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Nineteenth-century France was the scene of bitter cultural and political conflict. The German invasion in 1870 inflicted a humiliating defeat on the French army. As the Germans put Paris under siege, the Second Empire of Napoleon III collapsed. Radical anti-Catholic leftists took control of the capital city and established the short-lived Paris Commune. In May 1871, the Paris Commune was suppressed by the ­reorganized French army during a week of bloodshed in which hundreds were killed, including the archbishop of Paris, executed by the Communards in retaliation for the military’s summary executions of Parisian radicals. These events divided an already fractured France into two warring camps, left and right, which were to contend rancorously until the outbreak of World War I, when the exigencies of national defense demanded a truce.

soupçon of historical perspective can help Americans today think more calmly about what we are ­experiencing. So I’ve been reading about this period in French history. Frederick Brown’s 2010 study, For the Soul of France: ­Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, has been ­particularly useful.

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