A Buffet of French History

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Marine Le Pen delivering a speech in front of a poster of Joan of Arc during the National Front’s May Day rally, Paris, May 2014

One of the bombs dropped during the current presidential campaign in France is Histoire mondiale de la France, an eight-hundred-page tome surveying 40,000 years of French history. A collaborative work written by 122 academics and directed by Patrick Boucheron, a distinguished medievalist at the Collège de France, it hardly seemed destined for the best-seller lists when it was published in January. But the French have snapped it up: 70,000 copies have been sold as of mid-March and sales are still going strong. After several decades of somnolence, academic history is a hit.

Although the book owes much of its success to the talent of its authors, its publication was timed perfectly to make a splash during the election campaign. History has always been a battleground in France. As Éric Zemmour, a right-wing journalist and historian, remarked in an angry review in Le Figaro, “History is war. Not just the history of war but the war of history.” He went on to condemn Histoire mondiale de la France as an attack on the identity of France and an attempt to destroy the “national narrative” (“roman national”) at the heart of what it means to be French.

Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative philosopher and member of the Académie française, damned the book in an equally savage review: “The authors of Histoire mondiale de la France are the gravediggers of the great French heritage.” Other commentators on the right have echoed the same theme. Michael Jeaubelaux, a blogger who supports the conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, wrote: “When the Collège de France buries France and the French, it is urgent for the people to seize power against those who are paid to destroy our country, its history, its heritage, its culture!”

Why such outrage? In choosing a president, the French will be voting, at least in part, for an interpretation of French history. When Fillon launched his campaign last August, he proclaimed that he would change the way history is taught in primary schools: “If I am elected president of the Republic, I will ask three academics to seek the best advice in order to rewrite history programs around the idea of a national story [récit national].” He described his view of France’s past as “a history made of men and women, of symbols, of places, of monuments, of events that derive their meaning and significance from the progressive construction of France’s distinct civilization.”

To the right of Fillon, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, has insisted on the need to “relearn the history of France—all the history of France, the most positive, the most prestigious—so that each Frenchman should be conscious of the past and proud of it.” In practice, she explained, that would mean eliminating references at the primary-school level to World War II and colonialism.

Histoire mondiale de la France does not mention current politics, but it does not need to. Its publication at the height of the presidential campaign was seen by the right as a provocation, and the attacks on it made it something of a succès de scandale. (Before his review appeared in Le Figaro, Finkielkraut declaimed against it at a session of the Académie française.) Journals on the left, including Libération and Le Monde, reviewed it positively. They welcomed it as an effort by academic historians to reach the general public with a view of French history that would take into account contemporary debate about the effects of globalization.

What makes Histoire mondiale de la France “global” in contrast to other histories is its emphasis on the non-French elements that have always saturated French life and that come from all over the world. There are entries, for instance, on the first translation of the Koran into Latin in 1143 under Pierre le Vénérable; the acquisition of the Catalan Atlas—an immense illuminated map of the world produced by a Jewish Majorcan cartographer—by the royal library of Charles V in 1380; and the reception of the opulent Persian embassy to Louis XIV at Versailles in 1715. The book rejects the notion of a French identity that has existed from the beginning—a beginning associated with the cliché “our ancestors the Gauls”—and that has been refined over the centuries to constitute a distinct and particularly rich civilization.

“Identity” is a favorite term on the conservative side of French politics. Nicolas Sarkozy created a Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment soon after his election as president in 2007. When politicians invoke “national identity” in the presidential campaign today, they play on fears about Islamic terrorists, immigration, and foreign influences in general—even, in the case of Marine Le Pen, the fear that France’s essential Frenchness will be destroyed by participation in the European Union.

Aside from its importance as a symptom of current political discourse, Histoire mondiale de la France deserves to be considered in its own right as a new attempt to change how French history is understood. Although written by academic authors and full of esoteric details, it is aimed at the general public. It consists of 146 chapters, each four to five pages long and each corresponding to a year. They succeed one another in chronological order, but they do not interconnect in a way that creates a narrative. In fact, there is no general argument. The transnational themes overlap and intersect everywhere, but it is up to the reader to bring them together into a whole.

Instead of plowing through the eight hundred pages from beginning to end, readers would be well advised to open the book anywhere and sample the contents, which are full of surprises. For example, the chapter on Chanel No. 5—an unlikely subject for a global history—begins with the laboratory of Gabrielle Chanel in 1921 and leads to Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and American popular culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. The chapter on Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon explains that the painting was originally meant to be The Bordello of Avignon and that, after revolutionizing art, it was used as an image on postage stamps in Senegal.

To best be appreciated, the book should be approached as if it were a wine tasting. It should be sampled in small doses so that the reader can savor different flavors of the past. Each chapter has been prepared by an academic expert; each indicates its provenance by references to the most up-to-date scholarship. Yet there are no footnotes or bibliography, and the chapters are written in a way that can be enjoyed by anyone with only a superficial knowledge of French history. Far from indulging in academic jargon, the authors convey enthusiasm for their subjects. Most of them are young. In fact, Histoire mondiale de la France marks the arrival of a new generation of historians, full of energy and élan.

Suppose, for example, that in skimming the table of contents your eye lights on “The Sicilian Vespers.” Although you may know Verdi’s opera, you probably won’t have much information about what happened in Palermo on March 30, 1282. You turn to the chapter—by the medievalist Florian Mazel—and soon become absorbed in a short but dense account of a fight between some Sicilian noblemen and French officers in the service of Charles d’Anjou, king of Naples and Sicily and the youngest son of Louis VIII of France. As the violence spreads, the French in Palermo are massacred by the local rebels, and then all the French are driven out of Sicily. Far from being operatic, the conflict turns into a power struggle between the Capetian kings of France—supported by the pope—and the Hohenstaufen rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, allied with Aragon. The Capetians ultimately fail in an extraordinarily ambitious foreign policy—not only to conquer Italy but to create “a vast Mediterranean empire” and even to become kings of Jerusalem after conquering Constantinople.

This French ambition, as the essay explains, has a long history. It inspired the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII in 1494, and it was still alive during the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610). According to one story, Henry bragged to the Spanish ambassador that he could conquer Italy in a day: “I will go to mass in Milan, have my midday meal in Rome, and dine in Naples.” “Sire,” replied the ambassador, “at that rate, Your Majesty might end up the same day at Vespers in Sicily.” An incident, a long-term geopolitical struggle, and an amusing anecdote come together in four lively pages.

Having sampled various episodes, the reader can follow themes by using a guide at the end of the book entitled “Paths Through the Bush” (“Parcours buissonniers”). It traces subjects such as absolutism, colonialism, and women through the most pertinent chapters. Here, too, are surprises. For example, one thematic path takes its title, “luxe, calme, et volupté,” from a poem by Baudelaire. The itinerary begins with a chapter on archaeological digs, which suggest that in prehistoric days there existed a “Europe of jade” in the West as opposed to a “Europe of copper and gold” in the East. Then it leads the reader to a chapter on the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, to the Palace Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and finally to Chanel No. 5. Curiously, Baudelaire is never mentioned—nor is Racine, Molière, Hugo, or Proust. To Finkielkraut, a history of France without great writers is an outrage to France’s national identity.

Yet Histoire mondiale de la France was not intended to be a treatise full of great men and grand events. The unpredictable selection of subjects, the unlikely linking of themes, and the jumping about in time should not be taken too seriously. In an interview, Patrick Boucheron explained that the book was conceived in a light-hearted spirit and that his invitation to the authors was, “Let’s have fun” (“Amusons-nous”). It was also meant to be provocative, not only in what it highlights but also in what it eliminates. And in a more serious vein, it can be understood as an encyclopedia, arranged in chronological rather than alphabetical order. It presents a series of years on which essays are hung, one after another, for consultation by the curious but without any concern for the relations among them.

Does this organization mean that the new generation of historians has returned to the “event history” (histoire événémentielle) scorned by their ancestors, the first generation of the Annales school—that is, historians like Fernand Braudel, who traced the play of economic, demographic, and other structures over long periods of time? Histoire mondiale de la France makes no mention of long-term trends. Yet in hooking essays onto events, it forces the reader to see the past from a different perspective, one that is not merely global but also connected with current issues.

One issue is ecological. Although the book does not treat climate change as a current political problem, it refers to earlier environmental crises that call the present to mind. A chapter on 1816, a “year without a summer,” describes how so many sulphuric particles were ejected into the atmosphere by the eruption of the Tambora volcano near Java that solar energy was blocked around the world. This caused a cooling of the climate and crop failures that led to the last subsistence crisis in European history.

Several chapters take up the theme of immigration, stressing the role of France as a land of welcome (“terre d’accueil”), especially to the poor of Africa, and a land of asylum (“terre d’asile”) for political refugees, notably in the case of “that other September 11” in 1973, when the Allende government in Chile was overthrown by a military coup. While Chile succumbed to a brutal dictatorship, France accepted 10,000 Chilean refugees. No reader can fail to recognize the reference to the refugee crisis today, although it remains implicit.

By celebrating a France open to the rest of the world, Histoire mondiale de la France challenges the nationalist notion, evoked constantly by the right during the presidential campaign, of a France that was French from the beginning. In place of “our ancestors the Gauls,” it begins with “the Cro-Magnon Man,” the fossilized skeleton once thought to be the first example of Homo sapiens, discovered under an embankment in Cro-Magnon (in Dordogne) in 1868, and it emphasizes the mixing of genetic and ethnic elements from everywhere in the world that continued for the next 36,000 years.

It also dispatches with the mythology surrounding some dates sacred to the right. The most famous, Charles Martel’s supposed victory at Poitiers over a Muslim invasion in 732, was taken up by the National Front as a rallying cry in the election of 2002: “Martel 732, Le Pen 2002!” In accordance with recent scholarship, Histoire mondiale de la France notes that a skirmish of some kind occurred, but not at Poitiers and probably not in 732.

In correcting a nationalist-essentialist version of French history, however, the new version strings out dates in a way that also could pose problems for a leftist version. The 1940s are represented by four essays, each attached to a year. The first mentions in passing (one clause in the opening sentence) France’s defeat in the spring of 1940 in order to focus on Charles de Gaulle’s attempt to recreate a French state with a territorial base, which began far from France, in Brazzaville, the Congo. “Rethink France from Africa” is the title of this entry. The second essay discusses the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux in 1940. The third describes anti-Semitism and the mass arrests of Jews, who were confined in the Vélodrome d’Hiver on July 16–17, 1942, before being dispatched to extermination camps. The fourth celebrates the first Cannes film festival in 1946 as an event that reestablished France’s role as “the fatherland of the arts.” A strange way to leap over the darkest years in French history. One would not have to invoke Foucault in order to question the epistemological gaps between the chapters strung so incongruously along this timeline.

Still, Histoire mondiale de la France does not pretend to cover French history but rather to illuminate moments in it with well-informed and well-written essays. Having played its part in the presidential election, it probably will continue to be consulted for information and amusement—or perhaps simply for dégustations on coffee tables.