BOOK REVIEW: FRANCE, A SHORT HISTORY

The Map Is Not the Terroir

While most people instantly recognise the outline of their own country’s map, the same cannot be said for their grasp of the shape of other countries (Is there anyone out there who could tell apart, just from their silhouette, Portugal and Benin? I think not.) One of the few countries that many will recognise besides their own is France’s distinctive hexagonal contour, its stretched hide form neatly framed by the natural borders of the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Much like the wines of the country’s terroirs (“a unique link to the land and place of production, which can be detected in the intrinsic essence of the produce”), France, à l’aise dans sa peau (at ease in its own skin), is at once a geographical objet trouvé and a painstakingly contrived concoction – the map is not the territory, the map is the terroirs. (Disclaimer: I should point out early on that, although a British subject, I was raised on the right side of the channel. This means that I may sometimes err in being more of a royalist than the king.)

Jeremy Black, in his pleasingly taut France: A Short History, is himself at pains to dispel this notion from the get-go, pointing out in his introduction that “it is all too easy to assume that expansion to France’s subsequent frontiers was inevitable.” And Black ends his introduction: “…the boundaries and governmental patterns of modern France are a misleading guide to the history of the lands that became France.” But while this is an obvious truth (multiple outcomes having always been possible), it remains true that both the historian and the layman are compelled to read history backwards, so that Black’s distinction between “determinism” and “possibilism” and his view that the French state has been fundamentally of an “accretional character” come across as little more than lip service to current moods, as the book unfolds conventionally enough, dividing France’s history into the standard epochs and featuring the usual roll call of suspects – the big men, and the few big women, that made French history. Black’s writing and his exposition of the facts is clear and to the point, and he invariably takes an evenhanded approach to events and historical actors, without passing modern judgment on past times or attempting to bend the narrative to suit contemporary mores.

The only times Black does seem to throw a sop to current conventions, it is in a lighthearted manner that suggests he does not take the point very seriously himself. A – wilfully? – amusing example of this can be found in the captions to the two photographs on page 65, the first of a series of rough-hewn dolmens (“a reminder…[of a]…sophisticated society falling victim to Roman conquest”), while the second picture, showcasing the Pont du Gard, is “an impressive instance…[of]…more widespread development of public infrastructure in the Roman centuries.” What indeed did the Romans ever do for the hidebound and hut-living natives of Gaul, one may wonder? But apart from a few glancing remarks such as these, which may well be tongue-in-cheek, Jeremy Black’s France is a conventional one (This is meant as a compliment.) It is short enough to not turn off the curious reader and yet sufficiently complete, at 224 pages, for the more serious history buff, as the author has provided sufficient legroom to sketch out the background of main events and analyse the character of historical actors with some depth. But making so much of so little requires great mastery, and if condensing “all” of France’s history into such a short format must have been challenging, accomplishing it is a coup de maître.

The author’s able command of his subject is on full display in the central chapter of the book, “The Ancien Régime, 1715–1789,” which Black starts with a query as old as the study of history itself: “Was the Revolution inevitable?” (In other words, could events have transpired differently?) We learn here of the impact of new agricultural produce (maize, potatoes) from the Columbine exchange, of epidemics and the different death rates of the urban poor and the bourgeoisie, as well as of the cultural impact of the ideas of the Enlightenment writers (Voltaire, Montesquieu), or of science, with the Encyclopédie, the Physiocrats (the first “economists,” who still thought that the laws of physics applied, even in their discipline), and early scientists such as Lavoisier and Condillac. We learn as well about the introduction of private banking, of changing animal husbandry as well as about politics proper (the Seven Year War), and the prevailing attitudes of public opinion toward the monarchy. Even the Beast of Gévaudan (“possibly a large wolf”) that once terrorised the Gévaudan region of central France and Restif de la Bretonne’s obscure Vie de mon père get a mention (Also to be recommended is Monsieur Nicolas, or The Human Heart Laid Bare, de la Bretonne’s extraordinary autobiography.) Did French history, always a movable feast, reach a climax in 1789? Black, having enticed us with a vivid bill of fare of the era’s ferment, returns to his “possibilist” theme, concluding that “there was nothing inevitable about these ideas leading to revolution by the end of the century.”

What then is the study of history for, one may well ask? Although Black later on (apparently) chides “revisionist history” for, among other things, giving too much room to “narrative” as well as to “chance” over “theoretical approach,” and even makes a possible swipe at questions of “representation, symbolism and violence,” he mostly steers clear of these contentious topics to concentrate on the facts themselves. But if events cannot be predicted, trends may certainly be followed to their (near inevitable?) conclusions. A comparison between societies, and between countries, self-evidently shows that, for much of the times and in most places, similar happenings do indeed create vastly similar outcomes. So that if it is of course a truism  that “there is nothing unavoidable” in the course of events, once a direction is taken, it will gather steam. So that there was, in fact, an inescapable character to the French Revolution (although it could have taken a thousand different forms, one of them, for instance, resulting in a constitutional monarchy, a hypothesis that Black evokes in passing). Just as the national revolutions that swept Europe in the 19th century were, in a sense, “inevitable.” Or, to pick a more geographically remote but temporally closer parallel, just as the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, which also resulted in a regicide, was predestined, if not in its actual outcome, then certainly in its general thrust (If there is, in a parallel universe, a constitutional negus dutifully cutting ribbons, there is no alternative history in which a king rules Ethiopia with an iron fist in the 21st century – contemporary trends did not allow for this outcome.)

“People more resemble their times than their parents” (or something analogous) runs the epigraph in Frison-Roche’s account of the French explorer René Caillé, the first Westerner to reach the “forbidden” city of Timbuktu (Frison-Roche, L’esclave de Dieu). Et oui! Even though Black underlines that relatively fewer people in France were literate in 1789 than is often believed (contra the thesis that it is the ability to read that inexorably led to the Revolution), it very probably remains this phenomenon that altered the consciousness of the people at large. When Black correctly points to the impact of the rise of statistics, the newfound spirit of rationalism, and even to the corruption laid bare in the Affaire du collier de la reine (the Affair of the Queen’s Necklace), it rests that for all this to spread – rapidly changing received opinion, and therefore consciousness – all you need is a small minority of literate people. Likewise, in the Ethiopian Revolution, it was a minuscule proportion of the population that, once given access to education, went on to swiftly overturn a “millennia-old” dynasty.

In 1693–1694, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie estimated that a famine took more than a million lives in France (out of a population of 20 million). But no one thought to lay the fault at the feet of Louis XIV – and this famine is today completely forgotten by the French (Black himself notes the date of this particular famine, tersely commenting that it had a “savage and prolonged local impact”). But something changed in the “consciousness” of the French in the course of the 18th century, then in Europe at large and finally, in the rest of the world. (Likewise, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia played no small part in the demise of Hailé Selassié, then the famine of 1984–1985 in precipitating the end of his successor, Mengistu Hailé Maryam – those devastating televised images with the BBC’s Michael Buerk did the job. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian famine of 1888–1892, the ክፉ ቀን or ‘evil days,’ which killed up to a third of the population and didn’t cause a single political remonstrance of the monarch, is now largely forgotten as well.) Besides the transformation of people’s minds brought about by literacy and rationalism, there is simply the question of infrastructure: new roads and granaries first made relief a possibility, then an expected measure. So that in short order acts of God became the responsibility of the ruler.

Black’s illuminating point-to-point history, in its last chapter “France Today, 2001–” and in its “Conclusion,” gives a brief and characteristically well rounded appraisal of recent events and trends such as the Yellow Vests movement and the plummeting popularity of Emmanuel Macron (underscored by the presidential party’s poor results in the June regional elections). Today, the French live with COVID-19 and the weekly confinement measures broadcast through tweets and Facebook postings (a period that France: A Short History does not cover, ending as it does in 2020). But Black does, fleetingly, touch upon the current change of mood: the deep dechristianization of French society, the death of small holding farmsteads, the increase in the number of Muslim immigrants and, behind the French’s kneejerk anti-Americanism, the continued appeal of globalisation (The more the French fervently speak of terroir, the more McDonald’s hamburgers they indulge in.) If the French often like to think they have an abiding sense of their own history, they have made Disneyland Paris a resounding success through their enthusiastic patronage.

The French are famously complex(ed) and difficult to pin down, and the only criticism one could make is that Black’s account is strangely devoid of Frenchmen – although he does alight on the question when he alludes to “consciousness” and details in a illuminating manner the changing ways of being and the rising literacy rates that made the scientific and rationalist mindset come to the fore. Black writes, in a small aside, of the importance of La Gloire in French history and of how the demise of Louis the XVI may well have been precipitated by his lack of this mysterious ingredient…(The English tend to use French words when trying to make simple things more complicated than they really are, but Black does make a good case that gloire does not readily transpose as glory.) But the question of what makes a Frenchman is left unresolved. Yes, glory (or panache, such as the Italian sprezzatura), but what else makes a people? This fundamental inquiry  is left largely untouched, no doubt for sake of brevity. Differences in regional approaches to national questions are evoked in passing, as are the differing politics of Catholic and Protestant areas; but they are not explored in depth. Another fascinating aspect of France which goes unmentioned here, is the wildly contrasting variance in family makeup (patriarchal, nuclear, etc.) inside the country, which the historian Emmanuel Todd has, more or less conclusively (to my mind), shown to have been of immense importance in the history of the country, in works such as The Invention of France.

Black has probably given these questions much thought elsewhere, in his numerous volumes, and the book is, after all, titled France: A Short History (and not, say, The French: An Overview). But a country is made up of people, so that if you leave out the people you have also lost the country (or, at least, you now have something very different from what you started off with). This is not a nod to the essayist Renaud Camus’ Grand Remplacement (Black cautiously ventures that the high number of Muslims may have played a role in decreasing Christianity’s role in French society – but this is not so.) Rather, to follow the historian Patrick Buisson in his recent work (La Fin d’un Monde, 2021), if we have indeed seen a Great Replacement since the 1960s, it is in the wholesale substitution of a millennia-old culture (Christian, largely agrarian, and based on the family with semi-autarchy and high regional individuality) by atomized modernity (which is not to deny the importance of the changes in population underway; human beings are not interchangeable building blocks.) The French of yesterday have been replaced by the French of today. These sea changes, to which there are, of course, close parallels everywhere in a globalised world, have eviscerated France while retaining some rather pretty backdrops (To paraphrase Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Corsair Writings regarding Italy’s own boom economico: What fascism did not succeed in doing will be accomplished by the consumer society.) President Macron’s grand plan for his presidency (even before the French iteration of Build Back Better), was to make of France a “Start-up Nation.” Not much glory to be found there, certainly, and gone, quite obviously, are the days of the quixotic attempts to preserve the French language from foreign influence.

Jeremy Black’s book is a good roadmap to the France that was, from Carnac to the inferno that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 – and perhaps even provides a few clues to the France that will be. But if we can only concur with Black when he states that a revolution only ever appears to be inevitable in retrospect, it is evident that change is afoot in the land of France again. Consciousness is morphing once more into some other as yet inchoate form, slouching towards Paris. We live in the time of global warming and of global pandemics; borders are shut tight while information engulfs the world in ever more alarming waves (Without the infrastructure of the Internet, there would be no lockdowns possible in the West. Without the media, there would be no exacerbated awareness of public health issues  –  there is a close parallel between those now-forgotten early famines and recent epidemics, which are not only forgotten but barely registered, even at the time. Who remembers the Asian Flu of 1957–1958 or the Hong Kong Flu of 1968–1969 that killed millions throughout the world?) Public statues, last seen being toppled during the Revolution, are again the object of ire, in France as well (although President Macron has said that there would be no dismantling). Perhaps now will come the time to remember the Physiocrats, the early French economists who claimed, Black tells us, “that the land was the sole source of real wealth, that manufacturing simply changed the form of its products, and that trade only moved them on.” If the end can never be foretold (le pire n’est jamais certain – the worst is never certain), I will wager that we shall soon find out if the French still have skin in the game and if the “hexagon” is the territory of the French – or if it is indeed a blank canvas.

France: A Short History
By Jeremy Black
256 pages, Thames & Hudson

About Yves-Marie Stranger

A French-English translator and writer Yves-Marie Stranger grew up shepherding goats in the French Pyrenees. After living in Ethiopia for fifteen years, he is now based once more in France. Yves-Marie Stranger is the author of the Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent and Ethiopia through writers’ eyes. You can listen to the podcast of his book The Abyssinian Syllabary on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

A French-English translator and writer Yves-Marie Stranger grew up shepherding goats in the French Pyrenees. After living in Ethiopia for fifteen years, he is now based once more in France. Yves-Marie Stranger is the author of the Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent and Ethiopia through writers’ eyes. You can listen to the podcast of his book The Abyssinian Syllabary on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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