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,…

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