Via Belfast Telegram
July 10 2017
A year after the horrendous terrorist attack at Nice, on the French Riviera last year, maybe everyone should mark France’s national holiday this Friday, on July 14, as a show of solidarity. But then, according to a sensational, best-selling, new history of France, July 14 qualifies as a globalised holiday anyway, because the whole concept of a national holiday is French.
The Histoire Mondiale de la France (global history of France) is controversial because it takes a completely different approach to the national narrative, which traditionally began with the story of « our ancestors, the Gauls ». This new version, written by a series of scholars and edited by Patrick Boucheron, emphasises not the national identity, but the cosmopolitan one. That’s why some critics hate it – the leading French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called the authors « the gravediggers of the great French heritage ».
This new way of looking at French history has more emphasis on ‘soft power’ – rather than military power: it is more feminised; and it is seeking to show that there is no such thing as a pure French race. It does claim that European civilisation began in France, with Cro-Magnon man in the Dordogne, 34,000 years BC. This was the first humanised settlement and these prehistoric folk displayed their humanity by painting on the walls.
But the story goes on with the interplay of non-French influences which made France what it is: it was the Lebanese (the Phoenicians) who forged the port of Marseilles, 600 years BC, just as the last of the Celts in France were dying out. Russians, Tartars, Catalans, Turks, Venetians, Muslims and Jews contributed to the composition of the country, and slaves were traded through Marseilles, Perpignan and Nice. There were Persians at the court of the French king.
The Koran was first translated into French by a French priest in 1143. The University of Paris was already an international campus in 1215. It’s claimed that the French invented, and then launched, universal monasticism at Cluny, in 910. Surely the Irish monks had been scribing away in their monastic cells long before that?
France invented the idea of the universal museum: Napoleon didn’t just go off and conquer other lands – he always brought cultural loot back to France.
The quirky elements of history are given an emphasis. If France hadn’t grabbed colonial cocoa fields from Spain we mightn’t have the pleasures of chocolate – the first chocolate shop was opened in 1659 in the Rue de l’Arbre-Sec, near the Louvre. The international concept of the novel was really started by Balzac in 1842, with La Comedie Humaine. And surprisingly, for a culture which emphasises its secularism, the apparition at Lourdes is singled out as a significant step towards globalisation – the story of a peasant girl’s vision in a poor village in the Pyrenees became a world event, communicated by a burgeoning international press, railways and photography.
The French launched the metre as a universal measure in 1875, just as they had pioneered the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, as another step in globalisation.
An experiment by Coco Chanel in a perfume laboratory in 1921 produced what became the most famous fragrance in the world – Chanel No 5 – a signature scent for Marilyn Monroe (and Andy Warhol). Chanel mixed business acumen with inspirational genius. She needed to diversify her brand, and she sought the floral freshness of the countryside to define « the scent of a woman ».
Three times in history, there have been suggestions that France and Britain should be united as one country. First in 1420 after Agincourt, secondly in 1940 and thirdly in 1956, during the (disastrous) Suez crisis. Actually, when Winston Churchill suggested that France should be united to Britain, the French premier Paul Reynaud replied: « To be united with England would be like being married to a corpse. » Brexit may revive such thoughts – though the corpse came through 1940.
The critics of this globalised approach to history feel that it is downplaying the tradition of a French national identity. The more extreme critics suspect that it’s propaganda for the idea that France was always composed of immigrants.
And yet, French national pride runs deep, for although the narrative seems to stress ‘globalisation’ (‘mondialisation’), it all adds up to a paean of praise to France’s influence on the world, and how many modern movements France started. France launched the coastal holiday resort, France started the celebration of the movie industry in Cannes in 1946, the UN Rights of Man of 1948 were really French. A French priest, Abbe Pierre, began the modern humanitarian movement in 1954, France was the inspiration for contemporary progressive thinking about race relations through the writings of Franz Fanon. France is the mother of all revolutions and also, it is admitted, of the terrorism that followed revolution.
Modern art began with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in France in 1907 (intended to be called The Bordello of Avignon). Picasso was a Spanish communist who could only have painted in France. As prehistoric civilisation started with painting, so do our modern visual concepts. We may well say ‘Vive la France!’ for July 14.