What it means to be French
One of the most influential evocations of modern French nationhood was offered by the historian and philologist Ernest Renan in a lecture in 1882. In contrast with Germanic conceptions, which were grounded in ethnic features such as race and religion, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? defined the French idea of the nation as an ethical principle, based on shared sacrifices, common memories and erasures, and a collective will to accomplish great things together. The nation, in his celebrated and oft-quoted expression, was “a daily plebiscite”.
Subscribe to the weekly TLS newsletter
This image captured the prevailing notion of Frenchness succinctly. Despite its homage to classic Rousseauist concepts of the general will and popular sovereignty, and to the universalism of the 1789 French Revolution, it was essentially a state-driven vision; its secular and Eurocentric qualities also fitted neatly with the Third Republic’s ideal of citizenship, which excluded France’s colonial subjects from full membership of the political community. Moreover, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? played into established representations of France as a “rational” nation, whose roots lay in René Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum”. This Cartesianism was a matter of substance, but also style: “what is not clear” affirmed the writer Rivarol sweepingly in his De l’universalité de la langue française (1784) “is not French”. Hence the French fondness for abstract notions, as the essayist Emile de Montégut observed: “there is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, and whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies”. Seen as typically Gallic, too, was a questioning and adversarial tendency: as Fernand Giraudeau put it in Nos moeurs politiques (1868): “we are French, therefore we are born to oppose”.
Indeed, Renan’s ideal remained pivotal because definitions of the nation in modern France were always contested, and his scheme was elastic enough to incorporate contrasting senses of what it meant to be French. In particular, his approach could accommodate different historical genealogies: the republican, which dated the unification of the nation to the age of Enlightenment; the monarchical, which stressed France’s Catholic and absolutist heritages; and the imperial, which ultimately traced Frenchness back to Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls; in his History of Julius Caesar (1865), Napoleon III asserted that Roman armies had given French civilization its “institutions, its customs, and its language”. The “timeless” French myth of nos ancêtres les Gaulois was thus a modern invention. The weight of the past in shaping French identity also accounted for the central role of historians in intellectual life, from François Guizot and Ernest Lavisse to Fernand Braudel more recently. Reflecting on the characteristics of France in his Identity of France (1986), Braudel observed that the nation had come into being through an incremental process: Frenchness was “a residue, an amalgam, a thing of additions and mixtures”. It recognized itself in “a thousand touchstones, beliefs, ways of speech, excuses, in an unbounded subconscious, in the flowing together of many obscure currents, in a shared ideology, shared myths, shared fantasies”.
Perhaps the most enduring of these fantasies was the myth of France as the grande nation, with a vocation to serve as a guide to humanity, as much through its effective leadership as its cultural and scientific creativity. This sense of exemplarity was shared by conservatives and progressives alike. The reactionary royalist Joseph de Maistre asserted that France had survived the Revolution only because she was destined by Providence for a mission of universal salvation, while the republican thinker Edgar Quinet noted that France’s destiny was to “consume herself for the glory of the world, for others as much as for herself, for an ideal which is yet to be attained of humanity and world civilization”. The only missing element to this self-adulation was modernity itself, and it was supplied in magnificently hyperbolic fashion by Renan again, who claimed that all its great principles (the abolition of slavery, the rights of man, equality, and freedom) had “been first spoken in French, coined in French, and made their worldly appearance in French”.
Yet this bombastic idea of French greatness was partly a cover – a classic Gallic paradox – for a certain fragility, which notably surfaced in intellectual representations of the nation’s principal rivals. America was contemptuously despatched in Talleyrand’s formula: “thirty two religions and only one dish”. Speaking at a time when Germany was divided into two states, the writer François Mauriac was more subtle, but no less dismissive, when he noted: “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them”. The real historical enemy was England, a land inhabited by a strange and impenetrable people. In her widely-read Promenades dans Londres (1840), the feminist Flora Tristan observed: “the Englishman is under the spell of his climate and behaves like a brute”; she found the general atmosphere in London so melancholic that it created “an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide”. Treacherous Albion has thus been one of the recurrent tropes in modern French demonology. It was all the more useful that it could be deployed to justify a variety of nationalist grievances, both real and imagined: murderous and ungallant behaviour (the massacre of French knights at Azincourt, the execution of Joan of Arc), religious apostasy (the piously Catholic Bossuet’s lament about “perfidious England”), vindictiveness and duplicitousness (symbolized by the portrayal in Las Cases’s Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène of the “hideous” governor Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s jailer during his captivity on Saint-Helena). In the most extravagant versions, these heinous traits were combined, as in Georges Colomb’s comic-strip La famille Fenouillard (1893), which showed the English “burning Joan of Arc on the rock of Saint Helena”.
This anxiety about Frenchness also manifested itself in pejorative stereotypes about local groups. “Provincialism” was long perceived as a narrow, enclosed sentiment, incapable of generating the ethical universalism of the kind Renan had in mind; it became one of the powerful negative myths of French national culture from the Enlightenment onwards. Madame de Sévigné contemptuously referred to the inhabitants of the provinces as “people from another world”. In one form or another, such depreciative representations were shared by courtly aristocrats, jacobin republicans, and literary and cultural elites; this Parisian sarcasm reached its apogee in Eugène Guinot’s Physiologie du provincial à Paris (1842). It was only in the late nineteenth century, in the wake of the Third Republic’s education reforms, that these negative visions were supplanted by the cult of the petite patrie. This folkloric provincialism reached its peak in Augustine Fouillée’s Tour de la France par deux enfants, a schoolbook which enjoyed a prodigious success, selling six million copies by 1901. The values celebrated in this representation of Frenchness were self-confidence, industriousness, probity and above all a sense of the rightful order of things. The mystical ideal of la France profonde, a celebration of ancestral memories, the family home and the peasantry (“the granite of the nation”) was thus incorporated into the mythology of modern republican patriotism.
The other factor which reinforced the association of Frenchness with a sense of vulnerability was war. Renan’s evocation was produced in the shadow of the Franco–Prussian war, and in fact every French generation from the late eighteenth century to the mid twentieth experienced major conflicts, from the epic battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras (which gave rise to the patriotic hymn La Marseillaise in 1792) through the two world wars to the anti-colonial struggles which eventually brought down the French Empire. French war literature initially promoted the nation’s martial qualities – as seen, for example, in the celebration of the Napoleonic legend in the works of Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Balzac; even Waterloo was reinvented as a “glorious defeat”. More recent conflicts dwelled rather on collective traumas and individual fragilities, as with the tradition of literary creations around the First World War (exemplified recently in Pierre Lemaître’s acclaimed Au revoir la-haut, 2013). The tumultuous experiences of occupation, resistance and collaboration were illuminated by Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows, Vercors’s Silence of the Sea, and Charles de Gaulle’s Mémoires de guerre, whose “certaine idée de la France” magically recast the 1940–44 period as one of French daring and collective heroism (de Gaulle later remarked that he preferred elevating lies to demeaning truths).
As the French wrestled with a changing world order in the second half of the twentieth century, the certainties of their national myth began to be joyfully deconstructed. Complacent Gallic self-representations were challenged by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, whose ontology of the absurd questioned the very notion of a collective national “destiny”, by Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961), which exposed how French humanist ideals had been perverted by colonialism, and by the structuralism of Jacques Derrida, who confirmed that the French republican ideal of “fraternity” was underpinned by oppressive hierarchies – between men and women, citizens and foreigners, friends and enemies. The new modern synthesis of Frenchness was symbolized, in all its wonderful paradoxes, by the comic-strip warrior Astérix the Gaul. The hero of the feisty Gaulish village resisting Roman occupation embodied all at once the national incorporation of regional folklore, the Rousseauist utopia of communal sociability, the Gaullist and communist traditions of resistance to foreign invasion, and the vision of an unchanging France, forever insulated from the ravages of modernization. The Astérix stories were an exquisite parody of the myth of nos ancêtres les Gaulois, but also of the postcolonial French sense of fragility, perfectly captured in the villagers’ fear of the sky falling on their heads.
Indeed, from the late twentieth century, as the enchanted effects of the Gauls’ (and de Gaulle’s) magic potion began to wear off, this underlying sense of unease became even more prominent. Pierre Nora’s monumental collection Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984–92) lamented the fragmentation of the unified culture of Frenchness. Writings about the fate of the nation became increasingly bleak and inward-looking – a crisis highlighted by fears of a loss of France’s global “rank”, and the growing nostalgia for an ethnically and culturally homogenous nation (often disguised, confusingly, as a defence of republican laïcité). This declinist spirit was reflected in two best-selling pamphlets, Alain Finkielkraut’s L’Identité malheureuse (2013) and Eric Zemmour’s Le suicide français (2014); and in Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel about the election of an Islamist candidate to the French presidency, which bore the resigned title Soumission (2015). Discussions of the integration of post-colonial minorities revived old French exclusionary stereotypes: postcolonial citizens were cast as the boorish “provincials” of the twenty-first century, incapable of rational Cartesian thought and threatening the social cohesion of the nation. Stridently rejecting any concession to multiculturalist ideals, conservative historians and politicians even proposed to restore a coherent historical myth of Frenchness (the “roman national”). As French political elites struggled to give voice to minority postcolonial narratives, literary fiction stepped into the breach, notably with Kamel Daoud’s novel Meursault, contre-enquête (2013), in which the faceless Arab murdered in Camus’s L’Etranger steps out of the shadows.
However, the apocalyptic nightmares of the declinists were challenged from the outset, notably by the signatories of the 2007 Le Monde petition calling for French creative writing to abandon its narcissistic tendencies and open itself to the world; over the past decade, this “littérature-monde” has significantly broadened the horizons of the annual rentrées littéraires. The trend was confirmed in 2017 with the election of Emmanuel Macron, who celebrated France’s European identity and vowed to promote a more effective dialogue among the nation’s conflicting historical “memories”. This dynamism was echoed in the intellectual sphere with the publication of the Histoire mondiale de la France, an edited collection which has sold more than 100,000 copies. Affirming the mutually constitutive relationship between France and the world, it mocks the obsession with France’s Roman and Christian “origins” by opening with a chapter on prehistoric cave paintings in the Ardèche; it also defines modern French civilization as a métissage, a “fraternal and dynamic blend of cultures”. By displacing the Eurocentric assumptions of contemporary French identity, and confronting the implications of France’s imperial and colonial heritages, the Histoire mondiale opens the door to that most alluring of prospects: a genuinely universal republican vision of Frenchness.
Sudhir Hazareesingh is a Fellow in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, and the author of How the French Think, 2015
Subscribe now to the TLS and get the best writing on big books and big ideas from only £1.50 or $2.40 per weekSubscribe