The Other France

The Other France

Mini Teaser:  Modernizing the Provincial City does not tell us anything we did not already know about how the French became and are becoming what they have been and are.

by Author(s): H.J. Kaplan

Rosemary Wakeman, Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse, 1945-1975 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 323 pp., $45.

Toulouse, metropole of the Languedoc or Midi-Pyrénées area in southwestern France, went through an exhilarating experience after World War II. The city grew. Not for the first time in its two thousand-year history; and not all by itself, since something similar was happening (after the long years of depression, war, defeat, and German occupation) in most other provincial centers. Still, the postwar development of Toulouse was dramatic, and distinctive enough to engage the attention of Rosemary Wakeman, an American student of French history and more specifically of urban affairs. Thanks to Harvard University Press, Ms. Wakeman has now published Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse, 1945-1975, a thoughtful study and quite worthy of general attention, even if it provides more detail about yesterday's bureaucratic struggles (over zoning regulations, planning conceptions, and real estate promotions) than most of us will ever want or need to know.

For reasons that escaped me when I first came to live here (as they still do), Toulouse has never held much attraction for tourists, although in medieval times it was a stop on the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. But then so were a lot of now quite obscure places, like Saint Bertrand de Comminges. Even the guidebooks feel obliged to quote the disparaging remarks of travel-writers from the north like Stendhal, or foreigners like Henry James and Edith Wharton, who were put off by the lack of amenities, the accent, and perhaps by a certain rough-hewn and stubborn quality of the natives. It does not surprise me to find a lot of Scottish and Irish names in the neighborhood, like my friends the O'Byrnes, who have a château at Saint-Géry on the Tarn River; and to discover that Jenny Courtois' house on the rue Mage was built by a man named McCarthy in the eighteenth century; or that, while the rest of France goes bonkers over soccer, the Toulousans have a passion for rugby, a game--at least until recently--of amateurs and locals, not imported dancers from Brazil. All this, whether cause or consequence or both, may help to explain why this town has been left to its own devices and little heard of in the wider world, at least since 1249, when it succumbed to the Albigensian crusade and became part of the kingdom of France.

An attractive place, nevertheless. Toulouse is in the valley of the Garonne, nestled in a bend of the river and in close touch with a rich and varied countryside. The old town, its characteristic red brick center now circled by green and white suburbs and an occasional cluster of towers, is still a hub of the Canal du Midi, which since the seventeenth century has made it possible to ship merchandise from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic without exposing oneself to the Barbary pirates. In those days it was still the center of the pastel trade, which enriched many Toulousan families and left us with many fine mansions. A center of learning since Roman times, and the birthplace of many famous men (like the mathematician Fermat), it quite naturally became home not only to the aerospace and high-tech industries, but also to a great university, not to forget the oldest think tank in France, the Académie des Jeux Floraux, or the impressive collection of romanesque sculpture in the lovely old monastery of Les Augustins. Politically, it has always been a bastion of the Radical-Socialists and home of the daily La Dépche du Midi, which now makes it comfortable with the so-called "plural Left" of Lionel Jospin, who is mayor of a nearby town.

Ms. Wakeman, in any event, was bound to raise issues of greater import than Toulouse itself, since the three decades she deals with--1945 to 1975--were the ones enduringly designated by Jean Fourastié as "glorious" in his now classic study, Les Trentes Glorieuses, ou la Révolution Invisible de 1946-1975, published by Fayard in 1979. This was the great leap forward in the course of which the French divested themselves of their overseas empire, more than doubled their per capita income, refurbished their welfare state, and nevertheless managed year after year to invest upwards of 20 percent of their GDP in new plant and capital equipment, with the result that--with Germany still divided and Eastern Europe still held hostage by the Soviet Union--they were able in the 1970s and early 1980s to envisage their future with a clarity and confidence that are sorely lacking today.

During les trentes glorieuses the French duplicated the experience of other modern industrial nations by effecting a massive movement of people and resources from the countryside to the cities, which by 1975 had absorbed something like three-quarters of the population. And although this could not but entail some social disruption, it was accomplished with what struck me, working in our Marshall Plan Mission in Paris at that time, as a minimum of hardship and fuss. By the time Fourastié was publishing his book, the heavily rural France we had discovered during and immediately after World War II--the Vieille France of Roger Martin du Gard, of Marcel Aymé, and indeed of most of the writers left over, as it were, from the pre-war period--was already a thing of the past. The country had become predominantly urban; and since then the movement has continued, albeit at a slower pace. Toulouse, for example, has "mutated from a sleepy regional town to an industrial and scientific metropolis with an extended suburban realm and a population well over 600,000", as we are informed in Modernizing the Provincial City.

Granting all this, it is nevertheless too much to say, as Ms. Wakeman does in her introductory chapter, that "the French were quite daunted, even obsessed, by the dimensions of this urban revolution" or that the questions to which it gave rise "took on crisis proportions within public debate." The oddity, rather--and this is why Jean Fourastié speaks in his subtitle of an invisible revolution--is how little attention was paid in France and elsewhere to a transformation so vast.
Without pretending to offer an explanation of this anomaly--the fact that les trentes glorieuses and their consequences were so largely and so long ignored by "the French", i.e., by the people who speak in this country's name--I would suggest that we begin by rounding up the usual suspects, namely the political classes, as they are now called, in Paris.

These were not and are not necessarily politicians, in the strict sense of the term. They are more likely to be middle-class executives, educators, and journalists, although they tend to concern themselves more with politics--especially la grande politique--than provincials do; and to have a more active interest in general ideas and literature and the arts. The great issues for "the French" during the period we are talking about--the Cold War, for example, or decolonization, or the influence of American popular culture--were defined in Paris, a world-class city which, while Toulouse, Grenoble, and Lyon were doubling or tripling their populations, remained petrified within its twenty arrondissements. The capital's surrounding countryside, the Île-de-France, was increasingly urbanized, to be sure, but Paris intra muros actually lost people throughout most of those thirty years; and this, together with the fact that the city on the Seine was and remains so much more than the center of a nation-state, surely helps to explain why the Parisian deep thinkers, who continue to represent this country in the eyes of the wider world, failed to see what was going on in the boondocks during les trentes glorieuses.

Now of course the term has passed into the common parlance; one hears it constantly used by people who haven't a clue where it comes from, not that Jean Fourastié would have cared. The point I would make is that this tendency of the Parisian political classes to ignore what was derisively known (in another famous book of the period) as "the French desert" seems in certain respects to be structural, an inherited condition, and thus extremely difficult to cure. Not impossible, one hopes, given time; but meanwhile the fascist movement of Messrs. Le Pen and Mégret--still without a single deputy in Paris--feeds on the hopes and fears of the provinces, and grows apace.

Rosemary Wakeman is identified on the cover of Modernizing the Provincial City as adjunct assistant professor at Fordham University and fulsomely praised (on another page of the cover) by two of her colleagues in what appears to be a flourishing field: the production of footnotes to the history of France, its development and ''mentalities", a subject which seems endlessly to fascinate American professors and doctoral candidates. "A great book", says Donald Reid, author of Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations. "A major monograph in urban history", says Herrick Chapman, author of State Capitalism and Working Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry.

These are publishers' blurbs, and it would be unfair to hold them against Ms. Wakeman even if they did not go on as they do, covering an entire page, to cite chapter and verse in support of some rather extravagant claims--to the effect, say, that Modernizing the Provincial City explains how the new Toulouse as a "dynamic center of research and industry" arose out of the dilapidated old city through "the interplay between political and social forces in Toulouse and ministries in Paris [which] led to the construction of a new urban image", or that by "examining the transformation of urban space, housing, business and politics", Wakeman arrives at an "understanding of modernization as involving the cultural construction of an image as much as the articulation of any particular credo, technique, economic mode or esthetic", and this suggests that "her work could play an important role in theoretical debates over the nature of modernization." Et cetera. At this point I would expect our author, who has provided us with 321 pages of facts and figures (including the notes, a bibliography, and an index) will exhale gently; although the sort of jargon I have quoted seems to go with the territory, since it also mars her own prose.

Thus, for example, Ms. Wakeman is not above assuring us solemnly that "modernism simply monumentalized the new social constellation and corporate-state power as self-referential myths", and leaving us with our bare faces hanging out to try to guess what this means. She makes a laudable effort to sound more modest in her conclusions, but cannot resist instructing us that "both modernism and modernization are, like all historic processes, unevenly developed across time and space" and that "the actual depth of [modernism's] socioeconomic power and cultural imperialism is a thorny issue, as is the notion of a spatial character to capitalism." All of which, to our relief, seems to leave matters moot, at least in respect to what she is talking about here, which I take to be simply that during les trentes glorieuses the infamous "desert" was somewhat reduced and power was devolved on the provinces. The result was that regional authorities and the local city hall could, in the case of Toulouse, allocate resources and shape the city's future without interference from the planners up north, the object being what is called l'aménagement du territoire.

In any event, and leaving the jargon aside, Ms. Wakeman is clearly talented and energetic and has sufficiently immersed herself in her subject to tell her story intelligibly, so that we do learn that the premises of today's aerospace industry, for example, already existed in Toulouse before and during World War II, and that it was the enormous expansion of the economy after the war, rather than a bureaucratic decision to construct an allegedly new image, that led to increased employment and a larger physical plant, as well as to such projects as the new research center at Rangueil-Lespiner. The city's modernization, in short, was not in the first instance merely a program or an idea sucked out of their thumbs by central planners and intellectuals, although of course they got into the act, as they always do, for better or worse. What made it all happen, however, as common sense would suggest, was simply that the situation cried out for it. The city was growing exponentially, slums had to be cleared and new housing provided, the old urban center had to contend with huge increases of traffic, artisans and services were needed--and, as the country on the whole was prosperous, financial resources were at hand.

So what else is new? The question arises whether the impressive amount of lore Ms. Wakeman has gathered about this development can instruct us on matters of more general interest, e.g., on the stubborn otherness of France that continues so remarkably to irritate our political leadership, conservative and liberal alike, and to haunt the imagination of our academic elites. In my opinion it can, and this is why the appearance of Modernizing the Provincial City is worth noting in The National Interest and not merely in The Journal of Footnotes to French History, or something of the sort.

On the strength of this book Ms. Wakeman should be allowed, I submit, to drop the word "adjunct" from her title and become an honest-to-God assistant professor, if only because she provides a coherent account of how the Place Saint-Georges (the charming old city square in which the Protestant Calas was executed, provoking the famous anti-church campaign of Voltaire) was saved from the ruthless slum clearance project that destroyed so much of the neighborhood nearby; or why the relocation of the university at Le Mirail and the attempt to construct an American-style campus around it ended so badly. These episodes are petite histoire, interesting to the participants and arguably useful as object lessons, but Modernizing the Provincial City is too immersed in city hall politics on one hand, and in sociological theory on the other, to make much more of them, as Ms. Wakeman confesses in her concluding chapter. Nor does it tell us anything we did not already know about how the French became and are becoming what they have been and are.

What it can do, rather, is first of all to suggest a question more pertinent to us--and certainly more accessible--at this stage in our own development as a country and a culture: Why should we care? And secondly to provide an answer, one that may or may not satisfy our own political class but may help to explain why books of this sort continue to proliferate in an America which--so notoriously as I write these lines--has so much else on its mind.

It lies, I suggest, in the genius the French have displayed throughout their history for articulating, generalizing, and projecting their problems, so that it becomes quite natural for them to deal with municipal sewage as if it were a paradigm for The Human Condition, a.k.a. Man's Fate; or, in devising seating arrangements for their first National Assembly, after 1789, to come up with the enduring and by now universal designations of the Left and the Right.

Enduring does not necessarily mean forever, not even here. We are now a long way from les trentes glorieuses. The economy is in the doldrums and--the respectable Right having disappeared into the trap so cunningly set for them by Mr. Mitterrand, with a little help from Mr. Chirac--the country is preparing morosely to consummate its merger into Europe, whatever that means. Instead of Right and Left we have la pensée unique, which does not translate easily but means that social democracy, the welfare state, and the sort of thinking about manners and morals that goes with them have become, if not The Human Condition, a.k.a. Man's Fate, the only game in town. And if you can't beat it you might as well join it. So I heard yesterday on public television, in a commentary on an article by Mr. d'Ormesson, who (when I was living in Paris) used to write for the right-wing daily, Le Figaro.

And here is another footnote to French history: Le Figaro is the largest Parisian daily. If you add its circulation to that of its left-wing rival, Le Monde, you come up with a total rather less than the circulation of the largest provincial daily, which I believe is published in Brest.

I have not yet seen Mr. d'Ormesson's text, but I don't expect much from it, frankly, although he is a brilliant writer and a card-carrying member of the Parisian political class. The problem, I fear, is once again with the latter. Only this time, and perhaps for the first time in their long and distinguished history, "the French", although they remain as voluble as ever, seem to be at a loss for words.

Essay Types: Book Review