The history of French liberalism is undergoing a renaissance. For much of the twentieth century, it was viewed with disdain, as insufficiently “engaged,” as too tentative in its demands for social reform, as overly optimistic concerning the progress of reason and science. Scholarship during the past three decades has challenged these views, though it is notable that there is still, to my knowledge, no general history of French liberalism that goes past the consolidation of the Third Republic in the late 1870s. Part of the ongoing reassessment has been the consequence of the decline of revolutionary illusions and of marxisant frameworks of analysis following 1968, reinforced by the more general decline of the left following the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. Another element contributing to this reassessment has been the emergence of more nuanced definitions of “liberalism,” ones that are not limited to legal (civil liberties), political (constitutionalism), and/or economic (free trade) dimensions. Equally important, scholars are insisting, are conceptions of science, of religion, of the role of the state, of solidarity, of sociability, of moeurs, of identity, of gender, of the self.
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