Politicians must keep out of the archives

In an intriguing sidebar to the great pensions revolt in France, the Guardian reports on the sit-in in the National Archives in Paris to prevent Sarkozy turning the place into a memorial to his brand of nationalism. Such a project would be inconceivable in the National Archives at Kew or Bishop St in Dublin or indeed in the new premises for PRONI in Titanic quarter in Belfast. Thankfully in these islands, the national archives and heritage are above the arbitrary intervention of politicians.

Every modern French President seeks a monument: the Pompidou Centre, the pyramid on the Louvre and La Defense for Mitterand, an anthropological museum for Chirac. De Gaulle, the brand inventor of the Fifth Republic and its strong presidency was above all that. He spotted one problem which is bedevilling his vulgar successor. “France is not France without greatness,” he intoned, adding in terms , the only problem is the French people.

French greatness, particularly after a defeat in six weeks in 1940 is an illusion. French culture civilisation, countryside and still- just-  cuisine, are all great. But greatness is a tall order and cannot be created on demand.  French Presidents still hanker after  invoking the idea of  exceptionalism. Today however, both the times and the person of the current incumbent are against it.

And yet  une certaine idée de la France lingers with the greatness factor much reduced. French exceptionalism has not gone away, if only they could define it. The French passion for debating the elements of their identity – their economy, their rather beleaguered culture and language and their diversity and demographics – contrasts with British post-imperial muddling through. Both countries perhaps have yet fully to confront their past. The Irish are different with their frank and continuous re- examination of their past which may – or may not – consolidate reconciliation. Whatever the examination, it must not be controlled by politicians.