The Socialist Legacy in France

About this Episode

Guests
Alice Conklin

In this Origins podcast of Writers Talk History, host Patrick Potyondy interviews historian Alice Conklin about the history and mass appeal of socialism in France.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy , "The Socialist Legacy in France" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
March, 2013
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/socialist-legacy-france?language_content_entity=en.
March, 2013

Transcript

Doug Dangler 

From the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University, this is Writers Talk. I'm Doug Dangler. Today OSU student Patrick Potyondy talks to OSU researcher Alice Conklin for our latest segment of Writers Talk History.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Our guest today is Dr. Alice Conklin, associate professor at OSU specializing in the history of France, imperialism and the social sciences. She's the author of "A Mission to Civilize the Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa 1895 to 1930." Her new book is scheduled for release in 2013 is titled "In the Museum of Man: Anthropology, Racial Science and Humanism in France and its Empire 1850 to 1950". We're speaking with Professor Conklin about her recent article for Origins. "Socialism Takes Over France Again". Thanks for being on the show Professor Conklin and welcome.

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Thank you for having me.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Many well-known periodicals expressed alarm at the election of a socialist president in France. But you argue for a sense of historical perspective when it comes to evaluating the election. What is France's history after WWII reveal about Francoise Hollande's election?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Well, France's history since World War II has been, perhaps can think of it as being broken up into two large periods, what they call the 30 glorious years of economic growth and rebuilding, and then a period that we may still be in a, 30 inglorious years, triggered by the first OPEC oil crisis, really a dramatic restructuring of the economy and all the pain that that has involved. So at the moment of liberation in France in 1946, there was a real commitment on the part of people who'd been in the resistance, as well. Interestingly enough, people on the right not necessarily involved with the collaborationist Vichy regime, which is one of France's great shames during World War II. Both groups were in entire agreement. center right and all those who've been part of the resistance led by Charles de Gaulle that France had to rebuild and had to provide a new deal for all its citizens, which meant the creation of a very generous welfare state. And the fact that there was a consensus around this welfare state, I think helps if you want to take the really long view explain why, in the last election, the socialist who are very committed to keeping that welfare state along with really many people on the center, right, still in France, were able to or chose to elect Francoise Hollande because the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy was seen as having moved too close to the kind of German position which is embracing austerity, cutting back public spending, and therefore jeopardizing what is seen as a commitment on the part of the state to provide all citizens with a minimum of security.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Then you mentioned The Vichy regime in your answer and I'm wondering, what effect did the rise of fascism have on France's socialists?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Well, in the 30s, the socialists were famously divided. Really it goes back much further than, that the divisions on the left, the rise of fascism caused, for the first time a coalition of communist socialists and what were then known as radicals that kind of centrist Republicans, in the French sense, centrist democrats to come together for the first time and create a popular front that argued for the need to defend democracy against fascism. And it was in no way a socialist program. It was a defend democracy program, and they were swept into power and in 1936, unfortunately, France was still in a lingering depression and the vision they had for bringing more social justice to the French along with fighting fascism foundered on the shoals of economic crisis, so they were in power only two years

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Sounds like they didn't quite get a lot of the credit for fighting the Nazis during World War II or were they able to build on that politically in kind of the wake of World War II?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Well, the collapse of the popular front left socialists very disillusioned when World War II came along and France collapsed, the most of the socialist deputies in Parliament were part of the group that they voted against giving powers to general Pétain, who then became this collaborator with the Nazi occupier. So the socialist actually have a good record in World War II. The communists have the best record because they, after 41, massively move into the resistance and it's the coalition once again of of communists and socialists and help explain why the welfare state is pushed through with also the Gaullists and the those on the center right, who also joined the resistance. So the resistance can't be described as a predominantly socialist or leftist movement.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

I think that's really important to your argument perhaps and saying that many in France support the kind of establishment of a kind of broad-based welfare state, is that correct?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

That's correct. I would just add that for the center, right. It was not necessarily a social justice argument that led them to embrace a welfare state. It was an argument about France had an anemic birth rate. It was a kind of backwards stalled country all the way through to the 1930s. And for France to rebuild and to become modern and take its place, once again as a world power after the humiliating defeat of World War II, that you needed a very strong pro-family, pro needleless, that is to say, a state that protected every life, every child's life. And that is a distinctive also trait of the French welfare system that it is very family friendly, family oriented. You get a lot of money for each additional child that you have all things that that the French have come to value very much.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And you point out in your article that France is middle class, rather than the working class eventually became the primary constituency of the Socialist Party, which is perhaps surprising. How or why did this happen?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

The French working class in the 30 glorious years of rebuilding France's economy after World War II, were almost overwhelmingly communist. They voted, the communist party gets 25% of the vote almost regularly from the 19th, late 1940s through into the early set 1970s. So, one reason that socialists become the party of the largely of the middle class is that there is an alternative further to the left for the working class. The other explanation for the middle class base of the socialist parties, particularly since the 70s, is that the working class as we know it, historically, the blue collar working classes disappeared as it has and gradually as it hasn't in America, in a postindustrial society, and that those people who've been laid off or had difficult trans-, a difficult time transitioning into the service sector economy have gravitated, unfortunately, to the far right, to the national front. So that is one of the unhappy developments of the last 30 years in France, a kind of resurgence of a NEO fascist movement.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Is that sort of kind of movement to the right, is that kind of a similar, is that tied up with sentiments of kind of anti-immigration that you kind of maybe see in places like Britain as well?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

precisely, part of the appeal of the far right is that the National Front movement of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and now it is daughter who's heading it up is that they have a very strong anti-immigrant discourse which blames the lack of jobs or the sense of unease on so called immigrants, that is to say, people who don't necessarily look and act like the  Jean-Marie Le Pen himself, people who usually are French, but are still called immigrants, because he's talking about second generation workers who've come in from North Africa, former colonies often.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

and before we switch gears into kind of other topics. I'm wondering if there's anything else related to the election of the socialist president Hollande in France, if that you think maybe the greater news media has missed in relation to his election?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Well, I think the news media by definition isn't interested in long term origins, the things that I've been talking  about certainly what we haven't talked about are the immediate reasons for Hollande's elections. And most of the media, were most interested in those immediate reasons. Sarkozy comes to power the previous president, and immediately you hit, he runs into the 2008 global crisis. His response to that is, as I said, to embrace austerity to move closer to _______, all of this played out very poorly in France, and so Hollande, benefited enormously from the unpopular, the lack of popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy. And that's what the media would have focused on, and rightly so. But they would have missed this. I think the underlying reason for what the French electorate would like now from Francoise Hollande  which is a more humane way of addressing what has to be a cut, scaling back of public spending.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And your article for Origins, "Socialism Takes Over France Again", is a digital media piece of writing geared toward a popular audience. Is there some advantage to this form of writing over what historians have traditionally done?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

There surely is, though, I wrote my piece very much as I would have written lecture for my undergraduate survey course on France. To me, it's not so much that the writing is different, but that you have a chance to reach a much broader audience through distribution over the internet and especially abroad. Where I think there is there are people there are so many people who for whom the internet is a wonderful library, that virtual library or that they don't have access to otherwise.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

I think that's very interesting, almost headed off my second follow up question, I'm wondering if you know, there's something that kind of that formal, traditional academic style of writing has to offer that maybe is lost a bit in the translation to kind of more popular forum but it sounds like you're, you're kind of arguing that there's a blend of the two and that the two kind of work well together or can work well together.

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

I think they can. I think that historians, by definition, tell stories. And that's a wonderful narrative strategy for communicating any kind of information. In the same time they build in analysis, which helps I think people who are curious about why things happen the way they do respond to hearing a historian tell his or her particular story about an event.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

I'm wondering what made you pursue a career as a historian?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Um, there are many, perhaps layers to that answer. I in particular, I would bring up the fact that I had the advantage of learning French very young because my family lived abroad. And so when we came back, I was 10. And  pursued my education. I was doing all this French literature because that's what you did when you study French and then when I went to college, I had the good fortune to be in a school where there were two French historians. And as soon as I started doing history, I had no interest in doing literature anymore. I think it was just the, the, I have a very analytical mind. And I was always interested in the why. And to me that is what history has always been explaining why things happen first discovering that they did happen and then trying to, to unravel why they happened.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And on top of learning French at a young age, is there something about the kind of public culture around history or the humanities of France of valuing that sort of culture in France that drew you to the history of France in particular?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

I think that appreciation of that came later what I often like to say I've been as I began my career as a historian, as someone who studies colonialism and because I went to a French school, very young, I like to think that I was actually the civilized or colonized by the French without even realizing it. And therefore, it's not surprising that my, my intellectual and professional trajectory took me into the heart of a country that values culture, and is willing to export it and to and to encourage people to become part of that culture from the outside.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And lastly, what made you choose to write for a publication like Origins?

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Well, to be perfectly honest, it was my colleague who asked me to do so. And I said, sure, that seems like a great opportunity to do the kind of public outreach that especially in a big public university is part of our responsibility and our vocation.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

I think that's perfectly put. So well, Professor Conklin, thank you very much for joining us today on Writers Talk History.

 

Dr. Alice Conklin  

Thank you, Patrick. I've enjoyed being here.

 

Doug Dangler 

For more Writers Talk visit www.writers talk.org.

 

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