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Mission to Civilize: THE FRENCH WAY by Mort Rosenblum (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 470 pp.)

July 05, 1987|Steven Englund | Englund teaches French revolution at the Universite de Paris-VIII and is writing a book on French nationalism in the late 19th Century.

On a flight to Paris from Gabon, Mort Rosenblum, senior foreign correspondent with the Associated Press, found himself sitting next to a young Gabonese cabinet minister. After some wine, the man began talking frankly about his irritation over the foreign policy of Gabon's former imperial master, France: "The French are always talking about emotional ties. Well it's emotional one way. From us. They play on our emotions to make money off of us. With a new generation, I don't think it will be that way." Rosenblum concludes the episode: "The plane neared Charles de Gaulle Airport, and I asked the minister where he stayed in Paris. He looked at me, surprised, as though I were a little slow. 'At my place,' he answered. 'In the sixth arrondissement .' "

Rosenblum's book is a remarkably complete and up-to-date profile of France's relations with current and former territories. He prides himself on having traveled to "nearly every bit of real estate that flies--or flew--the Tricolor," and it must be said to the author's reportorial credit that the reader's interest rarely flags in 470 pages.

Make that 300. Rosenblum has tacked on a Part Two rehashing 2,000 years of French history, and these chapters are rife with errors and with cliches. "French peasants stormed the Bastille" (peasants had little to do with it); and "France approached glory" under Charlemagne (there was in his day no political nor cultural entity called "France" for him to reign over); etc., etc.

So, Part Two must be scrapped: The author is best when he's reporting, sometimes when he's writing, on our own day. Thus, for example, his splendid metaphor for the Atlantic Alliance: "It is a tug of war with the European end of the rope unraveled into disparate handfuls. France merely has to grab hold of a sizable strand, and keep it taut (to get her way)."

But a further problem arises because not only did Rosenblum let himself get distracted with a full-dress (if tattered) review of French history, but, worse, he felt obliged to present and defend "A Thesis"; briefly, that whereas England and all the other colonial powers emerged scathed from their experience with empire, the French, thank you, are doing profitable business of one sort or another in nearly every part of the world where they used to govern. Rosenblum attributes the comparative success of French economic, diplomatic, and especially cultural ascendance over much of the Third World to France's imperial mission all along; that is, not so much to colonize as to civilize, "to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life and thus elevate in the scale of humanity."

Our author does not propose his thesis ham-fistedly. He not only includes accounts of the bloody wars in Vietnam and Algeria and most other important French defeats, he often points out French hypocrisy in dealing with colonies and former colonies today. But the thesis is still mistaken. Not even the original propagators of the view, from Richelieu to Ferry to De Gaulle, were they alive, would dare to maintain (except ironically) this unvarnished version of the mission civilisatrice.

The truth lies elsewhere. No serious study of French imperialism argues that the actual mainsprings of colonial policy were other than those of Great Britain, except that the French had the additional motive of badly needing prestige to compensate for the disaster of 1870-71. Nor do many serious analysts argue that France necessarily has superior relations with her former colonies than England. On the contrary, many maintain the contrary. To quote Pascal Bruckner, a recent, widely read critic: "Whereas France has kept only commercial or technical contacts with Algeria, Vietnam, and black Africa, and pulled itself back inside its origin1634476130experienced the influence of (her former colonies) . . . England of course died from her own immensity, but she died victorious. . . . Her victory is that she can no longer recognize herself except by beholding her former subjects, and that, in order to continue to exist, she must listen to and love them." Whatever the chic ascendance France enjoys with the elites of certain African societies, no one could ever say this about it.

Bruckner is an ardent anti-imperialist of a breed that France has produced just as steadily and brilliantly as it has produced the Lyauteys. The fact is that no country has surpassed France740319598production of anti-colonialism--i.e., in the destruction of the very myths that Rosenblum has adopted, bell, book and candle.

The fact is, the book under review amounts to the rather artful presentation of a middlebrow American Francophile view of France: from the banal ("France adds up to more than the sum of its parts") to the well-put ("You can still feel the slight electric charge at the diplomatic gatherings when the French ambassador walks into the room"). It is the sort of glossy apologia that elicits happy squeals from French bien pensant intellectuals who wouldn't themselves dare to write the pages they're praising. The publisher of "Le Monde" and the founder of "L'Express," among the others cited on the back book cover, know this is no "masterpiece," but it is flattering to them to have Americans think it is. Rosenblum has been had.

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