How did you first become interested in France?
I had a wonderful high school French teacher. In addition, my father, who was born in Europe, thought that a little European education would do me good, so he sent me to a French school in Switzerland when I was a teenager. That’s how I got started. It helped that I had a particular susceptibility to French novels.
Your first book was about Parisian shopkeepers. How did you choose this topic?
There was a wave of shopkeeper and artisan protest in France in the 1970s. This was also a period of tax revolt in the United States. I was in graduate school in those years, and not coincidentally I became interested in a small-business movement that took shape in Paris in the 1880s. This was an important association of Paris shopkeepers called the Ligue syndicale du travail, de l’industrie et du commerce. The Ligue started out as a left-wing operation (for a time it was courted by the socialists) but it moved steadily to the right, and by 1900 the group was identified with the right-wing ultranationalists. The historical puzzle was, Why did this group come into being, and why did its political character change so markedly over the course of the fin de siècle? I argued that the group formed due to a number of factors, including competition from department stores, a physical redesign of Paris in the middle decades of the 19th century, and a major economic crisis in the 1880s. The group’s political metamorphosis was a complicated process. Ignored by the republican establishment, increasingly cold-shouldered by a rising socialist left, the Ligue had to look elsewhere for support. Xenophobic and anti-Semitic, the nationalists were among the few who paid attention to shopkeeper problems, so it was to this far right that the shopkeeper movement eventually turned, an alliance sealed in the very midst of the Dreyfus Affair.
In 1995 you published The Republican Moment, a broad study of French politics and social life in the 19th century. What was your aim in this book?
France was the only major European power to establish an enduring republic in the 19th century: the Third Republic lasted from 1870 until World War II. The basic question I asked in the book was, Why did democratic institutions take root in France when they did? My answer was that, despite its authoritarian character, the Second Empire (1852-70) saw the emergence during the 1860s of a whole range of institutions of civil society, and that by participating in such groups people began to assert republican principles and to learn democratic political skills. I looked at a variety of French institutions and communities where republican values took hold: the lodges of Freemasonry, Protestant and Jewish groups, the Paris bar, the university, artists’ groups, and business organizations like the Paris Chamber of Commerce and the Union Nationale du Commerce et de l‘Industrie. Across all these different milieus you can see a pattern of democratization. So for example, the Freemasons began to choose their officials no longer through a suffrage weighted in favor of elite members, but through a vote in which all Masons could participate. There were similar democratizing pressures at work in the Paris Chamber of Commerce and the Paris bar. In the process of taking over these individual institutions, republican activists learned the arts of democratic politics--how to organize, how to campaign, how to win over constituencies. I argue that all these different associational networks wove together to form the republican movement in the 1860s and 1870s, which the regime of Louis-Napoleon was unable to resist. Most of the people who would found the Third Republic and govern it in the late 19th century came out of one or another of these groups.
What values did republicanism include?
There is much that an American would recognize in 19th-century French republicanism. Republicanism embraced democracy, science and progress, Enlightenment ideals, ethical codes based on rational thought. In France the separation of church and state was more insistent and more total than in the United States, in particular with regard to the Catholic Church. The values of the French Revolution--liberty, equality, fraternity--were central. Most of the founders of the Third Republic saw their project as a continuation of the Revolution of 1789, although they of course sought a more stable outcome.
The success of the Third Republic seems even more remarkable given the political volatility of France in the decades leading up to it.
The Revolution of 1789 was an enormous upheaval, and 19th-century France was very much a post-revolutionary world. There were three important revolutions in France in the 19th century--the July Revolution (1830), the February Revolution (1848), and the Paris Commune (1871)--with intervening periods of royal or imperial rule. The problem of public order was always present. Knowing that revolution is possible, how does one create a regime that has legitimacy and also sufficient authority to maintain itself?
The other half of the story is that during this period France was undergoing its version of the industrial revolution and was developing very rapidly. Between 1850 and 1880 a new working class formed, peasants were exposed for the first time to market forces, and bodies were literally put in motion, thanks to the rapid growth of railroads, towns, and cities. In 1880 France was the second-largest economy in the world. So you had this combination of a revolutionary heritage to be mastered and profoundly upsetting economic and social change. As a result, France sees a series of regimes that we might regard as experiments: this one was too narrowly based and repressive; that one was too open and released forces that could not be controlled. On paper the Third Republic was quite similar to the short-lived Second Republic (1848-52), yet the Third Republic succeeded in setting down roots. This is where The Republican Moment fits in. The successful republican agitators of the 1860s and ‘70s, the people I studied in the book, were drawn largely from the new urban middle class created by the mid-century economic boom.
Your most recent book, Impressionists and Politics (2000), looks at the relationship between politics and art in France during this period. What was the connection?
Between the 1860s and the 1890s there was an Impressionist movement in French painting and a republican movement in French politics, and the two intersected. If you take a dozen of the canonical Impressionist painters, eight or nine of them identified themselves as republicans at some point or another. Republican themes can be found in many Impressionist paintings--things like tricolor flags or references to July 14. Major Impressionists were part of the movement to “republicanize” the art world, for instance by democratizing the process whereby paintings were selected for exhibition at the annual Salon. And there was a cohort of republican art critics who attempted to draw a direct analogy between Impressionist painting and republican politics and to interpret Impressionism as a kind of art world equivalent to republicanism (and in fact some of these critics went on to become republican politicians or officials themselves). The connection is less evident looking the other way. Once the Third Republic was firmly established in the 1880s, a number of the Impressionist painters began to receive more official recognition, but many republican politicians never had any use for Impressionism.
The partnership only lasted for a time, ending in the 1890s. The recession of the 1880s and ‘90s brought a great deal of change, especially in the cities, and many of the Impressionists decided that the world was no longer going in the right direction. Many made the same kind of political migration from left to right that my shopkeepers did in the first book. Degas and Renoir are both examples: both were liberal and open-minded as young men, but by the end of the 19th century both had become conservative, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic, especially Degas. Monet, however, was a loyal republican to the end. On the morrow of Armistice Day in 1918, Monet gave the French state a series of his beautiful Water Lilies paintings. His friend Georges Clemenceau, who was then prime minister, accepted the gift.