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Book Review

 

Stovall, Tyler Edward. France since the Second World War. (New York: Longman, 2002). 161 pp, $20.00.
 

     France's role in the world underwent profound changes during the twentieth century: the country possessed the second largest colonial empire and was among the dominant powers in both Europe and the world in 1900 but lost much of its international weight during the course of the century. France retained its independence even facing the bipolar world of the Cold War, maintained considerable cultural autonomy despite globalization, but ceased to be the international player she had been during the nineteenth century. Tyler Stovall critically examines France's development during the five decades following the Second World War and provides the reader with a sense of the the profound changes that France underwent. His clear and easily understandable analysis not only presents historical developments in a fluid narrative but also discusses historical interpretation and recent scholarly debates.

     Tyler E. Stovall earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently working in the Department of History at the University of California at Berkeley. His publications include Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, (Houghton Mifflin Press, 1996) and The Rise of the Paris Red Belt, (UC Press, 1990); the focus of his research on modern French social and political history enable Stovall to condense France's postwar experience in a slim, introductory volume.

     The Seminar Studies in History series is intended to bridge the gap between the highly specialized publications of current research and general survey literature about a given historical topic. The result is a series of brief studies about specific themes in history written by experts who often have contributed to the latest research.  Each study is complemented by a guide to further reading and a selection of documents relevant to the topic (Stovall 2002: ix).

     France since the Second World War uses a partly chronological, partly structural approach for the examination of France's most important political, economic, and intellectual developments. Stovall begins his analysis with the political renewal in the immediate postwar years and the difficult diplomatic situation of France between the emerging superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The strength of Communism, the integration into the Western alliance, and the importance of the wartime Resistance movement for French identity are the most emphasized topics of the first analytical chapter, Liberation and Renewal.

     The following chapter shifts the emphasis somewhat away from politics toward the economic development of France and the cultural changes brought about by consumerism and the economic influence of the United States, as French identity was challenged by ĢCoca-Colonization' (Stovall 2002: 41).

     Decolonization between 1945 and 1960 is the focus of the third analytical chapter. Stovall especially emphasizes the inherent contradiction of French úliberationist values" that France denied its colonial citizens  while turning against their colonizers' own rhetoric (Stovall, 2002: 47). The disastrous struggle for the empire in Indochina and Algeria is analyzed in domestic political terms as well: the Communist party's alienation from parliamentary politics and de Gaulle's efforts to maintain beneficial relations with the former African colonies are in the center of the argument.

     The next chapter focuses on the development of the intellectual elite, the riots of May 1986, and the ideological shift of the intelligentsia from the political left to conservatism. Stovall elucidates existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism in their cultural and political context familiarizing the reader with the perspectives of the culturally influential intellectuals.

     The last chapter contains analyses of the Mitterrand era from the angles of economical and political administration, historical perception, and racial conflict. This part of the book contains the most controversial issues and, most importantly, the issues that France is still dealing with today: economic stagnation, the reevaluation of France's role under the Vichy administration (1940-1944), and the social consequences of immigration without integration. A brief chapter titled Into the New Millennium assesses in a more general way the changes of French politics, culture, and identity during the second half of the twentieth century.

     In addition to a thorough analysis of French politics and economy, the most important topic of Stovall's argument for France as an ever-evolving nation that is able to respond to modern challenges is the development of French identity. The ideal of having collectively resisted Nazi Germany and the Vichy Regime provided the moral and political basis for the preservation of French national honor (Stovall 2002: 4). Participation in the Resistance movement remained a political (and moral) requirement until the beginning of the Mitterrand era. A more critical engagement with the Vichy regime ' specifically the collaboration with Nazi Germany and the involvement of the French in the Holocaust ' began during the 1970s, but only caused a únational crisis of conscience" in the 1980s and 1990s (Stovall 2002: 92). Stovall draws on the recent and ongoing scholarly debate about Vichy and the collective memory of it which was begun by Henry Rousso's The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

     Further challenges to French national and cultural identity were posed by economic globalization and the influence of American consumer culture as well as the influx of Muslim immigrants. Immigration and the ensuing conflicts with France's

     Catholic and occidental culture and society that arose from primarily African communities in large cities' suburbs are presented as a very contemporary topic. Even if Stovall mentions that France had been a country of immigration for a century and politicians were debating if immigration of labor was intended to be temporary or permanent (Stovall 2002: 39-41), he does not draw the conclusion that the French governments failed to integrate immigrants into society effectively . Current riots by second generation immigrants in the suburbs of Paris and other large cities have demonstrated this political failure very clearly.

     The effects of political, economic, and cultural change of French identity have thus been profound; being French had to be defined again and again in the light of the challenges of the postwar decades. Stovall's conclusion uses the extremely positive examples of the 1998 soccer world cup and the celebration of the new millennium to demonstrate that the French have ultimately been able to adapt to peace, political moderation, and racial tolerance.

     France since the Second World War employs a classical top-down approach to most recent French history, a master narrative that provides the reader with the most important features of France's development between 1945 and 2000. It is useful and common for general introductory surveys like Stovall's book to emphasize the political and economic developments heavily. It is regrettable, though, that in his depiction with the exception of the riots of 1968, the French lack agency. The book introduces consumer culture, the feminist movement, the generation gap, and issues of cultural and racial integration. All of those, however, are either dealt with very briefly or presented in a rather political focus.

     French identity is Stovall's key to understanding France's development since the Second World War. While this perspective enables him to examine France from within, it clearly limits his analysis of France's position in the world. To be sure, the book explains well France's struggle for some level of independence within the Cold War confrontation. Issues such as the implications of the termination of French imperialism for the former colonies might have been useful for a global contex, but are left out, most likely, due to the required brevity and national focus of the book. Topics like global migration, ecology, and energy would have made for interesting aspects of French development but go beyond the scope of an introductory general history.

     France since the Second World War fully lives up to the reader's expectations of a brief introduction to both the general history and current scholarly debates about French history after 1945. It will be most useful as an introductory text for undergraduate students of French history or modern society but also for a more general audience seeking basic information about these themes or looking for a brief introduction to current scholarly debates. An important part of France since the Second World War is contained in the fourth part of the book: a series of documents, glossary, who's who, a guide to further reading. A chronology is provided at the very beginning of the book. While the documents seem to overemphasize the political developments of the 1950s and 1960s, these sections are extremely useful to stimulate debates among students and to encourage further thought.

     Despite the book's heavy emphasis on politics and economy, many cultural and societal issues are introduced to the reader. The value of Stovall's book lies in the combination of breadth and depth, the broad variation of topics, and the apt creation of a coherent historical and societal picture of how France has changed since  World War II.

 

 

Birgit Schneider
Ph.D. student, Department of History
Washington State University


 
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