In the Wall Street Journal, Michel Gurfinkiel reviews the new book by Frederick Brown, For the Soul of France—an account of nineteenth-century France, in all its glory and all its disaster. As Gurfinkiel remarks, from 1830 to 1905,
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.
Gurfinkiel is an extremely sharp commentator, but doesn’t that last phrase of his make you hesitate, just a little? I mean, since when has the Dreyfus Affair been primarily about French laïcité and the separation of church and state? Yes, the liberals triumphed over the long course of the affair, but I had never thought it a struggle over religion—certainly not over the restoration of Catholicism as the French national religion.
Except, as Gurfinkle observes, Brown’s book takes everything in nineteenth-century France to be about Catholicism: “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.”
Hmm. As Gurfinkle recounts Brown’s narrative, For the Soul of France insists:
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.
And, of course, “the crusade culminated in what came to be called the Dreyfus Affair. . . . 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.”
The (understated) admission that the Dreyfus Affair “didn’t result in the abandonment of French anti-Semitism” suggests that perhaps Gurfinkle knows he shouldn’t quite buy Brown’s thesis of liberal advancement quite so uncritically. But, regardless, the Dreyfus Affair was a horse everyone tried to ride at the time—and continued to ride for many years to come. Not least among them are the liberal Catholics whom Gurfinkle ends his review by praising:
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.
Those Catholic dissidents, too, got plenty of mileage from the Dreyfus Affair, using the whole mess—in the French equivalent of, say, anti-anti-Communism—to discredit their opponents in the Church.
Given all this, it’s tempting—oh, so tempting—to rage against Brown’s book, and Gurfinkle’s surprising less-than-critical acceptance of its account of its thesis, for buried in all of it is a pretty straightforward anti-Catholicism that takes Zola’s version of the Dreyfus Affair as the only correct version.
But, you see, if you begin walking down that path, you end up having to defend Action Française and the whole mess of French conservative reaction. Yes, the triumphant French liberals were awful, and the hatred of Catholicism they indulged produced a church-state relation among the worst in the Western world.
But, the truth is that the conservatives were just as bad. There remains to this day a snarl in French conservative thought, where all sorts of threads are knotted together: nationalists tangled up with anti-Semites, monarchists, anti-Dreyfusards, Lefebverists, and those aging colonialists who long to reconquer Algeria. They infect one another with their paranoias and they blacken one another with their pasts. And, since often the only thing they actually have in common is Catholicism, they offer a perpetual occasion for anti-Catholicism to feel good about itself.
Can anyone pull free the important threads in modern French thought from all the ugly and extraneous material with which they are entangled?
I doubt it. On all topics that touch on religion and public life—from Jewish relations to Catholic relations to Muslim relations—I can’t think of anything good the French state has to teach. Left or Right, the only lesson about democracy that France offers the world is: Don’t try this at home.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.