France’s election campaign was in full swing. The Conservatives and French far-right wing parties have done their best to bolster their ideas about national identity. At this auspicious moment, Patrick Boucheron’s Histoire mondiale de la France has been published – an entirely different interpretation of French history.
It is well known that Nikolas Sarkozy enjoys referring to the Gauls when it comes down to his ancestors. François Fillon reveres Clovis (Chlodwig) as the founding father of the Kingdom of the Franks. Garant esteems Catholic values, while the Le Pens have appropriated Joan of Arc because she defended France from external enemies and embodies the voice of the people. (http://www.francetvinfo.fr/replay-radio/histoires-d-info/comment-jeanne-d-arc-a-ete-privatisee-par-le-front-national-1985-2015_1776401.html).
Each to his own hero. The history of la grande nation is often invoked when the point is to justify ideologies, and particularly if one aspires to become president-elect and soon to write one’s own piece of history. In this context, the publication of Boucheron’s alternative interpretation of history can be evaluated as a clear message to politicians and society. But hold on; it wasn’t like that at all – let’s not draw any false conclusions and comparisons please. “Vive l’Histoire libre – long live free (or emancipated) history”, was the headline in Libération.
Was it in 732 with the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) when the Franks stopped the advance of the Muslim Arabs in the West? Or in 1515 with the “Battle of the Giants” or France’s defeat in 1940? Backed up by 146 relevant dossiers and thanks to the research efforts of 122 historians, sociologists, immigration experts and academics from other disciplines, under Boucheron’s editorial guidance, they examined legends set in stone and even overturned one or the other myth.
For example, the myth of the Battle of Alésia. “Basically, we know nothing about this battle”, in which Julius Caesar defeated the Gallic tribes and confirmed Rome’s hegemony. Historian Yann Potin (who was also involved in research for the new history book) explains that Caesar’s glorious victory over Vercingetorix was merely “an incidental note in De bello gallico”. The myth of Alésia, whereby a nation needs a resounding defeat to rise again with renewed strength – the Vichy regime liked to cite this – is a good example of how history is tampered with, to give it retrospective meaning.
Patrick Boucheron, a long-time advocate of a new approach to his discipline, invited his colleagues to tackle the subject and to enjoy doing so. He paved the way for this with his slim volume, “Comment se révolter” in which he goes as far back as the Middle Ages to show throughout history who rebelled and with what effects. And we wouldn’t be talking about Boucheron, if the legend of Robin Hood were not rewritten in this context. He was no poor man who stole from the rich to help the poor. Rather, he was a minor aristocrat who could not have rebelled against the king any other way. This leads the historian to conclude that, in general, during the Middle Ages not the poor people but the wealthy were the catalyst for revolutions.
The style of Boucheron’s Histoire mondiale de la France is not academic and intimidating. Rather, it is entertaining. France’s history is placed in a global, interdisciplinary and contemporary context. This has not only earned Boucheron praise, but also criticism. Is there not something “anachronistic” about reading the past with a view to analyzing current topics? asks Libération.
The essayist Alain Finkielkraut gave a scathing review – he misses “great French culture” in this work. “There was no French civilisation, nothing typically French and this is the good news that the authors (…) want to announce to satisfy society and to contribute to solving the crisis of living together. What a miserable situation!” He moans to his friends from the Académie française.
It’s not surprising because this new history book is directed against precisely those neo-reactionaries. “We were totally fed up with reactionary interpretations of history, whether directly when it’s about glorifying national identity, or indirectly when historians try to refute reactionary discourse based on history”, explains Boucheron. “The ideological fistfight is opened”, as the NouvelObservateur remarked.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright