Blogs > Cliopatria > Ten Events to Understand Contemporary France

Jan 3, 2006 2:12 am

Ten Events to Understand Contemporary France

High school kids know or don't know important things about history, and I'd give myself a concussion every day if I banged my head on my desk in disbelief. I might be happy if they knew of the revolution, that it had something to do with defining democracy and liberty. Undergraduates should know more; too bad the university won’t always compel them to learn it. David Gelernter has more faith in our high school and college graduates: they should know the Dreyfus Affair!

Matt Yglesias feels that the Dreyfus affair is too obscure.
But seriously, the Dreyfus Affair would fall pretty low on my list of"need to know" historical events. ... But it makes perfect sense for lots of people's historical knowledge to not be oriented to these things. There's only so much you can expect a given person to be well-informed about and the sort of thing that I (and, apparently, Gelertner) happen to think is interesting isn't obviously the most important part of the human saga.

Never mind that it is probably the most significant event in Modern Jewish history, after the Holocaust and founding of Israel. The Dreyfus Affair carries deep significance for gauging attitudes on ethnicity, religion, gender, and civil rights. I have used it numerous times to explain ethnic unrest and the limits of tolerance. It is more than a lens from which to see attitudes and opinions; Dreyfus significantly shaped political alignments and ideas about secularism and assimilation.

That got me thinking about what I would want people to know about French history: not in the sense of having a broad understanding of the past four hundred or more years, but enough to understand contemporary issues. I also thought about why French history is current and relevant.

So here is my list, in order, of ten things I would teach someone about French history to help them understand contemporary France:

  1. La Revolution
  2. Liberation
  3. Dreyfus Affair
  4. Bonapartism, round II
  5. Making the Versailles Court
  6. War in Algeria
  7. Code Napoleon
  8. Ruhr Crisis
  9. Franco-German Rapprochement
  10. 1914

I think that if I could get students to understand these ten events, they would have an excellent grasp of French politics, culture and society. Looking at the list, I realize that knowledge of French history is not valued as much as it used to be. The Liberation is probably better known than the Revolution, more for de Gaulle than anything else, but I can expect no awareness of anything else on the list. And I can tell that class sizes have shrunk in recent years as interest has declined.

What France does and why it are questions that are bandied about so much that our understanding of French (political) history ought to be deeper. Why does France insist on alliances, cling so closely to Germany, deploy troops to some parts of the world and not others? ‘What’s wrong with France’ is discussed so much in conservative circles that ‘what happened to make this state of affairs’ should be more familiar.

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More Comments:

Paul Noonan - 1/3/2006

..Franco-Prussian War/La Commune in 1870-71? Taking them as a single event I would rate it above the Algerian war and the Ruhr crisis, but to each his own/

John E. Russell - 1/3/2006

Perhaps also: 1968, Algerian War, launch of Les Temps Modernes, the 1984 "Death of the Intellectual" debates.

Andrew Israel Ross - 1/3/2006

Definitely would. I would also include André Gide's turn away from the Soviet Union after his visit there somewhere, as I think it says a lot about the formation of the modern French left. Other thoughts: the formation of salon culture, Olympe de Gouges' "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen," and The Encyclopedie.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/3/2006

Wouldn't you put J'accuse at or near the top?

John E. Russell - 1/3/2006

I too thought about including something on French intellectuals, but couldn't think of the right event - I'm not sure there are any. Twenty years ago, one wouldn't make a list like this without making reference to French intellectual life; today, French intellectuals seem less important. Maybe we should come up with a separate list of 10 "events" that would help one understand intellectuals in 20th C. France.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/3/2006

The French past has plenty of interesting events and turning points, and I would be the first person to say that modernists don't know enough of what went on before 1789. Clearly, this is not an outline for a course.

But to explain who the French are now as a nation-state and as modern individuals, I wouldn't start any earlier than the Wars of Religion (which I removed at the suggestion of someone who studies the 16th C in favor of the Napoleonic Code.) Moreover, I think most of these qualities are modern in origin: collaborative, but also jealously independent; defiant; self-consciously modern; given to innovation and novelty; centralizing; democratic with a taste for strong executive; ceremonial (rather than efficient); continental more than international; culturally Catholic; secular; assimilationist; standardizing; open with regard to discussing intimacy; not beholden to tradition. French culture has been so willing to break from its past that even pre-modern figures are more important because they have themselves been modernized (just as Jeanne d'Arc is a pre-revolutionary Marianne.)

(If I were to make a similar list for Germany, I would start much earlier.)

As per my views on Bonapartism, I'll admit that I am given to recent interpretations: that the First Empire regularized the Revolution and made it friendly; that the Second Empire set the stage for political participation, labor politics, uniformity, education, executive authority.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/3/2006

Rereading the post, I do see that it's headed "Contemporary France" so
Agincourt might not really qualify. But Jeanne seems like a real presence in the French mentalite.

Andrew Israel Ross - 1/3/2006

When I was thinking about your list I also wanted to get something in about intellectuals (or I guess more accurately "men of letters"), though I was leaning more towards the French Enlightenment, Romanticism, or the early twentieth-century. But I think that may be just my own bias since it was reading Hugo and Proust that got me interested in French history to begin with. I'm not sure if many people would feel the same way.

Grant W Jones - 1/2/2006

Or how about the slaughter of the French nobilty at Crecy and Agincourt?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/2/2006

I'm a bit surprised that your list doesn't go back any further than Versailles (and also that you've folded the first Bonapart episode into the Revolution, but that's another discussion): I would include the Hundred Year's War (especially the role of Jeanne d'Arc in defining French nationalism) and the Hugeunots (and collapse the last three on your list into a survey of the World Wars).

But maybe I'm too tied to my World lecture notes....

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/2/2006

I finally looked at your comments. I think laicization is critical to development, but I see it as a process that threads through events rather than being an event in itself. Dreyfus, for instance, gave the final push for the laws of separation as the Church became discredited in politics. Perhaps attention should be given to the Concordat.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/2/2006

I am amazed at the things that I crossed off my list as I made it. I though for sure I would choose seomthing that represented the celebrity of intellectuals--how could you have Dreyfus without Zola, or Liberation without Camus, de Beauvoir and Sartre? I like some of your suggestions. I would argue, however, that Vichy and liberation should be treated separately: neither really replaces the other.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/2/2006

I left out the May-June 1940 because the events that followed, the occupation and Vichy, have not resonated directly but through the low-valency civil conflicts that occurred during the liberation. I picked the near collapse in 1914 over other events of WWI because I see it as the motivating force behind diplomatic and military policies to project international conflict away from France in order to prevent domestic hardship and discontent. The discontent of the poilus took its toll on how the war was fought, which of course had ramifications for France's survival, but outside a few films by Gance, their influence did not last.

Andrew Israel Ross - 1/2/2006

Great post, I also made some comments:

I think I needed more than 10 choices though.

Grant W Jones - 1/2/2006

I'm curious as to why you left out the Fall of France: 1940, Vichy, and the French Army mutiny of 1917 out of your list.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 1/2/2006

Sorry ... bad code.

John E. Russell - 1/2/2006


Great post - I've made some comments on my blog:

One problem (well, two actually) - the links to Gelernter and Yglesias don't go anywhere.