity and progress for the centennial of the 1789 Revolution.
With the tide of history against them, the clerically minded resorted to outlandish bids for power and influence. A misbegotten coup in 1889 ended before it began when its putative leader, the reactionary French general Georges Boulanger, fled to Belgium. In the mid-1890s, the clericals, hoping to rally the public's support for the church, launched an anti-Semitic campaign. Mr. Brown ably describes how a genteel theological and social contempt for Judaism was transformed into an unbridled hatred for Jews.
The crusade culminated in what came to be called the Dreyfus Affair. A French military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of treason for passing secrets to Germany, though his only crime was being Jewish in late 19th-century France. The affair dragged on for years, with a retrial, in 1899, thanks largely to Zola's support for Dreyfus— who was eventually restored as a French officer in 1906. The sorry episode certainly didn't result in the abandonment of French anti-Semitism, but its clerical proponents—and their broader hope for the restoration of a royalist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-republican France—were discredited.
At times, it is true, one wishes that Mr. Brown had provided a wider comparative context. He might have contrasted the eruptions of reactionary French Catholicism during the 19th century with, for instance, the more progressive politics of Catholics in Belgium, Germany and Italy. And what about the faction within the French church that denounced its antiliberalism and anti-Semitism? Dissidents did exist—and were gradually to dominate French Catholicism in the 20th century. Still, The Soul of France offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader). After reading it, visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again.
© Michel Gurfinkiel & The Wall Street Journal, 2010
'For the Soul of France'. By Frederick Brown. Knopf, 304 pages, $28.95
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La chronique de Michel Gurfinkiel donne envie de lire ce livre, mais on attendra une Ă©ventuelle traduction franĂ§aise.. "After reading it, Parisians may never look at the Eiffel Tower quite the same way again." Cela fait penser Ă la courte nouvelle de Dino Buzzati justement intitulĂ©e "La Tour Eiffel" dans laquelle l'auteur imagine que l'objectif secret de l'ingĂ©nieur (avec la complicitĂ© de ses ouvriers) Ă©tait de dĂ©passer les 300 mĂ¨tres officiellement fixĂ©s pour aller... jusqu'au ciel. Nouvelle tentative d'Ă©riger une Tour de Babel. Sur quelle base idĂ©ologique ? Buzzati ne le dit pas. Mais, pour reprendre les termes d'un commentateur biblique, "Babel Ă©tait l'expression architecturale d'une idĂ©ologie visant Ă dĂ©nier au CrĂ©ateur sa souverainetĂ© sur la CrĂ©ation". Un dĂ©fi Ă Dieu. Les rĂ©publicains athĂ©es, eux, ne dĂ©fient Ă©videmment pas Dieu, ils le nient, mais c'est la mĂŞme dĂ©marche humaniste au sens philosophique du terme. Face au SacrĂ©-Coeur, "expression architecturale" de la souverainetĂ© du spirituel sur le temporel. Dans la nouvelle de Buzzati, le prolongement de la flĂ¨che de la tour (qui atteindra un point permettant aux ouvriers de voir, Ă l'horizon, les cimes enneigĂ©es des Alpes) sera finalement dĂ©montĂ© (sous la menace des troupes armĂ©es mobilisĂ©es au pied de l'Ă©difice) pour faire place Ă la "ridicule" petite coupole qui la chapeaute. Plusieurs dĂ©cennies plus tard, seuls les plus jeunes ouvriers ayant participĂ© Ă la construction sauront, au milieu des visiteurs admiratifs, ce qu'aurait dĂ» ĂŞtre la Tour Eiffel...