Review by Paul Burke
Publisher: Gallic Press 19th August 2021
ISBN 9781913547011 PB
“A century ago, after World War One, the writer Paul Valéry noted that modern civilizations were mortal after all… We had forgotten this, but not anymore. We watch Notre Dame burn and, though we know that cathedrals have burned and been rebuilt over the course of history, we feel something deeper, the premonition that some fires leave nothing standing behind them.” Stéphane Gerson.
The Notre Dame fire is now part of the narrative of “France”. A rare moment of unity for the nation but surely the devastation of the iconic cathedral cannot be the only thing that brings the French together in these riven times? This history attempts to interrogate the past to discover what has brought the nation to this age of polarisation and extremism and what hope there is for the future. The tragic events at Charlie Hebdo in 2015 were a part of the inspiration for this work. Does re-envisioning history lead to a better understanding of the present? What does it mean to be French in a multicultural society, what does that means in a global context? What can an inclusive history bring to the modern debate on human affairs; politics, culture and economics.
The calamitous fire at Notre Dame has led to an outpouring of grief across France and yet many millions of French people will never have been to the cathedral, they are not religious, they have no interest in architecture or institutions. Yet they have some sense of why this building is “France”. Similarly, the conflagration sparked empathy around the world: je suis francais? Intrinsically we understand something fundamental about the building. We all desire to see the cathedral restored to its full glory. But why is the cathedral an integral part of our understanding of “France”? Why is Notre Dame considered important and significant, why is the fire a national event with global significance?
The fire occurred after France in the World was first published, but the test of this book is in new events and current affairs fitting the model. What do the French share that fosters a common feeling? And, what does the wider world think the French share? This is the debate that this book asks us to engage in. Stéphane Gerson, in the preface to this English language edition, states that: “This is an urgent book.” Sadly the picture this books paints of modern France is a bleak one. The events that have sparked this debate on national identity are polarising. Narratives derived from, for example, Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan are closed minded. Ministers call for a return to French “values” and traditional education. Responses come from skewed or limited perceptions of history. This excludes so many people; groups, cultural backgrounds, valid opinions, and the idea of dialogue. Consequently, the definition of France today in the global environment is too narrow and has been too readily accepted. The authors here see debate in society vanishing, if we do not all engage more with different narratives, different perspectives, the future is bleak.
This scholarly work is not obtuse or elitist seeking to engage with the public on what history can contribute to our understanding of modern France. These essays are enlightening but also entertaining, full of verve and energy. They are short, engaging and each poses a different question.
The essays are egalitarian, there is no weighting for specific events, and the authors chose their own subject for each year. So Coco Chanel is the subject of 1921, she gets as much coverage as political events in other years, (some historians might bristle again). Cannes is the focus of 1946 not France’s recognition of Vietnam by a treaty with Ho Chi Minh or Syrian independence, the beginning of the Fourth Republic or Martinique, Reunion, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana becoming overseas departments. This reminds me of the Nocilla Group of writers in Spain experimenting with the concept that all influences, all things in life have equal weight and therefore are as important in their novels as each other. It may seen heretical, (and slightly flippant), but from an historical point of view who is to say that Chanel influence is less important than Ho Chi Minh? More people around the world will recognise Chanel perfume and the little black dress than know who Hi Chi Minh was. As history is perception this is worth discussing. So the book covers disease, fashion, penal colonies, canals, freedoms, wars, and engineering feats. Are all plains equally revealing? No, but they have a right to be heard.
So Charles Aznavour receives more mentions than Levi-Strauss and there are no mentions of Lacon but we have the Curies and science, Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Maastricht. One essay on 1973, Maud Chirio, deals with the French reaction to the overthrow of Allende in Chile, illuminating an empathy in France for revolutionary movements, (it’s a fascinating insight).
There are two criticisms of the book that bear scrutiny: less than a fifth of the contributors are female and it is Paris-centric, the majority of the author’s come from the metropolis. Perhaps more historians from the overseas departments could have been asked to contribute, I don’t know the practicalities of this. This is something that could be worked on as this is surely the beginning and not the end. Overall this is a magnificent history, an eye opener that will make you rethink what you know of French history. More like this we really need.