Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hysterical History

Who would have thunk that the French would get all politically correct about their history?  I guess it is late in the day to begin a museum of National History, so there are folks who will contest what is included and excluded.  Not too surprising really, given controversies we have seen elsewhere (such as how to describe the atomic bombings of Japan at the Smithsonian Institute), but one would expect the French, of all folks, to be pretty confident in identifying the subject.  That would be ... France. 

Given its conscious state-building history, it is actually surprising that France does not already have such a museum.  It is less surprising that Sarkozy's declining personality has tainted the project.  Given the identity politics of the current time frame (with lots of Muslim-bashing along the way with Sarkozy trying to out-bid the more xenophobic/nationalist party of Le Pen), one could be suspicious about the content of such a museum.

France, dare I say it, is not unique in this process.  The Orban government in Hungary, a party on the Right side of the spectrum, built a museum dedicated to recent Hungarian history--the House of Terror.  Located where the Nazis and then the Communists tortured people, the idea would seem to be to remember the victims of the past. The museum in some ways tried to identify the major opposition party, the Social Democrats, as the direct successor of the Communists and implicate the present individuals for past crimes.  So, this history is more than just a bit political.

Indeed, history, like warfare, is inherently political.  Still, there is heaps and heaps of French history that is probably not so contested today, even if debates about the Frenchness of today's immigrants is problematic.  The various Louis's, the Revolution, Napoleon, that Joan fellow, the World Wars (might want to forget about them, I suppose), etc.  Of course, Algeria and Indo-China might be controversial, but then that provides fodder for historians to trot out the different interpretations and let the visitors assess. 
Historians may look back on the brouhaha as playing straight into Mr. Sarkozy’s hands, pleasing far-right constituents who clamor for the restoration of French identity, such as it is, while making opponents look like academic snobs. If the Maison de l’Histoire serves its propaganda role before it opens, and the president then claims noblesse oblige and allows the museum to evolve into the scholarly, independent institution its organizers promise, Mr. Sarkozy might even someday be included alongside his predecessors as a cultural patron.
That certainly would be a new identity for President Bling-Bling. As Mr. Offenstadt put it, “identity is just a construction.”
Not entirely random, but a political construction.  That the French are having problems defining who they are is both more and less striking than it appears.  All countries have some form of identity crisis pretty much all the time. The content of French nationalism--what it means to be French--has many strands and different actors will vary in which ones they really care about and also which ones are most convenient for their political/social interests.  Just as Canadians disagree about what it means to be Canadian, and as Americans question their identity.  These things never get resolved despite how tidy it sometimes appears in the history books and in the museums.

No comments: