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Thursday, October 16, 2014

“Mission to Civilize: The French Way”, by Mort Rosenblum



470 pages, Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0151605804

Multiculturalism nowadays builds up the virtues of individual, especially third-world cultures (but never American culture) while simultaneously forbidding anyone to critically analyze the character of said cultures (but always American culture). It’s a wonder that anything worthwhile about nations and their people ever gets written anymore. So the existence of this overlooked gem is a boon to anyone unraveling the Gordian complexities of French national character. In Mission to Civilize: The French Way, Mort Rosenblum takes us through history and around the globe; from Gaul to the mid-80’s; and from Paris to La France profonde and her old colonies-turned-protégés on France’s furthest island outposts.

With delightfully wry turns of phrase (in both English and French) Rosenblum both admires and skewers the genuine greatness and the overbearing pomposity of the French (of particular interest are the doings of the then-Foreign Minister, Jacques Chirac). He interviewed seemingly hundreds of people, relates many amusing and thought-provoking anecdotes, and generalizes aptly and fairly. A few examples should suffice:

A string of crumbling French crusader forts rises from high ground across the Levant. They protect nothing and represent little power, but they are still there, after eight centuries. Like France. In North Africa, the French loom large, balanced precariously at center stage. But in the Middle East, they are nowhere and everywhere, moving within a hall of mirrors that only the architects of Versailles could have fashioned.

The oldest [colonial] buildings show graceful, almost delicate facades; but gates are high, carved doors are solid as iron, stone walls are massive. They were designed to stay cool under the sun, remind civil servants of home, impress the locals, and withstand the odd volley of paving stones should things turn nasty. Not surprisingly, the cathedral and the university were built to last.

The British, in their outposts, leaned toward wood-frame buildings and corrugated tin, as if they did not want the overhead to cut into profits. There were, in essence, camping out. Not the French.

This attitude can also be seen in the phrase nos ancêtres les Gaulois, “Our Ancestors, the Gauls”, that schoolchildren in France’s far-flung empire would recite as part of the standard history lesson. However, the relationship of France to its former colonies is not as simple as it might seem, and Rosenblum’s book is one of the few in English and for the general reader which attempts to describe the complex relationship between the former colonial overlord and the liberated nations. The actual extent of this empire in terms of people formerly under French administration does not come close to the former British Empire; at the same time, the number of sovereign countries which today form part of La Francophonie is staggering, even if none of them comes close to the size of a Nigeria or India. Rosenblum notes that it is not the numbers, but rather the sense of outreach, that France seeks, quoting former President Mitterrand: “We are the carriers of a culture that can have the ambition of being universal”.

Rosenblum does a good job of trying to cover nearly all of France, its overseas departments and territories, and former colonies, without pretending to bring the depth and rigor of a historian. The first two parts of the book cover French history and institutions in order to provide a foundation for third part which covers La Francophonie on all continents: the Americas and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and Asia and the Pacific. His breezy style and chapters peppered with numerous quotes and anecdotes make for entertaining reading. It would be interesting to speculate how this book would be rewritten in 2014; developments since 1988 (when the book came out) in France and its former colonies have produced a new critique of France’s relationships with its colonies. Sacred cows of the French establishment – including traditionally secretive abuse of public funds and influence peddling by senior politicians – have been dragged into court, all of which has also put a spotlight on the French relationship to Africa. One wonders if Rosenblum would as tempted today, as he was in 1988, to close his book with these last two sentences: “It is likely there will always be an England. It is certain there will always be a France.”

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