Plus ca change…

plus c’est pareil.

This one is really just a blurb. Due to its moving to new premises, the Main Library of my university gets rid of old foreign-language reviews and publications. I was there to get my share of the crop, and ended up browsing through 1980s editions of Le Point, a French weekly one would generally situate on the liberal right.

Reading through the covers to see what I would take, I was struck by the issues treated and their correspondence with issues treated nowadays in the weekly French press. On great societal issues, you have the “Tchador” debate (this veil threatened “French identity” already in 1989), the problems of public-funded hospitals, the end of the welfare-state, criminality (fueled by immigration, of course, and with “unprecedented levels of violence“), immigration (again, of course, with clandestine migrants “rushing in“, and the “critical level” where “integration would be impossible” surely at hand). Boilerplate articles on this and that meaningless subjects? Got it: back-pains (“le mal du siècle“…), the return of “devil-worship“, the Freemasons, the “real power” of advertisements, “How to get rich in 1986“, etc. Foreign policy? Terrorism, Israel, Europe, the US… At the peoples’ page, Claude Berri replaces Loïc Besson as the “French who conquered Hollywood.” The Socialist Party Congress of December 1989 sees Jean-Luc Mélenchon ask the Prime Minister to “close the liberal parenthesis“, and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann (who just voted against the Stability Pact) demands the self-management of production places. The role of international bogeyman is not played by China, but by Japan (“Le pays qui fait peur“, December 1989). Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose Front National had entered Parliament, is dissected in several issues. Etc, etc. Only a few articles on the end of the Cold War unfolding in real time came to remind one that this is 1986-1989.

That left a bizarre feeling. My point is not to say that things are always the same: they are not. This is the first mistake you do as a Historian, and one you quickly come to be vaccinated against; anachronism, or the fact to interpret past events in your own context. But this kind of comparisons might help one find some deep structures of French political and public debates since the 1970s. On another plane, it serves as a reminder that the public debate in countries like France or Finland could benefit from a slightly longer memory in order to be able to keep certain things in perspective. The 1980s are not that far away…

I also found in the same package a few Spectators from the early 1960S, with several articles on negotiations between Britain and the European Economic Community. Plenty of interesting things to read there, for example several 1962-1963 articles on the EEC negotiations, and a June 1962 paper by Robert Conquest on Greece (as part of a series on the Turkey-Greece conflict). Fun fact: the Conquest paper is set on the page opposite a huge advertisement for beer, with the catchy slogan “Beer, it’s lovely!” This issued by the British Brewers’ Society, of course. So some things do change after all – only not the ones that matter.

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