How two words -- forged nearly a century ago -- help explain France's military intervention in Mali.
Words, if not history, are repeating themselves in France. Following the French government’s dispatch of planes and troops last week to Mali, whose government is besieged by Islamist rebels, a particular phrase — l’union sacrée — has been resurrected. Forged nearly a century ago, those two words nevertheless cast light on the future of France’s current military intervention.
When President François Hollande announced last Friday that he had ordered the Mali operation, leading politicians quickly hailed his decision. "Sacred union" immediately became the phrase du jour of the French media. The conservative paper Le Figaro welcomed the "sacred union of the political class" — a sentiment and wording echoed by the centrist Le Parisien and liberal Le Monde. One of the leaders of the main opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), declared that such a union was "not an option, but an absolute necessity and duty for us all." Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, rallied to the government’s decision.
This orgy of bonding among inveterate enemies happens to be taking place on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the phrase’s birth. The occasion, predictably, was an earlier war — the war, you may recall, meant to end all wars. On Aug. 3, 1914, President Raymond Poincaré declared that France was going to battle against Germany. "Heroically defended by all her sons," he affirmed, the nation’s "sacred union will never be shattered in the face of the enemy."
The phrase lives on, in large measure, because the political, social, and ideological contexts that created it never truly died. Sacred Union 2.0, it turns out, looks a lot like Sacred Union 1.0.
Prior to World War I, France had been deeply divided over the question of national identity. Opposed to the abstract ideals of 1789, nationalist intellectuals like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras identified the nation with la terre et les morts — the land and the dead. To be French meant belonging to a people shaped over the course of centuries. La patrie — the motherland — was the work of generations who had, since time immemorial, lived, worked, and died on French soil. Immigrants — particularly if they practiced religions other than Christianity and hailed from places other than West Europe — were fated to remain irredeemably alien. Too new and too different, these uprooted peoples were in effect an invasive species in the French ecosystem.
France was also a house divided over the empire it had acquired during the last decades of the 19th century. Moderate republicans supported France’s gathering of great swaths of territory in northern and western Africa, as well as in Asia and the Pacific — an activity they referred to as France’s "civilizing mission." Yet many nationalists denounced this imperial undertaking as misguided. France’s true interest, they argued, was in Europe: in particular, winning back Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans. Foreign adventures distracted the nation from its true calling.
Equally divisive was the place of religion in politics and society. Ever since the Revolution, Catholics and republicans wrestled over the nation’s soul. Republicans feared the reactionary and obscurantist worldview of the Church, while ardent Catholics were horrified by the Republic’s secular ideals and faith in reason. At the end of the 19th century, this battle reached a crescendo with the Dreyfus Affair, the seismic event that pitted the Church against the Republic. Though the Republic carried the day — a victory climaxing with the official separation of Church and State in 1905 — this collision nevertheless revitalized the Church and mutual suspicion between the two camps endured.
As a result, when parties across the political spectrum joined in sacred union in 1914 — Catholic and secularist, monarchist and socialist, union leaders and industrialists — the impact was lasting. Contemporaries long recalled the moment as if it were a miracle. France has ever since been transfixed by this unique moment, when one and all put aside their differences on behalf of a nation endangered. Poincaré was right: The union never shattered, and France eventually won.
Yet, as historians have since revealed, the union was not all that it was cracked up to be. In fact, the union itself soon cracked under the pressure of a conflict no less unprecedented than the political truce that it heaved into existence. The public believed the war would be swift and decisive: The soldiers would be home by Christmas, carrying gifts from a defeated Germany. Likewise, France’s military leadership expected a war of rapid movement and shifting fronts. Instead, the war soon froze along the muddy trenches and static lines of northern France, dragging on not for months but for years. Disillusioned Socialists and conservatives, workers and owners, Catholics and republicans who never dreamed the war would last so long, again began to quarrel, all while maintaining the façade of union.
The historian Jean-Jacques Becker once noted that ever since 1914, French political leaders have, at times of political crisis, called for a new union sacrée. Yet the call had never again been answered. Until now, it seems. Yet it pays to consider the unsettling parallels between these sets of events.
The "other," first of all, still haunts the imagination of the French right. Faces have since changed, but not the ways in which they are perceived. Replacing the Jew, the bête noire of the earlier nationalists, is the Muslim. This is the case not just with the xenophobic National Front, France’s third-most powerful party, but also the UMP, whose leader, Jean-François Copé, has repeatedly stoked the fears of his electorate over French Muslims.
Second, influential politicians committed to that most nationalistic of ideologies, Gaullism, have criticized Hollande’s decision. On Sunday, Dominique de Villepin, who served as prime minister under Jacques Chirac and, not coincidentally, has written widely on Napoleonic France, declined to join the union sacrée. Declaring that he was "worried" by the sudden engagement in Mali and unanimity of the "war mongerers," he wondered how "the neoconservative virus has infected everyone’s thoughts." (Moreover, this brand of nationalism is not limited to the right. The firebrand of the French left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has also denounced the government’s actions. Like his predecessor Jean Jaurès, Mélenchon believes the war is a welcomed distraction for a government unable to respond to legitimate demands of a struggling working class.)
A glance at the front page of a French paper reveals a third parallel: Stories about the French troops in the Malian desert compete with stories about French Catholics on the Paris boulevard. For several weeks, French politics have been convulsed over the issue of gay marriage. Demonstrations by supporters and opponents have been massive, recalling the same deep passions and divisions of the Dreyfus Affair. The leading role in the public protests against the government’s effort to legalize gay marriage has been taken by the Church. This harkens back to its earlier prominence in fin-de-siècle France when it tried to prevent what it saw as the moral decadence that would ensue from secular values embodied by the Republic.
Finally, there are those troops in the Malian desert. The expectation that this would be a surgical affair, conducted by air attacks on the insurgent columns, has proved to be mirage. These soldiers, whose numbers have been increased to 2,500, will no more be home in time for Bastille Day than the French poilus were home in time for Christmas. And just as French propaganda portrayed the Germans as "huns" or boches, so too has the current government repeatedly referred to the Islamic insurgents, who have shown themselves to be an organized fighting force, as "terrorists." It is the Islamic "terrorist," it seems, who has supplanted the boche as the nation’s ancestral foe.
Does this mean that the threat posed by the Islamist insurgency in Mali is illusory? Of course not: The menace to regional security is very real and deeply worrisome. As real, perhaps, as the threat to France and Europe of Wilhelmine Germany, unpredictable and volatile, foiled in the imperial land grab won by France and England, yet still insisting on its rightful place under the sun.
Yet France then, as now, had commitments to other nations. In 1914, it was to Tsarist Russia; in 2013, to its former colony in western Africa. Yet it happens that both one and the other were not only incapable of mustering an army to defend themselves, but were also less than sterling examples of democratic rule. And so it is, a mere century later, that France, once again distracted by its domestic problems and deluded over its military goals, has formed a sacred union. To what end is not yet clear.