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Who Are ‘The French’?

One should perhaps begin by examining the title of this most appealing book. Graham Robb, the author of much-praised biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Rimbaud, tells us how he decided it was time for him “to explore the country on which [he] was supposed to be an authority.” For the angle of vision of the writers he had studied—of almost all major French writers, indeed—was Parisian; and whatever else Paris is, it is not France in miniature. Thus he got onto (he “rediscovered”) that “miraculous machine” his bicycle and, with a friend, went once or twice a year for several years on a voyage of discovery. This in turn set his mind running on how, over the years from the death of Louis XIV to the outbreak of the First World War, the French themselves discovered France. His journeys became “a complex puzzle in four dimensions.” He wanted to know what he was missing and what he would have seen a century or two before. Hence to 14,000 halcyon miles in the saddle there had to be added—what was more physically grueling—four years in the library.

During his travels a large and confusing question seemed to demand an answer: Who were “the French”? Geographically or politically speaking the answer was plain enough: it was, for instance, the French who, by the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659, extended their borders and began to dominate Europe. But what did the treaty mean at that time, or even two hundred years later, to the rural inhabitants of France? According to a famous report by the Abbé Grégoire, published in the year of the Terror, more than six million French citizens were unable to speak or understand the national language, and another six million could barely conduct a conversation in it. “The official idiom of the French Republic,” writes Robb, “was a minority language.”

Nor had things changed radically by the middle of the next century. France was still a mosaic of tiny pays, each speaking its own patois or dialect. Just how tiny, Robb is at pains to bring home to us. It might be the area within which its own church bell could be heard more distinctly than those of other villages; and on the other bank of the local river people might very likely speak an altogether different dialect and have quite different traditions and manners. Educated visitors found this most baffling; though it is true, patois-speakers themselves were often able to understand and be understood by the speakers of other patois.

If the inhabitants of France were to have asked themselves who they were, the answer would have been simple: they took their sense of identity from one of those aforementioned tiny communities or pays, and with an attachment more powerful, so writes Robb, than any later sense of being French.

The paysans had no flags or written histories, but they expressed their local patriotism in much the same way as nations: by denigrating their neighbors [inventing insulting nicknames for them] and celebrating their own nobility.

The “immortal” French peasant might be rooted to the soil, the backwoods squire, the doctor, the curé, the notary, and well-to-do shopkeeper might share a local patriotism, but there was nothing much to inspire them with pride in the “fatherland.”

Robb divides his book into two parts. In the first part he describes, so he says, “the populations of France, their languages, beliefs and daily lives, their travels and discoveries, and the other creatures [that is to say the animals] with whom they shared the land”; and in the second, “the land is mapped, colonized by rulers and tourists, refashioned politically and physically, and turned into a modern state.” The difference between the two parts, he says, “is the difference between ethnology and history: the world that was always the same and the world that was always changing.”

But actually, as Robb recognizes, to his credit, this is rather misleading. For in practice he is highly resistant to any claim that something in the world has always been the same. “Local tales,” he tells us, “rarely date back more than two or three generations,” and “many of the landscapes that seem typically and eternally French are younger than the Eiffel Tower.” People from the city, he says, found it easy to imagine, when they visited small, lonely places they would never see again, that they were discovering a past that had been miraculously preserved. “But the land, too, like Baudelaire’s Paris, was changing ‘more quickly than a human heart.’” One seems to detect an echo in Robb’s book of a famous passage in Marx and Engels’s German Ideology:

He [Feuerbach] does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one…. The cherry tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.1

In a similar spirit, Robb claims that for French people in the nineteenth century, railways, the extension of education, and sanitation were trivial innovations compared to the recent, but “complete and irreversible,” transformation of their physical world—the biggest intentional change of all being the reclamation of the Landes, a vast wilderness in the southwest:

Less than two centuries ago, most of the Landes was a two-million-acre heath, five days long and three days wide. Almost nothing grew there but gorse, broom, heather, moor grass, helianthemums and lichens. On a clear, dry day, the white line of the Pyrenees could be seen a hundred miles away. In winter, the reflections of clouds sailed over vast stagnant pools of rainwater. With its impermeable layer of sandstone, the Landes was like a flower-pot without a hole, tilted very slightly towards the great barrier of dunes on the Atlantic coast. It took about ten sheep on thirty acres of lande to fertilize a single acre of oily black soil. With a hundred sheep, a family of ten could live like castaways in their low wooden houses.

This, among other things, is a good example of Robb’s precise and evocative prose and the knowledgeable ease with which he can “read” landscape, geologically and morphologically.

In his description of rural France he makes a good deal of use of the colorful terms “tribe” and “tribal”—“a world of ancient tribes and huge vacant spaces,” “distinct autonomous tribes,” etc., and for those of us who are not social anthropologists it is probably wisest not to be pedantic over this. What is a “tribe”? The bare dictionary definition, “a group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor,” does not get us very far, and it is not clear how to go on. (If the tribe were totemistic we might perhaps progress a little further, but in the present context this does not arise.) Villagers, so Robb tells us, often like to lay claim to a remote and distinguished ancestry. But can a tribe really have a history going back to ancient times? Robb, no great believer in the immemorial, would probably not favor the idea, but many of his French villagers are, or at least were, strong for it. In the 1820s a Collibert (they were marsh dwellers and fishermen on the Atlantic coast) told an interviewer, impressively, that the Colliberts were “a separate race” and their origins went back to “the first days of the world”:

When Julius Caesar appeared on the upper reaches of the Dive and the Sèvre, our ancestors, the Agesinates Cambolectri, who were allies of the Pictavi, occupied the territory…which is now known to everyone as the Vendée.

He had, perhaps, been reading Pliny.

Robb devotes several absorbing pages to the Cagots, a mysterious people, found for nine hundred years all over western France, who were treated (no one quite knows why) as pariahs. They were not allowed to sit with the main congregation in church and were given the host on the end of a stick. Certain churches even had a separate entrance for them. They were not allowed to walk barefoot in public or to touch the parapet of a bridge with their bare hands; and in 1741 a Cagot man who was rash enough to cultivate the soil had his feet pierced with red-hot iron spikes. Robb sometimes calls them a “tribe” but sometimes also (and perhaps more aptly) a “caste.” One could ask for a little more technicality here.

What one soon notices is that Robb adores paradox. It comes out in his heterodoxy in regard to French country cooking. “It was from Paris,” he writes, “that many ‘provincial’ dishes reached the provinces.” Most food-conscious people preferred to explore the provinces à la carte, and in the recipe section of Mme Pariset’s Nouveau Manuel complet de la maîtresse de maison (1852), “the vital ingredients were obviously a home in Paris and a maid to go shopping at Les Halles.” Also, country bread was uneatable. In some Alpine districts they only baked once a year, and before eating the stuff you had to smash it with a hammer. Robb is drawing his alarming—and no doubt partly teasing—account of French bread from Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), and what he fails to make clear is that Weber is talking specifically about peasant diet. Brought up on Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, one had pictured the local doctor, lawyer, curé, and prosperous shopkeeper as tucking into magnificent cuisine bourgeoise, but perhaps that is wrong. But at least they would hardly have put up with petrified or moldy bread.

It appears to be Robb’s conviction (and by no means an absurd one) that the basic principle of human existence is what we may call the “turnstile effect,” i.e., that in life, what one hand gives us the other takes away. It comes out in his excellent handling of a term which, so far as I know, has never been given a technical definition: I mean “tourism.” “It was only after a century of foreign tourists,” he writes, “that large numbers of French men and women began to discover France for themselves.” This, though bold, is not meant cynically, and in a way it forms the argumentative backbone of his book. For he has grasped the point that tourism is shot through and through with paradoxes. Let me list one or two more. We have greatly enjoyed our own tourism, but we would cheerfully do away with all other tourists. Modern travel-writers (one thinks of Bruce Chatwin) struggle desperately to find reasons why they should not be thought to be writing for tourists. Again, the Sunday supplements (this is a prize paradox) regularly carry advertisements for package tours to “unspoiled” regions.

Robb tells us about the hamlet-nation of Goust, poised on a high rocky platform in the Pyrenees: “the smallest undeclared nation in Europe,” consisting of twelve granite houses and about seventy occupants. It had been quite well known about by the outside world since at least the fifteenth century but was more or less completely inaccessible to strangers till 1850, when a road was dynamited through the gorge below. Thereafter it became “a picturesque excursion for a few bored invalids and travel writers,” and thus tourism saved it from the oblivion that overtook hundreds of other such tiny pays. “Spectacular sites” like Goust, says Robb, “came to play a vital role in the creation of a French national identity”: they became the “national parks and reservations of the educated imagination.” But they did so, he says, on the basis of a misunderstanding; for the truth is, Goust would have been in many respects a normal-enough community in eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century France.

I am not sure, though, that I fully understand Robb’s use of the terms “identity” and “national identity.” When picture postcards came into fashion in the later 1880s, he says, photographers came from the cities to persuade the locals to act out “typical activities,” and women to put on their grandmothers’ ancient costumes. But evidently what a tourist got from the uniqueness and oddity of regional costumes was the sense of some intangible individuality—deep in the French psyche maybe, but quite alien to a modern viewer. It would have been identity as almost the opposite of typicality. A shared identity would have been a different matter. How did a society that was “recognizably French” survive and eventually prosper, asks Robb—if indeed it did? It is hard to imagine how, in a country politically speaking so chronically disunited. In fact, he says, the question will never be answered till historians are willing “to sacrifice the grand view from Paris for the humbler horizons of their native town or village”:

A more convincing definition of French identity might be found by settling in a French town or village when it comes to life again in the spring, watching the comings and goings of the people and listening to their conversations.

But Robb has already, and eloquently, evoked for us the extraordinary diversity and isolation of the French pays, as they still were in the nineteenth century. This isolation has by today disappeared, and with it, presumably, have the innumerable separate identities. Thus Robb has to slide, unobtrusively, toward a different argument: that for France isolation had been a good thing. The extreme fragmentation of the land was also its “unifying feature” and, on occasion, its “salvation.” In times of crisis it was a precious protection against civic unrest and the commandeering activities of military commissioners. Very true, no doubt; but it is has nothing to do with “identity.”

Robb, as we saw earlier, set off to “discover” rural France for himself out of a wish not to be blinkered forever by Paris. He hankered after a book “in which ‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals.” But this should remind us that, as seen from Paris, France did not need to wait for mapmakers or railways or tourists to acquire a sense of “national identity.” It had already long possessed a highly prestigious one in the shape of French literature. I think it is a pity that The Oxford Companion to French Literature has been renamed The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. For “French literature” was, for four centuries or more, a very real and meaningful concept. It was what Racine, Molière, and La Rochefoucauld, Rousseau and Voltaire, Balzac, Michelet, Flaubert, and Baudelaire consciously thought of themselves as contributing to; and its home, unmistakably—Robb would not disagree—was Paris. This should prepare us to realize that, if the French ever acquired a sense of shared identity and learned to feel a tender love for France, it was no thanks to the morose, tight-fisted, and rebarbative denizens of its rural pays; it was the work of Paris.

Robb makes this very clear. The development was set in motion by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War, and it became a leading concern of the government of the Third Republic. There took place, in Robb’s words, “a massive campaign of national self-promotion.” Newspapers and magazines urged their readers to visit the unknown parts of France and the “lost provinces.” Parts of the country were given new names to make them sound more attractive (the coast of Provence became the Côte d’Azur, Brittany’s the Côte Émeraude, etc.). Tourist offices persuaded rival villages to work together, laid out signposted walks, and organized colonies de vacances (holiday colonies) for schoolchildren. A Universal Exhibition, on a vast scale, was staged in 1889 to celebrate the centenary of the Revolution. It registered over thirty million visits and left as its monument the Eiffel Tower.

Meanwhile schools were instructed to do all they could, in the name of national unity, to extirpate patois. This provoked much bitterness and various regional independence movements—on which Robb comments, not unfairly, that the movements themselves were a product of the Third Republic’s education system. “No separatist was ever monolingual.”

Robb’s fanatical enthusiasm for that “miraculous machine” the bicycle is very sympathetic. “It was,” he says,

now possible to travel long distances at an invigorating speed, with the sort of panoramic view over the hedgerows previously enjoyed only by travellers perched on the roof of the diligence.

No one is going to gainsay this. Not only was the bicycle a marvelous fillip to the imagination, it transformed everyday life. Farm workers, urban commuters, postmen (think of the “modernizing” postman hero of Jacques Tati’s Jour de fête from 1949), village priests, gendarmes, and the French army all took to the bicycle. Robb even enthuses over the grimly competitive Tour de France, though one cannot imagine a competitor in it, even for a second, raising his eyes to the glories of undiscovered France. (It would appear, too, that in the early days of the Tour, “all along the route, nails and broken bottles were strewn on the road, drinks were spiked, frames were sawn through and hubs quietly unscrewed at night”—proving, as Robb has to admit, that “the land of a thousand little pays was still alive.”)

But the trouble is, Robb’s enthusiasm comes twinned with an implacable vendetta against railways. The railway, he wants to persuade us, blurs the landscape; it reduces the inhabitants to a few disconnected faces glimpsed on a platform, or vague figures in a field. “Never before had it been possible to cross the country in such a state of blissless ignorance.” Far from opening up France, the railway closed large parts of it off; it presided over “the gradual disappearance of France.” This is extreme language; and surely rather unrealistic in picturing these two kinds of transport as rivals? As Robb himself admits, the railways treated cyclists very generously, making it easy, and remarkably cheap, for cyclists to hoist their machines onto a train.

Let us suppose that, before the days of the automobile, one wanted, for aesthetic reasons, to visit a number of French cathedrals. What would be more natural than to do it by train? Again how else, except by train, would a French person, after 1871, have obeyed the injunction to visit the unknown parts of France or the lost provinces? As for the blurring effect of rail travel on the landscape, it turned out, oddly, that the automobile was in this respect far worse.2

Discovering” France acquires a number of different senses in this book. Robb is depicting his discovering France for himself, on the bicycle saddle and in the library. He also describes, and more extensively, the discovering of France by the French, and in the course of it—putatively, anyway—the finding of a French “identity.” He depicts (another kind of discovery) the emergence of the peasant from the secrecy of the pays. Rural France in the earlier nineteenth century was a place of hiding, not only from tax collectors but from other unwelcome intruders. Robb quotes a striking passage from Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize (1874), about the Breton forests:

Nothing could be more secret, silent and savage than those inextricable entanglements of thorns and branches…. Yet if those trees could have been felled at a single blow, as if by a flash of lightning, there would have stood revealed in those shades a swarming mass of men.

He goes on to explore what we may call the “tourist paradox,” i.e., the self-defeating effect that “discovery” can have. Thus, apropos of Alain-Fournier’s nostalgic novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), he speaks of “the rapid disappearance of undiscovered France, and the desire to believe that it still existed.”

But on top of all this he relates a glorious discovery. For it was only in 1906 that any appreciable number of people became aware that, in the pre-Alps of Castellane sixty miles to the north-east of Marseille, there lay hidden “the most spectacular geographical feature in France,” the Verdon Gorges. These form a canyon two thousand feet deep—rivaling the Grand Canyon in Arizona—but the entrance was then so narrow as to be almost invisible, and hitherto it had only been known to a few woodcutters, who would boldly let themselves down its side to cut gnarled stumps of boxwood, used for making boules.3

Its first explorer, or at any rate the first to navigate (and photograph) the furious stream that runs along its bottom, was a certain Édouard-Alfred Martel, a master explorer of the subterranean world. He was the discoverer of more than two hundred caverns, giving them Jules Verne–style names and writing dozens of once-popular books about them. Martel was evidently a man after Robb’s own heart:

He hung from spinning rope ladders, stumbled over rock falls with a canoe on his head and a candle clenched between his teeth, and stood shivering in vast, iridescent caverns wearing a wool suit, a bowler hat and boots with holes to let the water out.

What a lovely sentence! How well Robb writes.

  1. 1

    The Marx–Engels Reader, second edition, edited by Robert C. Tucker (Norton, 1978), p. 170.

  2. 2

    E.M. Forster, a dedicated country walker and experienced rail traveler, pinpointed this neatly in Chapter 23 of Howards End (1910):

    A motor-drive, a form of felicity detested by Margaret, awaited her….

    The motor’s come to stay,” he [Henry Wilcox, her husband-to-be] answered. “One must get about. There’s a pretty church—oh, you aren’t sharp enough. Well, look out, if the road worries you—right outward at the scenery.”

    She looked at the scenery. It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.

  3. 3

    The appearance of the canyon has been changed more recently by the building of hydroelectric dams.

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