The end of the French exception? Decline and revival of the 'French Model'

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BOOK RVIEW: The End of the French Exception? Decline and Revival of the ‘French Model’. Edited by Tony Chafer and Emmanuel Godin. (French Politics, Society and Culture). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. xiv + 280 pp. Hb £63.00.

The ‘French Exception’ is the idea that in politics and public policy France is different from everywhere else. Indeed, the notion goes beyond the political, reflecting widely held assumptions that the French are different in cultural attitudes, attitudes of and to women, art, literature, philosophy, cinema (you name it …), and that France is not only different, but even exemplary, offering the world a political and social ‘model’, from the Enlightenment and the Revolution, that today is distinguishable from the (disdained) ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model. The question is, however, is this true? This widely held view is highly debatable, arguably even absurd. Surely, any country could lay claim to being uniquely different. But if France and the French (and a lot of others) think and see France as different, perhaps this eventually has effects. The irony here is that observers started thinking there was a French exception only when people started saying there no longer was one: the title of the book, and its question mark, draws on a notion developed at the end of the 1980s that the French exception was no more. Can there be an end to something that did not take place? The authors themselves clearly wonder: an earlier version of the book, The French Exception (New York: Berghahn, 2005), had no question mark in its title. Nevertheless, from this uncertain area and contested phenomenon, a way of approaching French politics and society emerges. Looking at France open-mindedly from this perspective has perhaps a heuristic value; and we are treated to a series of examinations of France in thirteen chapters. There are chapters on the notion of ‘l'exception’, on social policy, culture, the extreme left, Europe, immigration, Islam, the media, post-colonialism, francophonie, and the presidency. There is further discussion of the issues by the co-editors in a wide-ranging Introduction and Conclusion. On the whole, the chapters constitute a series of interesting discussions of most aspects of French politics, policy, society, and social relations within France, and political relations outside France, from the colonial past, to Europe, and to globalization. Having said all we have said earlier, when one reads this book, one begins to wonder if indeed there is some basis for France's claim to exceptional status. As is discussed in the volume, France's attitude to the state as fashioning the nation (rather than the other way round) is singular, its highly proactive attitude to its own cultural products is unusual, the virulence of its political extremes marks it out; all point to its difference. And France is pretty exceptional in the bold way in which it has regularly stood up to the United States, from Vietnam to Iraq. What are the reasons for this? Perhaps it is less to do with how France is than with how France thinks it is. The notion of the French exception informs the way France imagines itself, and creates perceptions and discourses that affect comportment. Overall, France, like everyone else, is adopting practices and institutions that integrate with the wider world; but the desire to be different, and the expectations of difference, seem to have created a characteristic Frenchness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-130
Number of pages2
JournalFrench Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


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