French Republicanism

Edouard Morena

And its contested meaning, past, present and future

I dreamed crusades, unrecorded voyages of discovery,

untroubled republics, religious wars stifled, revolutions of customs,

the displacements of races and continents:

I believed in all marvels.

~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”


In France, the idea of the “nation” and of the “Republic” are deeply intertwined. To be French means to be a republican. The notion of the Republic is commonly and interchangeably associated with a political system and its institutions; a historical moment (the French Revolution of 1789); a set of ideas (Enlightenment philosophy, political liberalism, the Rights of Man, laïcité); symbols (the tricolour flag, Bastille Day, the Marseillaise); and universal values (liberté, égalité, fraternité).

Reminders of France’s republican identity are everywhere: from street names to school classrooms to the façades of public edifices.  In addition to these countless visual reminders, public discourse is replete with republican references. French politicians are adept at “republicanizing” party names (Les Républicains, La République en Marche) and speeches through concepts such as “ordre républicain”, “école républicaine”, “police républicaine”.

Because of its universalism, progressives and leftists have long been drawn toward the concept of the Republic: the promise of a nation that bestows upon all of its members an equal opportunity for liberty, equality and fraternity. However, too often in French history the notion of the Republic has instead been used to oppress, reinforce inequality and divide.

The French exception

The conflation of the nation and the Republic conceals a fundamental tension. On the one hand, the country’s republican roots and identity are mobilized – in popular culture, education, political discourse – to distinguish France and the French from other nations and peoples. The country’s association with the events of 1789 and its status as a birthplace of political liberalism are presented as core features of the “French exception”.  France’s republican credentials subsequently act as an important source of national pride, and feed into a shared sense of destiny and, at times, superiority: the notion of a world-historical mission as guardians and standard-bearers of republican principles and values.

The idea of a “French exception” resurfaced in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher supermarket.  In his reaction to the attacks, President François Hollande invoked the notion of French exceptionalism:


“Today, the Republic was attacked. The Republic is freedom of speech. The Republic is culture, it is creation, it is pluralism and it is democracy. This is what the assassins were aiming at. It is the ideal of justice and peace that France carries everywhere on the international scene”.  

Other world leaders echoed this idea of France as a guardian of universal values and ideas. As Barack Obama put it, “this is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”.      

Reactions like these highlight the idea that what sets France apart also connects it to other nations and peoples, since the principles, ideas and values upon which the French Republic is built are (at least theoretically) universal. They are neither people- nor place-specific, but rather transcend national borders, cultures, religions, gender, race and sexual orientation. This blindness to difference also implies that the Republic does not theoretically recognize groups or communities, but only individual citizens.

History of a mot voyageur

The tension between the “republic as nation-state” and the “republic as universal value system” was at the heart of successive social and political conflicts in modern France. The French Revolution marked the first in a series of crises and struggles, first to “normalise” the Republic (from 1789 to 1875), and then to impose an understanding of what “being republican” and therefore “being French” should mean (since 1875). As Claude Nicolet aptly put it in L’Idée républicaine en France, the word “Republic” is a mot voyageur (“a word that travels”). It has been associated with a wide range of class interests, ideas and political projects. As he writes, there have been:

“Girondin, Montagnard, Thermidorian, directorial, Caesarean, imperial Republics. A Republic of dukes, as well as (to borrow from the titles of well-known books) a Republic of comrades, of committees, of professors, of députés; we have the Republic in the village, the rural Republic, that of the Paris Commune; conservative, opportunist, liberal, radical, democratic Republics; a bourgeois Republic, as well as social and socialist ones”.  

The Republic’s “normalization” over the course of the 1870s, culminating in the establishment of the Third Republic, appeared to have – momentarily at least – overcome the fundamental ambiguity described by Nicolet. The period stretching from the crushing of the Paris Commune (1871) to the First World War gave rise to a “republican compromise” through which “the central values of republicanism moved from a radical fringe to the consensual centre of French politics”.  The bourgeois “Opportunist Republic” of the 1880s and 1890s imposed the idea of a nation that, as Tyler Stovall writes, “was at the same time historically specific and universal”.  As he explains,

“the republicans of late-nineteenth-century France had a heritage, that of the Revolution, which had moulded the nation and given people the right and ability to choose its own national identity. But the heritage was precisely a universalist one, based in a global understanding of the rights of man and applicable to all people”.

The “republican compromise” was the creation of “opportunist” or “bourgeois” republicans (such as Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta), who believed that the Republic’s survival hinged on its ability to secure support from largely rural sections of French society that had traditionally backed royalist and clericalist forces. This group subsequently proceeded to move the Republic rightwards through the re-appropriation and “republicanisation” of conservative ideas – most notably that of social order – and by winning over traditionally conservative and anti-republican electorates.

In particular, this involved securing the support of France’s rural population by framing the “peasantry” and the values and ideas associated with it as both inherently French and authentically republican – and this to the detriment of the urban, industrial and more left-leaning working class. As Jules Ferry famously put it, “the Republic will be the Republic of peasants or it will not be”.

The Republic was subsequently associated with a range of “peasant symbols”. Oscar Roty’s Semeuse (1897), for instance, was included on fifty-cent coins. Museums were created to celebrate a “true France”  , an “eternal France”, a France of village spires and the “eternal order of the fields”.  This was to be a France of small farmers and artisans who were, at the same time, staunchly attached to the grande nation and firmly rooted in their petites patries, proud of their local folklore, traditions and languages.  

The development in the 1890s of free, mandatory and secular education played a pivotal role in further rooting this new “republican compromise” into French politics, culture and everyday life. In every town and village, schoolteachers not only taught children to read and write, but also, through civic education, turned them into “good citizens”, faithful to the republican regime and the fatherland. Of course, the teaching of history was key.

As Suzanne Citron writes in her remarkable analysis of the teaching of history since the 19th century, children were taught a romanticized version of France that combined “a religious love of the fatherland and the cult of the Revolution”. Rather than marking a historical break, the 1789 Revolution and subsequent Republic were presented as the logical/natural outcome of a glorious roman national (or national novel),  whose roots can be traced back to the Gauls of antiquity.  In the process, this teaching of history also served to minimize, delegitimize and erase alternative approaches to the Republic, and most notably efforts to implement a social and democratic republicanism (as was the case in 1848 and 1871).    

Indeed, in a late 19th century European context marked by the rise of an industrial and largely urban working class, this approach became increasingly geared toward averting the spread of socialist or anarchist ideas, rather than preventing the return of reactionary, anti-republican and increasingly anti-Semitic forces. For the bourgeois republicans in power, education became an essential tool to preserve social order and political stability, and ultimately to secure their class interests.

In addition to forming a bedrock for social order in France, republican symbols and ideas were used to justify France’s colonial endeavours and to reinforce nationalist/patriotic sentiments. In the late 19th century, with nationalism rising across Europe and tensions growing between France and Germany, French colonialism was justified not only on strategic and economic but also on moral grounds. As Jules Ferry argued in 1894,

“the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races… In the history of earlier centuries these duties, gentlemen, have often been misunderstood; and certainly when the Spanish soldiers and explorers introduced slavery into Central America, they did not fulfil their duty as men of a higher race . . . But, in our time, I maintain that European nations acquit themselves with generosity, with grandeur, and with sincerity of this superior civilizing duty”.

The Republic and the contemporary right

While references to “race” have (for the most part) disappeared and been replaced by “culture”, the underlying idea of French and European superiority and of a “civilizing duty” continues to infuse contemporary political discourse. While the far right historically led this tendency, the centre right is increasingly taking it up as well. When Claude Guéant, Minister of the Interior, states that “all civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, do not have the same value” (2012) , or when Nicolas Sarkozy explains that the “tragedy of Africa” is that “the African man had not sufficiently entered into History” (2007), they effectively follow in Jules Ferry’s footsteps.

As in the 1890s, their choice of words is politically motivated. Through their focus on cultural and civilizational differences, Guéant and Sarkozy are effectively scapegoating large sections of the French population who, given their non-European origins, cultural and religious beliefs and practices, do not conform to the dominant idea of “Frenchness” (which, as noted above, draws on very traditionalist and conservative ideas, as well as a mythologized past). As a result, for those people of African or North African descent, being a French national does not, in the eyes of many on the right and far right, automatically make them French. Unlike the “Français de souche”, they are constantly expected to prove their “Frenchness” by demonstrating their republican credentials.

For the French right and far right, the Republic acts as an instrument of exclusion and marginalization, rather than of inclusion. It increasingly serves – as the Front/Rassemblement National’s growing “republicanisation” indicates – as a means to push and normalize a racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. A telling example is the law of 23 February 2005 imposing that school curricula “recognize the positive role of French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa.”  Just two months later, the “Law for the Orientation and Program for the Future of the School” reminded us of the historic disciplinary role of the Republic in such processes, stating that “beyond the transmission of knowledge, the primary mission of school as set by the nation is to share the values of the Republic with the students”.  

A further example of the use of the Republic as a supposedly universalist institution that is, in point of fact, exclusionary, was the French Parliament’s decision in 2004 to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. While its supporters argued that this was in keeping with the republican principle of laïcité , or secularism, and as such was safeguarding the school’s ability to transmit republican values, for many the decision was rather about preserving a predominantly white, male-dominated “mode de vie à la française” in the face of “imported” or “foreign” religious and communitarian threats.

In this case, as in so many others – from same sex marriage to the burkini, the sports hijab, and the selling of halal meat in fast food restaurants – the Republic serves as a pretext to discriminate and exclude. In particular, people with recent immigration backgrounds, and especially young Muslim women, are faced with a conundrum: they are singled out for not integrating into a Republic that makes no effort to integrate them, and in many ways actually seeks to exclude them.

A Republic worth fighting for

Given the centrality of the notion of the Republic in French politics and society – while also recognizing its historic use and growing appropriation by reactionary forces – the question for the left is whether the Republic is still something worth fighting for. I believe that it is.

If you take anything from this brief history of the concept of the Republic, it is that the meanings associated with the word are not set in stone but rather are the products of political struggle. In order to win this struggle, the left will need to shift the terms of debate rather than adapt to existing ones. To do so, it will need to reconnect with a past in which the Republic stood for religious tolerance and not religious prejudice; in which the Republic stood not for social inequality and exclusion but for social justice and libération.

Edouard Morena is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of London Institute In Paris (ULIP). A dual national of France and the United Kingdom, he has studied and taught in both French and UK higher education institutions. After having worked on French agricultural and food politics, and their broader social and cultural implications, he is currently focusing on the social dimensions of the low-carbon transition.

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