Modern France has been a product of the historical struggles between the then prevailing Catholic Church and monarchy and the rising influence of intellectuals and revolutionaries. Pierre Birnbaums The Idea of France traces the roots of the modern French state and how the current status quo had been influenced by the ideological, political and social struggles that have shaken the country. Essentially, Birnbaum argued that France as we know it today was a product of one of the most important periods in the history of France- the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789. Hence, much of what democracy in France today can be attributed to that period and the succeeding years of struggle to reach its current political stability.
The Idea of France
France according to Birnbaum has seen its soul as residing in a privileged relationship with reason (Birnbaum, xiii). This hallmarks the principles of enlightenment where reason was the primary tool in governing human activity particularly in the affairs of the state, the individuals and the society. Hence, it was a call to end the prevailing rule of the Church and the monarchy that was the remnants of the Middle Ages which is seen by the revolutionists as irrational and superstitious.
Therefore, from the side of the revolution activists, the emergence of the power residing in the people emerged through the National Assembly or the Third Estate which received criticisms and oppositions from the traditionalists composed of the monarchy and the Church. From the oppositions and the struggle for supremacy in the government, Birnbaum argued that these antagonistic forces had served as the birthmark of the contemporary French democracy particularly its emphasis on plurality.
While Modern France was built in over 200 years after the Enlightenment period, this era according to Birnbaum marked the time when the future of modern France was first hallmarked. In doing so, Birnbaum traced the origins and the development of the political antagonists and protagonists in order to support and defend the current status quo in an era when monarchy and the belief in the divine power was the norm. The division of France also stemmed from philosophers- those defending the reign of the Catholic Church and the monarchy and those who had been advocating a reform in the current system as advocated by the likes of Tocqueville.
Hence, Birnbaum described the Third Republic as fraught with divisiveness reaching its peak in the Bloody Week of June 1871 and the conservatives gaining the upper hand. However, this victory was temporary and the ensuing Liberation and the Fourth Republic was established. At this time, France has already shifted to a parliamentary form of government existing in a coalition.
At this time, the changes that were advocated during the French Revolution has been on process and the divisiveness still existed. It was only in the Fifth Republic that the political factions waned and the Republic and the Catholic Church evolved- they no longer exhibited the hatred that once fuelled their ideologies but rather have reformed their principles to change the anti-clericism. In doing so, the French government was able to provide for a pluralistic government as well as a cultural pluralism in the society of France.
The primary strength of Birnbaums book is its ability to depict the contradictory forces in French history as both protagonists of democracy: it objectively portrayed the Catholic Church and the monarchy was essential elements in the reformation of a modern France. In doing so, Birnbaum avoids the overtly one-sided depiction of French history as nothing more than a struggle between proponents and opponents of democracy. Each had been ancillary to the other. Needless to say, the French Revolution occurred due to these two forces.
Second, Birnbaum treated the 200 years and more as a history not only of politics but also of philosophies and of the people. For one, Birnbaum showed the historical context of the Modern France through a careful and thorough analysis of the cultural struggles in the country at the time.
Moreover, it included an analysis of how France was able to overcome the multiculturalism at the time in order to give way to a more tolerant and a brand of French culturalism that is unique. Consequently, upon reading the book, one would appreciate the uniqueness of the French society and its struggles particularly in ushering the Enlightenment period. Hence, Birnbaum also showed readers and scholars from all over the world that the role France has played in modern democracies and current governmental structures are important.
Third, while most history books would have delved into too much detail hence, focusing more on facts than on the importance of those facts, Birnbaum was able to capture the readers attention by focusing on the latter: the importance of events can only be appreciated if it can be related to what is relevant at the time and in modern times.
Consequently, the only weakness of the book has been its inability to thoroughly relate the world events at the time and how it influenced the Frenchs history as well as how France had influenced other societies. While this is not central to the books theme, it would have given the readers the idea how revolutionary and how important the events in French history had been at a time when most governments are governed by the Church.
Guided by reason and a vision that looks at the society and the people as the primary guiding force for the changes in the society, The Idea of France rested on the argument that historical forces are all protagonists in shaping what French society and government is today. The actors primarily the Republicans and the Catholic Church and the monarchy including the opposing intellectuals and the people versus the nobility- all of these had been instrumental in creating the France that we know today.
Modern democracies such as that of France springs from a multitude of events- in the case of The Idea of France it had been the increasing dismay of the people on the status quo governed by the Church and the monarchy.
Essentially, The Idea of France by Birnbaum aptly captured the struggles and the victories of France in paving the way for a more democratic form of government particularly in establishing a government by the people and for the people. Concurrently, the struggle of France had endured years before it finally established the Modern France that we know today. Essentially, it is during the period of the Enlightenment and the succeeding years after it that the idea of modern France had been crafted and cemented.
Birnbaum, Pierre. The Idea of France. Hill and Wang. 352 pages. 2001.