Marine Le Pen’s “France”. Pick n’ Mix Patriotism.
It’s always and obviously a good thing whenever Marine le Pen is excoriated, as she has been for her contention that “France” was not responsible for in the rounding up of 13,000 Jews at the Vel d’Hiv cycling track at Paris on behalf of the Nazis in July 1942. Her very excuses are revealing of a prevalent tendency, even more marked in Britain than in France, to treat regard national history as a matter of pick and mixing whatever bits and pieces you find easiest to digest.
Le Pen contends that “France” did not facilitate the Nazi genocide because collaborating authorities, whether in Paris or in Vichy, were not the “real” France. The real France was the Free France in exile led by De Gaulle. Le Pen is not the first French politician to make this claim. President Mitterand made a similar assertion. Then again, the controversies over Mitterand’s own wartime involvements (historians have dubbed him a “Vichysto-résistant” with a foot in both Vichy and Resistance camps), perhaps make such statements predictable. For prominent figures of a certain age, asserting the unreality of Vichy may have been a psychological as well as a political necessity.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, such assertions really won’t do though – especially with the global rise in a demand for guilt-free histories.
Nobody would claim that the pro-Nazi collaborationist government of Petain and Laval represented all of France. But a sober adult would have to admit that it represented a France, or a version of France. French flags were flown, selective French values and traditions were preached and French people served this pro-Nazi administration thinking they were serving “France”. The only real basis for saying that Free France was real and Vichy France was unreal is that one France makes people feel comfortable and the other makes people uncomfortable.
Selective memory was perhaps a practical necessity for France in the post war years. Not everybody complicit with the Nazis could be put on trial, and the continuous administration of the state required a degree of oblivion, at least until a generation or two has passed. But oblivion has its limits, and an adult confrontation with the continuities between the past and the present can at least recognise that the version of “France” that expedited part of the Nazi genocide was not suddenly born in 1940 and did not suddenly die in 1944. And if you identify with a flag, then you don’t have a right to say that the flag has only ever meant all the things you feel comfortable about a flag meaning. Words and flags are slippery things, but you can’t unilaterally check the predictable associations they carry.
The world is full of politicians who are claiming that we (who’s “we”?) are fed up with apologising for “our” history. Apparently those bitter liberal elites who run everything are only interested in “feelbad” history and our children are being subjected to grim post-colonial critiques on a daily basis. (Incidentally, the general level of ignorance demonstrated by most
Brits regarding just about any aspect of British imperial misrule would seem to indicate that these supposedly all powerful liberalelites have been doing a terrible job.) Of course, what people are demanding is the right of ignorance, a right not to have to know things “we” don’t enjoy knowing.
Perhaps pick and mix feelgood history can be theorised as a function of late capitalism, consumer capitalism, in which history is broken down into saleable nuggets for easy consumption. Perhaps the true test of historical veracity in the modern world is consumer confidence. There are a number of other technical terms that can be used to describe a pervasive reluctance to confront troubling history – my favourite of which is “cowardice”.