Modern history


A fruitful way to consider a nation’s history is to observe how it is commemorated at telling moments and key anniversaries. The bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1789 offers an important vision of modern France. The traditional morning military parade down the Champs Elysées (only France and North Korea still mark their national holidays with this kind of martial fanfare) displayed the country’s vast array of weapons and soldiers, cutting an attractive figure in their medal-encrusted jackets, feathered helmets, and black boots. The culminating event, however, took place down the same avenue later that night. The twenty-million-dollar “opera-parade” the night of July 14, 1989, unfurled under the rapt attention of a crowd of thousands packed onto the sidewalks and hundreds of millions around the world who watched the simultaneous telecast. Crowds this large had two hundred years earlier shaped the course of history by taking to the streets and toppling the monarchy. Now they remembered, with joyful exuberance, those who made the history that has made French history so central to the developments of the modern world.

The minister of culture, Jack Lang, had hired neither a historian nor a civil servant to direct the spectacle but rather the television adman and stylist Jean-Paul Goude, son of a French father and an American mother, whose relationship with Grace Jones, the Jamaican American singer, reflected his transatlantic flair. Goude dubbed it “La Marseillaise” (the name of the French national anthem), a “presentation of the Revolution in all its states.” Rather than retell the story of the French Revolution, the parade staked out the perhaps overstated ground of representing the world and its people, as if the French Revolution might be rethought as a latter-day “Big Bang.” More than seven thousand participants from around the world, an enormous re-creation of a steam train, and even a mobile ice rink paraded that night from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde (where once the scaffold stood, ending the lives of hundreds a day at the Revolution’s height, including the king of France).

The parade began with a twenty-six-foot-high red Chinese drum, surrounded by 150 Chinese students walking their bicycles, holding a banner that read, “We Continue.” The leading marchers of this group were bare-chested and had the words “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” emblazoned on their chests in Chinese characters. Only two months after the events of Tiananmen Square in which possibly thousands were massacred by the government, the parade’s opening sent the message loud and clear: the French Revolution continued to inspire the course of world history. The Chinese students were followed by more than three hundred drummers, wrapped in tricolor scarves, representing the municipalities of France; and another thousand French drummers dressed in black, with tricolor flags on their backs, faces dramatically lit with small lamps. Another thousand musicians followed, playing traditional French music and dressed in regional costumes.

The parade focused on two themes: the world’s major revolutionary cultures and a peculiarly Franco-centric idea of the world (represented mostly by African musicians—especially the celebrated Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose who, dressed as a European conductor, stood atop an enormous float of tam-tam drummers and oversaw African women dancing in tutus reinterpreting “Swan Lake” and surrounded by 450 Senegalese soldiers). Wally Badarou, a Parisian-born composer of African (Benin) descent, served as the event’s musical director. To represent the mixing of world cultures, giant spinning women held children of all races and colors, accompanied by turning globes. On the eve of Perestroika and only months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, England, Russia, and the United States also marched in recognition of their connection to world revolution. The parade laid bare a vision of French-led universal world democracy.

The parade’s apotheosis took place at the Place de la Concorde where an enormous bandstand of French dignitaries and such world leaders as George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, and Rajiv Gandhi watched the spectacle. A choir of six hundred French singers performed a “prelude” written by Badarou. Then, raised onto a platform at the base of the Egyptian obelisk, Jessye Norman, the African American opera singer, emerged, delivered by a hydraulic lift cut into the floor, dramatically draped in a tricolor satin robe to sing the French national anthem as the incarnation of the “voice of the world,” as Goude would explain.

Although the parade received mixed reviews at the time, mostly for its gigantism, perceived neocolonialism, and lack of narrative, it is a remarkably keen representation and interpretation of the significance of the French Revolution and its foundational role in French and, for that matter, world history. From the opening moments dedicated to China to an American woman of African descent singing the French national anthem, and the spectacle’s array of nationalities and cultures in between, it is fair to say that this was a singularly peculiar brand of patriotic celebration. Imagine your own nation giving over its national anthem to a foreign voice in a moment in its history as significant as a bicentennial celebration. The parade defined the transition to “modern” France as a global moment. When the Revolution destroyed the French monarchy it made French people into citizens of the planet as much as of their own nation.

As the Eurocentric view of the world begins to recede, France might seem a quaint and old-fashioned subject driven by nostalgia, scented with a strong perfume of faded glory, and imagined in a picture of tattered tricolor flags. Yet modern France is a subject of great importance at the dawn of our newly defined global era. This volume introduces a younger generation of readers to France while reintroducing it to those who think they know it well. In the mid-twentieth century, such an introduction would have been a narrative of the nation’s dramatic political history. This volume integrates that narrative yet foregrounds the dynamism of French society and culture. It presents France’s nationalism as highly relevant because it has been framed in a way that tethers the nation’s history to that of the rest of the world. The radical changes of the French Revolution defined the “modern” in France as a moment in time, but one with spatial implications: modern France became both a world stage and a cultural crossroads. As a result, France continues to play a role as an essential actor in the development of world history.

French national identity since the Revolution of 1789 has been at once strongly defined by its specificity while also being conceived as having values that could and even should be lived out on a global scale. This rare quality has contributed to France’s importance since the nineteenth century, when imperialism and capitalism provoked peoples and nations to collide and communicate on an unprecedented scale. On the one hand, French people have a rich sense of the value of their history and an almost obsessive attention to the nation as a physical place. These are, of course, classic qualities associated with the formation of modern national identity in many places. On the other hand, France has reinforced its significant place in the world by managing the complex forces of spreading their culture around the globe while seemingly magnetically attracting visitors from near and far to visit France (more people still visit France than anywhere else in the world).

While military and economic power played a vital part in France’s identity since the Revolution, more than its fair share of defeat and stagnation has counterbalanced such relative strength. France also benefitted from its national investment in new modes of communication and in technologies of transport that helped define the rise of travel and tourism worldwide. This gave the French emphasis on cultural influence a sort of prescience that has both shaped and led to continued world significance. As a result, the French language is spoken far and wide from the Americas to Africa, East Asia, Polynesia, and the Caribbean.

Lest notions of cultural dissemination be understood solely as a remnant of France’s own imperial past, French influence and cultural know-how remains alive and well in the heart of other rapidly transforming societies. China, for example, celebrated “the year of France” in 2004, inaugurated by the conceptual artist Daniel Buren’s 230 blue flags adorning the main walkway of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. French fashion continues to dominate haute couture around the world. At the same time, French people are at the forefront of international “style” and architecture, which was as true in the first half of the century (consider Art Deco) as it is today. French engineers continue to steer important innovations such as the Airbus. The European company headquartered in Toulouse is the only real rival to Boeing, the American aviation manufacturer. A Frenchman, Paul Andreu, is one of the world’s master airport architects—one of the twentieth century’s signal international building forms. He designed Roissy–Charles de Gaulle in Paris and has subsequently built airports in Cairo, Shanghai, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Athens, among other cities.

The way “frenchness” has stood for the specificity of something linked to a place and a people—but with global and universal aspirations—remains one of the most compelling qualities of modern French history, and this is nowhere better revealed than in examining Paris, which the philosopher Walter Benjamin went so far as to label “the capital of the nineteenth century.” Any account of modern France as a crossroads thus has to account for the remarkable influence of the city. When visitors go to Paris, they are seeking a world capital as well as a national one. The city houses the world’s most revered art museum (the Louvre), but Paris has long stood for more than the great works of high European classical culture. It also serves as headquarters to many multinational corporations, and was selected by the Disney Corporation as the location for its theme park instead of sunny Spain because the city symbolized international territory better than any other place in Europe. Disney originally named the park “Euro Disney” but decided that Disneyland Paris had wider appeal. Although France has produced such well-regarded novelists as Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust, a French author, Jules Verne, is also one of the most translated in the world. This nineteenth-century provincial Frenchman is not read as a French author per se but because of the universalism of his vision of progress and for his prophetic articulation of a planetary consciousness embodied in such classics as Around the World in Eighty Days.

If French people and their culture are at work around the globe, if Paris inspires as the vision par excellence of an international capital, the marvel of France is that it still manages to attract visitors from all over the world seeking out the specificity of its artisanal cheeses and the renowned wines grown in its soil, and the drama of its historic castles and significant battlefields. The particularity of France resides in a complex modern national self-definition ruled by the idea and ideal of universalism in culture. This contrasts admirably with the ethnocentric nationalism that emerged across Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and with the parochialism of American isolationism and subsequent imperialism. As a result, French ideas, values, and culture will remain at the forefront in the global mix of the twenty-first century and beyond.

This book is an interpretive introductory essay rather than a “short history” in chronological order. It argues that French history reveals that the French are skilled at holding contradictory notions in productive tension. France embraced egalitarianism in the Enlightenment and the Revolution and then built an empire in its name. The nation has a tradition of democracy and a sexist and racist one as well. Loyalty to tradition and artisanal expertise is counterbalanced by the embrace of a complex technocracy, which is run with cutting-edge information and military technology and equipment. Everything revolves around Paris, yet French people and visitors profess an undying love of a seemingly timeless beauty that fans out to every physical corner of the nation. These contradictions that in other places might seem like mere hypocrisy do not seem so in France. This is an unusual perspective in a black-and-white, red-state and blue-state world. This embrace of contradiction held in productive tension is an instructive quality in a world as complex and connected as the one in which we live. In that way, France continues to be important as an object of study and as a coherent voice in world affairs.

The echo of the Revolution of 1789 still sounds not simply in glorious commemorations such as the bicentennial parade but also in an ongoing civic discussion that invokes the meaning “the Republic” has had in shaping modern France. This suggests the combined fragility and idealism of democratic Republics. The history of the French Revolution, which established the nation’s global mission in the modern era, has not been forgotten in France but has worked as a specter haunting all subsequent political life and historical consciousness in its wake.

Politics alone, however, cannot explain the French nation in modern times. The twin engines of cultural dissemination and magnetic appeal, which have pre-Revolutionary origins but which took on important dimensions in the period after the Revolution, guaranteed that France took its role to be played on a global stage. The French language stood at the center of a project of cultural dissemination often referred to as the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission). In addition to the rich emphasis on the word in France, a powerful and rich visual culture helped establish Paris as the world’s greatest host. Francophilia emerged on a grand scale in the nineteenth century. Even French-bashing, usually reserved for traditional rivals such as Britain and Germany, has recently found more global purchase as part of the critique of Eurocentrism. American multiculturalism has made all the former colonial powers open to legitimate critique for past wrongs.

If French language, literature, and visual culture defined a certain form of “frenchness,” French ideas of nationality, citizenship, and culture also underwent a fundamental set of transformations, especially in response to unprecedented migrations within France, Europe, and eventually across the world. The Revolution’s successful upending of the Old Regime established new nationality laws. Under the monarchy, laws had tied an individual’s nationality to the territory in which one was born. In a rejection of such monarchical law, the revolution affirmed nationality through birth. One was French if born of a French father, no matter where you lived. Yet the story developed into an intricate flip-flopping around nationality, which has inflected what it means to be French in a country as marked by immigration as the United States.

The Revolution sought to make the world anew and was forward-looking in orientation. Inspired by the Enlightenment that came before it, on the one hand, and the problem-solving necessity of military global expansion on the other hand, both science and technology became part of the Republican tradition. Napoleon, for example, took an enormous academic team with him to Egypt in a military campaign that also resulted in some of the greatest discoveries of Egyptology, including the Rosetta stone. This prized object was eventually lost to the British but decoded, finally, in 1822 by the Frenchman Champollion. The same revolutionary government founded in 1794 what has become the premier engineering school in France, the Ecole Polytechnique. Napoleon put it directly under the military and gave it the motto Pour la Patrie, les sciences et la gloire (For the fatherland, science, and glory). In fact, when the Republic celebrated the Revolution’s first centennial, engineering provided the major symbol of the 1889 Exposition: the tower that would eventually bear the name of its engineer-designer, Eiffel, became the world’s tallest human-built structure.

One of the accomplishments of the Republic has been the French public educational system. With history and geography nestled at its core, a small book by the historian and educator Ernest Lavisse, the Petit Lavisse (1884), taught many lessons to generations of French-educated people and in the French schools that opened around the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No lesson probably sums up modern France as well as this one: “France, since the Revolution, has spread the ideas of justice and humanity throughout the world. France is the most just, most free, most humane of countries.” Despite what may ring as antiquated chauvinism and jingoism, the world has certainly benefitted from this French commitment to and sense of global concern for justice and humanity, in examples that stretch from the unleashing of the Haitian revolution to the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. These ideas of justice were not just spread but also imposed. Yet, as an ideal, universal democracy at a planetary scale is a value worth upholding. If the French Revolution has long been considered a turning point in world history, it may well be because the French, back in the eighteenth century, could envision acting in the name of the rights of people they would never actually know.

The Bicentennial’s parade began with Chinese marchers to acknowledge that the Revolution is not yet over. But because revolutionary ideals are hard to uphold, and doing so requires the participation of the entire planet, the course of modern French history has not been smooth. That is also why it provides a story worth telling.



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