“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.
Tragic though it is, nothing demonstrates the importance of this book like the devastation of Notre Dame which has now become a part of the narrative of “France”. The all-consuming fire that Gerson references is the polarisation of ideologies and the rise of extremism in France. This book was sparked by the events of 2015 at Charlie Hebdo and asks questions about what it is to be French in a multicultural society, what that means in a world context, and what an understanding of the past can bring to the modern debate on human affairs. How can thinking about the past in new ways encourage us to develop a more inclusive understanding of our world? Surely the most important cathedral in France burning down is not the only thing that unites the French in these riven times?
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 important to “France”. Similarly, the conflagration of April 16th sparked a fellow feeling around the world, an empathy with the French: je suis francais? Intrinsically we understand Notre Dame is in some way France. We all feel a common despair and a desire to see the cathedral restored to its full glory. We rejoice in the announcement of President Macron that the rebuilding will be a national priority. But why is the cathedral such an integral part of our understanding of “France”? Why is Notre Dame considered important and significant, why is the fire a nationally significant event, while also having a global significance?
Of course, the fire occurred after France in the World was published, but this book is all about asking questions, new events and current affairs slip into the model. What is it that the French think they share that fosters a common feeling? And, in a global context, 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 despite outpourings of grief: Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan. Narratives derived from these events are closed. Ministers call for a return to French “values” and traditional education. Responses tend to come from a skewed perception of history or at least a limited perspective. This excludes so many people; groups, cultural backgrounds, valid opinions, and 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 and that if we do not all engage more with different narratives, different perspectives the future is bleak.
Far from the days when historians deliberately made academic works obtuse and elitist, this generation of historians want to engage in dialogue with the public on what history can contribute to our understanding of the world, of France. These essays are enlightening and entertaining, full of verve and energy. They are short, engaging and each poses a question. They are also incredibly readable. Whereas Simenon struck out purple prose from his crime novels, these historians strike jargon from their essays. Gone are the kind of words that actually obscure meaning rather than explain. These are academics but their approach is egalitarian.
The relationship between the French public and their intellectuals is a complex symbiosis that may even be unique in the world. In a tradition that dates back to the age of Diderot and Voltaire, was promoted by the revolution of 1789 and has since seen Zola, Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir among their number, intellectuals in France have been public figures. The great thinkers over more than two centuries have engaged in public debate, in a way not seen across the rest of the continent. It’s a relationship that has dwindled in recent times, (we will get to that). Shlomo Sands in The End of the French Intellectual (2018) bemoans the absence of intellectual debate in modern France. Aware of the breach in the historic bond between intellectuals and the public one of the aims of this history is to redress that growing gap, to enable the historian to contribute again. To raise the debate from polar opposites to genuine dialogue. For the historians here this is a matter of engaging with the public, offering up their knowledge of the past as a way of examining the present. They make no greater claim than that this volume is a starting point for a debate. Not every essay here hits the mark but they do bring different perspectives.
We have come to use the word “definitive” to describe epic histories, but even the term comprehensive is a misstatement. How could 800 pages adequately cover thousands of years and millions of stories? With the best of wills completeness is unattainable but it is also pointless. That is an admission the editors of this volume readily acknowledged. This forthright and imaginative history of France is, as I said, only intended to inform a debate, opens door to discussion on how knowledge the past can benefit the present and the future. “What use is history?” These historians are looking at the past from many perspectives and eschewing traditional approaches to breathe new life into history. What you will read here isn’t simply linear and it isn’t based on the concept of borders nor any accepted model (the majority perception, for example). You may disagree but you will engage.
Taught history used to mean political history, then the field of socio-economics were added, mostly narratives focused on national boundaries. More recently we’ve had themed history that follows a particular topic. All the time assumptions were made about what constituted a nation’s story from a given perspective, not necessarily one we are conscious of, but one that colours our understanding of the past – and may include self-justifications. These need to be challenged because it is all about perception.
What is history? To be clear history is not the past but our perception of the past, France in the World tries to get us to see that. The historians here want us to consider our understanding in this context. Whatever it is we don’t own the past but we own our perceptions of what has past – an inbuilt bias. So, the popularity of history is a double-edged sword and things have been getting worse in recent years. What are we seeing of the past? Our perception of history comes not just from academic history, but also the television, journalism, commentary, and films and novels. Without trying to pervert things there is bias, a lack of concern for accuracy but there is also manipulation, misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The sound bite and social media have given a platform to right-wing commentators and uneducated voices that have soured debate, entrenched opinions and over-simplified issues. This is feeding into Judeophobia, Islamophobia and a general fear and hatred of immigration. This book says look again, what is France? In the light of Charlie Hebdo politicians have suggested a return to some mythical common national identity based on values, borders, dominant institutions and attitudes that leads to racism and isolationism. The historians here suggest that France is an ever changing concept, a dynamic force even if people don’t want to see that. It’s has a symbiotic relationship with the wider world that also defines it.
France in the World challenges some of the strict definitions of history. How is history defined here? It used to be defined as the study of the documented past. The definition here is much wider, for a start it encompasses archaeology, geology and a multitude of ways of examining evidence of the past previously excluded. First the book expands historical time, beginning at the Chauver Cave, 34,000 BCE, with the Cro-Magnon wall paintings. François Bon asks questions about this universal origin point and how that is connected to our understanding of the beginning of human kind and how relevant that is to the French nation today. This is an era traditionally the preserve of archaeology, predating traditional concepts of history. From here we can see the origins of settled groups, agriculture, building, trading, and interacting, long before nationhood.
The real beauty of history is its scope; politics, economics, culture, sociology, philosophy and psychology, science, et al. Clearly the greater the scope of the survey the greater the potential for deeper understanding, an understanding of one discipline cannot result in an understanding of the past per se. That is why this history asks us to consider a lot of non-traditional subjects, they are all part of the picture. If we take national boundaries at their face value this limits our potential understanding too.
This survey, which will annoy many historians for its apparently random approach, seeks to offer a number of starting points for debate, a question is posed by each essay, answers not necessarily given but a debate opened (some more important than others). Here is the key point, this survey attempts to see the history of France from a philosophical perspective. France not as a physical entity so much as psychological creation of the modern mind. It is what it is perceived to be in the mind. By that I mean seeking to see what history can tell us about how the national psyche developed. To see France as a philosophical concept, thinking, rather than a border based patch of land. It’s a much more nebulous but enriching concept, it’s also explains why this book is a question and not an answer. Potentially this is a more inclusive model of history that can be open to different cultural understanding, a bigger picture.
One feature of the book despite the time line, which is spaced (not all years are covered), is the index which allows the reader to explore specific topics. For example, the Arab Policy (of France) recurs in five essays from 1798 to 2015. This may be a useful tool for the reader although big as it is I think this history can be tackled all of a piece.
Although this isn’t the first time that some of these radical ways of seeing history have been used the scope and ambition of this book is impressive. More histories like this would change the way we see nations and their pasts. France in the World is accessible and open to any reader with a curiosity about the way we see history. This is not an interpretation of history or a rebuttal but a mix that challenges accepted norms by opening a dialogue.
As I have said, many historians will also dislike the structure of this history intensely because although it is linear it’s also episodic (anathema to the historian). Personally, I’m not bothered by this because even a complete history only touches the surface. Any history that simply focused on the important dates would skew the picture back towards a standard interpretation of history. Probably giving added weight to the political over everything else. Does this mean some things are missed – yes, absolutely. But it is not intended to be academic in that sense. The editor in chief Patrick Boucheron admits this is the beginning of a debate not a definitive end game. So there are gaps: We have the coronation of Bonaparte but not his death, the revolutions of 1848 but not 1830, no victory of 1945 or Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (Battle of Sedan). This doesn’t mean they don’t appear in the narrative, 1871 is about the Paris commune which follows Sedan and refers to the war a year earlier. The election of Francois Mitterrand in 1981 isn’t here (that was also the year the death penalty was abolished), but 1983 covers Mitterrand’s economic reforms and the rise of globalisation in French policy. In all, there are 146 dates and no footnotes.
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 seem 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 thinking about, 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. 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’s The Second Sex, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Maastricht. One essay on 1973, Maud Chirio, deals with the French reaction to the overthrow of Allende and Chile, illuminating an empathy in France for the revolution (it’s a fascinating insight).
More than ever, understanding the past rather than reinforcing perceptions matters in combating extremism in the face of economic crisis, religious and ethnic turmoil. History is more popular than ever, ancestry, internet, film and television, fiction, and popular history, but this survey emphasises the difficulty in seeing the difference between fact and fiction and that is why these historians want to engage in debate. Particularly in the light of fake news and a sustained attack on truth and knowledge. If people are ready with their own narratives and have no ability to see any value in the other side of the issue we need to change. Boucheron argues that the “Roman National” (national story) pits identity against progressive ideologies, against Islam, feminism and difference.
France in the World is about unmooring political myths, ideas of what “France” means, and the reluctance to change. The writer Jean-Claude Izzo was always clear in his writing that he was Mediterranean as much as he was French, it’s a part of the world with its own character, inside concepts of France but also outside.
There are two criticisms of the book that bare 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.
“Nothing about France preordained or designed.”
Paul Burke 5/5
France in the World edited by Patrick Boucheron
Other Press 9781590519417 pbk Apr 2019