Serge Bokobza

The speaker

After studying at the Université de Paris X Nanterre, Serge Bokobza taught French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A specialist in French literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, he focuses his work on the relationships between literature and ideology and titles and the theme of betrayal. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Bokobza also taught courses in Francophone literature (from Switzerland and North Africa) as well as in film history.

In 1997 he received the Palmes Académiques and in 2000 was given the Award for Excellence by the American Association of Teachers of French. Bokobza is the author of a work about Stendhal, Variations sur le titre "Le rouge et le Noir" (Genève, Droz, 1986) and articles on Stendhal, La Fayette, Paul Nizan, and Stanley Kubrick. He is currently working on a documentary on Léon Blum composed of interviews with French historians and politicians, from socialist former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius to UMP party member Jacques Toubon.

After a university career in the United States, Serge Bokobza could not help but be interested in what is referred to as cultural history and, notably, the similarities and differences between France and the United States. His next article in English, Liberty Versus Equality: the Marquis de la Fayette and France, will appear in The French Review in October 2009.


French Judgements on La Fayette from Stendhal to Jean-Luc Godart, and from Michelet to Gonzague St. Bris.
Americans know the Marquis de La Fayette as the adolescent French aristocrat who equipped a ship at his own expenses to join the cause of the American Revolution and became almost a son to George Washington.  While this was certainly the turning point of his life, they ignore the other deeds of la Fayette's life, mainly his actions during the French Revolution and the days of July 1830.  We know of the long lasting gratefulness of the American people toward the Marquis de La Fayette, for many on both sides of the Atlantic La Fayette also illustrates the bond and friendship between France and the United States.  But what do the French really think of the "Hero of Two Worlds?"  For the most part, the French base their judgments on the second part of La Fayette's long life and look with suspicion at his Maurice Chevalier-style love for America.  From novelists Stendhal to Chateaubriand, from movie directors Jean-Luc Godard to Jean Dreville, from nineteenth-century historian Michelet to twentieth-century "revisionist" François Furet and conservative Jean Tulard, from contemporary historian Etienne Taillemite to "pipole" journalist Gonzague Saint-Bris, this lecture examines the judgments and opinions of the French, today and yesterday, toward a man they also nicknamed "The Great Citizen."

La Fayette, Nicolas Sarkozy and France: Liberty versus Equality.
While we know of the long-lasting gratefulness of America toward the Marquis de La Fayette, France never granted the young French aristocrat the same admiration and status he enjoys in the United States.  The French for the most part base their judgment on La Fayette's conduct during the French Revolution and look with suspicion at his American-style love for liberty.  It took almost 100 years (1789-1875) for the French Revolution to produce a stable republican regime based on a somewhat coherent model of an egalitarian society, which continues today: a République Française where equality is the only common vision.  And France's passion for equality is what distanced La Fayette from mainstream France from the start.  Since La Fayette's legacy has been dismissed, ignored and minimized by both the Left and the Right, it is unlikely this sentence will change, or so it seemed until the election of France's new Président.  Since the time of the Great Revolution, and until the recent emergence in the contemporary political arena of Nicolas Sarkozy, who has repeatedly made the statement, I don't like equality, no major political figures in France would have ever dared to emulate the cry attributed to John Randolph of Roanoke:  I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty; I hate equality.  In the perspective of this irreducible tension between liberty, which is more associated with the United States, and equality, which is more associated with France, it is also quite relevant to note that Nicolas Sarkozy is the second Frenchman, the first one being La Fayette, to have been nicknamed by the French, l'Américain. And, both men have accepted this name with the same response.

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