Words, if not history, are repeating themselves in France. Following the French government's dispatch of planes and troops last week to Mali, whose government is besieged by Islamist rebels, a particular phrase -- l'union sacrée -- has been resurrected. Forged nearly a century ago, those two words nevertheless cast light on the future of France's current military intervention.
When President François Hollande announced last Friday that he had ordered the Mali operation, leading politicians quickly hailed his decision. "Sacred union" immediately became the phrase du jour of the French media. The conservative paper Le Figaro welcomed the "sacred union of the political class" -- a sentiment and wording echoed by the centrist Le Parisien and liberal Le Monde. One of the leaders of the main opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), declared that such a union was "not an option, but an absolute necessity and duty for us all." Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, rallied to the government's decision.
This orgy of bonding among inveterate enemies happens to be taking place on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the phrase's birth. The occasion, predictably, was an earlier war -- the war, you may recall, meant to end all wars. On Aug. 3, 1914, President Raymond Poincaré declared that France was going to battle against Germany. "Heroically defended by all her sons," he affirmed, the nation's "sacred union will never be shattered in the face of the enemy."
The phrase lives on, in large measure, because the political, social, and ideological contexts that created it never truly died. Sacred Union 2.0, it turns out, looks a lot like Sacred Union 1.0.
Prior to World War I, France had been deeply divided over the question of national identity. Opposed to the abstract ideals of 1789, nationalist intellectuals like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras identified the nation with la terre et les morts -- the land and the dead. To be French meant belonging to a people shaped over the course of centuries. La patrie -- the motherland -- was the work of generations who had, since time immemorial, lived, worked, and died on French soil. Immigrants -- particularly if they practiced religions other than Christianity and hailed from places other than West Europe -- were fated to remain irredeemably alien. Too new and too different, these uprooted peoples were in effect an invasive species in the French ecosystem.
France was also a house divided over the empire it had acquired during the last decades of the 19th century. Moderate republicans supported France's gathering of great swaths of territory in northern and western Africa, as well as in Asia and the Pacific -- an activity they referred to as France's "civilizing mission." Yet many nationalists denounced this imperial undertaking as misguided. France's true interest, they argued, was in Europe: in particular, winning back Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans. Foreign adventures distracted the nation from its true calling.
Equally divisive was the place of religion in politics and society. Ever since the Revolution, Catholics and republicans wrestled over the nation's soul. Republicans feared the reactionary and obscurantist worldview of the Church, while ardent Catholics were horrified by the Republic's secular ideals and faith in reason. At the end of the 19th century, this battle reached a crescendo with the Dreyfus Affair, the seismic event that pitted the Church against the Republic. Though the Republic carried the day -- a victory climaxing with the official separation of Church and State in 1905 -- this collision nevertheless revitalized the Church and mutual suspicion between the two camps endured.
As a result, when parties across the political spectrum joined in sacred union in 1914 -- Catholic and secularist, monarchist and socialist, union leaders and industrialists -- the impact was lasting. Contemporaries long recalled the moment as if it were a miracle. France has ever since been transfixed by this unique moment, when one and all put aside their differences on behalf of a nation endangered. Poincaré was right: The union never shattered, and France eventually won.