||Deepest downs in French history
The French National Saga : Each country has its legend. In the USA, it is the Founding Fathers, the Manifest Destiny and the invention of Liberty and Democracy. In France it is the "Roman National" (the National Saga). This story was fashioned at the end of the 19th by the recently born Republic to re-unite the country and to illustrate a national legend which is, in short, as follows.
Born in the Barbarian times with the Gauls, which have the national (supposed) virtues (courage, a gift for pleasure and culture, but no sense of organization) the country builds itself through valiant kings (Charlemagne, Saint Louis, Louis XI, Louis XIV the Sun King, Napoleon) and national heroes (Joan of Arc, Duguesclin, etc.) to become a strong state. Its culture gives it a world leadership (in the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment). Its great Revolution brings to the world universal and eternal values (the Rights of Man, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, Secularism) bringing to quasi-perfection "the values of the Republic". Through a wise and disinterested colonization, France shares these values with less lucky countries. Of course, the other countries are jealous and they attack France on a regular basis. We have ups and downs but, in the end, we always win.
It looks and it is ridiculous, but when you think about it, all countries have the same kind of saga for themselves.
Do you know that all French 5th grade
students are familiar with these (little) historical facts :
the leader of the Gallic tribes when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul
(in 56 B.C.).
|A valiant warrior,
he won the battle of Gergovia but, later, his army was besieged
in Alésia (in Burgundy) and he had to surrender to Caesar.
The picture of the noble Gaul throwing his sword at the feet
of Caesar is in all children's history books. He was strangled
in a Roman jail.
Read a few quotes about
the Roman vision of the
Vercingetorix was taken to Rome
and strangled. In French mythology, this event is associated
with the idea that it is more classy to lose with "grandeur" than to win with efficiency, like the boring Romans did. Read
about Asterix, the
national comic strip hero...By the way, we might mention that
the Webmaster was born in Paris rue Vercingetorix and his sister
lives rue d'Alésia!
Do you know who broke the Soissons vase
? The answer is : Clovis, the first King of France. In 486, after
a victory in Soissons, and during the allotment of the pillage,
one of his soldiers wanted the vase that he, Clovis, wanted as
well and deliberately broke it so that the King would not have
it. Several years later, while inspecting the troops, Clovis
recognized him, asked him to check his shoes, and broke his skull
as he was bending his head, admonishing him to "Remember
the Soissons vase". For the French this anecdote illustrates
that either "the King is always right" or "Kings
There have been many downs in
the history of France, when the country was defeated, ruined
and hopeless and after a few years came back to life. Among them:
" Hundred Year War "
against England, between 1337 to 1453, included disasters such
as the king of France (Jean le Bon) being kept prisoner in London
for years, another king (Charles VI) becoming crazy, a terrible
defeat in Azincourt (1415) but, finally, came Jeanne
d'Arc (1429) and the final victory
After Waterloo (June 18, 1815), France was crushed
by a large coalition, Paris occupied, Napoleon exiled ; in spite
of the huge losses of 20 years of wars, the country recovered
within a few years.
The lost war against Prussia
in 1870, with two provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) annexed
by Germany and a huge indemnity to pay but, finally, " la
Belle Epoque " and decades of prosperity and artistic
was a victory at the cost of many defeats (1,4 million men killed)
and it took ten years for the country to recover. See comparative
in 1940 and more than four years of occupation.
What was the project of Hitler for France ? It was to turn it into a giant brothel for the new German Europe (read about it). Life was very difficult during the German occupation and the
major concern was food (see
why and read When Paris Went Dark by R. Rosbottom for more). The country was
deeply humiliated and severely destroyed but, finally, came "
les Trentes Glorieuses " (the Thirty Prosperous)
(1950-1980) with the spectacular modernization of the French
society and economy and the country catching up with its time
under the presidency of de
And what about today ? It's clearly a "down" : wait for the next "up" !
More to come ? (I hope not)
DID YOU KNOW
THAT....? The French like to refer to the famous quote "Ceux
qui ne connaissent pas l'Histoire sont condamnés à
la revivre" ("Those who do not know History are condemned
to relive it"). In France, the present is seen as a link
between the past and the future : in a speech , in a report or
an article, even in business, it is frequent to start with a
historical background. As W.Faulkner wrote : "The past
is never dead. It's not even past".
Are the French masochists ?
In her history, France went through approximately as many defeats as victories (otherwise she would either dominate the whole world or she would have disappeared). However, there are defeats more celebrated than victories of equal importance. Among the most famous lost battles : Alesia (52 b.c.) when Julius Caesar defeated and captured Vercingetorix, Poitiers (1356) when King Jean II was taken prisoner by the English, Waterloo (1815) when Wellington defeated Napoleon.
Supreme wisdom or masochism? Or rather : a long historical experience taught them that, for a country like for a person, there are ups and downs . . .
Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, was escorting
the rear-guard of the army of the (not yet) Emperor, retreating
from Spain in 778. He was attacked by the Basques in the mountain
pass of Roncevaux and even though he blew his olifant
(horn), the army did not rescue him. He tried to break his sword,
named Durandal on a rock and waited to be killed, praying
God and praising Charlemagne. Moral of the story : love your
King, good or not so good.
is always shown either listening to the voices of angels telling
her to go see the King and help him expel the English from France,
or dying burned at the stake by the same English in 1431. Hardly
any mention is made that she was betrayed by her compatriots.
Morality of the story : beware of the English.
Colbert, the Prime Minister of King Louis XIV,
the Sun King, was a good minister and a hard worker. He is the
very symbol of the omnipresence of the State in the economy.
He is always shown entering his office and rubbing his hands
with joy at the view of the paperwork piled on his desk. French
kids do not like this image...
Pasteur was an illustrious
chemist who made major discoveries about germs (the English attribute
vaccination to Jenner) and what is now called pasteurization. Think of that when you drink pasteurized milk. He had this idea of injecting antibodies
to treat rabies; all French kids have seen the scene in which
he is shown injecting a young Alsatian shepherd and saving his
life. I suspect that part of his popularity among the French comes from his famous statement : "Wine is the healthiest and the most hygienic beverage".
Read an anecdote about him and money.
- The battle of Verdun
: in Feb.1916, the Germans attacked the French at the city of Verdun. After ten months of a horrendous butchery on a few square miles, the toll for both armies was 300,000 killed and 400,000 wounded but the Germans pulled back. A strong element of national pride.
DID YOU KNOW THAT .... If you know two words in
French, you know the word "merde" but do you know why,
when a French person wants to refer to it without saying the
word itself, he/she uses the formula "mot de Cambronne"
? This is because in the battle of Waterloo, lost by Napoleon,
the general Cambronne, who commanded the imperial guard, used
it when the English asked him to surrender !
Other stories include
- Charlemagne visiting a school he founded,
- King Saint Louis making legal decisions under an oak tree,
- Napoleon pinching the earlobe of a soldier (who seems to
- the six Bourgeois
de Calais (burghers of
Calais) bare-footed and half-naked surrendering to the English
(again!) to save their fellow citizens,
- More to come (read about some French attitudes which
are deeply rooted in history).
The dates that all French kids know (or should...)
- 52 BC : Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar at Alesia
- 496 : Clovis, the first king,
- 732 : Charles Martel stops the
Arab invasion near Poitiers
- 800 : Charlemagne is crowned
Emperor in Rome
- 1331 : begining of the Hundred Years War between France and England
- 1453 : the French victory in Castillon which ended the Hundred Years War
- 1515 : François 1rst
wins the battle of Marignano, in Italy
- 1610 : the good king Henri IV
is stabbed by Ravaillac
- 1789 : the beginning of the
French Revolution (Bastille)
- 1870 : the Franco-Prussian war
and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine
- 1914-1918 : WW1 (for the USA,
it is 1917-1918)
- 1936 : the Front Populaire (Socialist
- 1939-1945 : WW2 (for the USA,
it is 1941-1945)
- 1968 : student riots
- More to come
Controversies about history ...
Masochism? Slavery, colonialism, the Vichy government, etc are an important part of the (mandatory) national programs for History in schools. There is an endless controversy about the proportion between these negative sides and the more positive aspects of French history. Read more about it.
- Obliterated memory ? An American myth : the French refuse to look at their (ugly) past ! Is it true or is just what the New York Times likes to believe ? Read more.
DID YOU KNOW THAT ….? Why the name France? After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th Century, the Roman Gaul was invaded by various Germanic tribes no longer contained by the Roman army. Some of them crossed the country and went to North Africa through Spain or to Italy (Vandals or Wisigoths). Other tribes settled, for instance the Burgondes (who created Burgundy) and the Franks, who settled between what is now Belgium and what is now Paris. Around Paris, the small kingdom of the Franks took the name of Francie or France (this is why the name of the Region around Paris is "Ile-de-France"). Then the minor kings of France progressively conquered what, previously, was the Roman Gaul until they reached the mountains of Pyrenees or the Alps, or the Rhine. Later, the currency of the kingdom took the name of the country, the Franc. The Germanic root of the name Frank is "free".
| French history in a nutshell
|| Top French national heroes
A strong state (l'Etat):
French history is the history of the building of the state, which
was the persistent action of the kings, from the small warlike
Franc kings (a small tribe, north of what is now Paris) to the
Sun King or Napoleon. The country was rich and populated, exposed
to dangerous neighbours : the German world, England, the Mediterranean
world, not to mention Viking or Arab invasions. The constant
policy of the kings was to develop a strong state to protect
the country from invasions. At the peaks of its power (XIIIth
Century or XVIIIth Century), France was the most populated and
the most powerful power in Europe. Read about the state
and about its civil servants.
Today, the Prefect is the representant of the State in each of
the 100 "Départements" : he is appointed by
the government (and not elected) and his powers and his prestige
are huge. By American standards, France is an incredibly centralized
A conservative country : in the XVIth
Century, France (la fille
ainée de l'Eglise) chose to reject the Reformation ; the Church and the kings kept
control over all sources of new ideas. Many aspects of French
society result from this choice (in particular the extreme difficulties
to introduce reforms progressively and the country progressing
through riots and revolutions).
The French fear
change : see Peyrefitte ("Le
Mal Français") and Marseille
("du bon usage de la guerre civile en France")
Art and culture come first
: the country being rich and tightly controlled
by kings and nobility, huge resources could be allocated to art
for pleasure and for the glory of God and the king. See Braudel.
and read about "l'exception
- Clovis, the first king, who
- Charlemagne (who is also a German
d'Arc who saved the French
from the English...
- King Henri IV because he re-established
peace after the War of Religion and he cared for the people (everyone
knows he said :"I want every family to put a chicken in
the pot every Sunday") ; a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism, saying "Paris is worth a mass".
- Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), the very symbol of a great Prime Minister
- Louis XIV (the Sun King) because
- Napoleon, because of glory and
because he organized the country with structures which still
exist (the Code Civil, the educational system, the prefects,
- Louis Pasteur,
the image of the good scientist.
- Victor Hugo, poet and writer
read worldwide, political opponent to Napoleon 3rd
- Jean Jaures, murdered in 1914, the icon of the Left (but not only)
de Gaulle who rebuilt
French national pride after WW2 and ended the Algerian war and
- More to come (read more about
DID YOU KNOW THAT....? Names of streets give
a good idea of some of the (more recent) national heroes and
some of them have a street named after them in a majority if
not all French cities : Jean Jaurès (a socialist leader
murdered just before WWI as he was trying to avoid it breaking
out), Emile Zola (the illustrious writer of the life of the working
class at the end of the XIXth century), Louis Pasteur and Victor
Hugo (see above), heroes of the Resistance in WW II (Pierre-Brossolette,
Vailland-Couturier, Jean Moulin,...), and now General
de Gaulle, etc... See a list of the most frequent names of streets in France
and read more
split country : since France has a rather limited culture of
consensus (this is
an understatement...), the whole history of France is the history
of one half against the other half : the Armagnacs vs the Bourguignons
(15th century), the Catholics vs the Protestants (16th century),
the Anciens vs the Modernes (17th century), the Girondins vs
the Montagnards (1790s), the Republicans vs the Royalists (end
19th century), Secular vs Catholics (begining 20th century),
now the Right vs the Left, etc... Each national vote illustrates
the existence of two
Frances, a typical example being the May 2005 referendum on
the European Constitution. There is also a strong North-South
Read how it impacts France's European policy the French policy always hesitate between been a North European state (and not the most serious) or a South European state (and the leader of the others).
country with a mission
: due to its strong state, its large population and its place
in the center of Europe, France has developed the ambition to
carry to the world a universal message (the Rights of Man, Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité,
the motto of the French Republic, etc) ; Napoleon and his army
were sincerely convinced they were bringing liberty and democracy
to Europe. He used the words "Our armies will bring to the
world Liberty and the Rights of Man ". Doesn't it sound
familiar ? The same words George W.Bush used ! In the days of
colonialism, it is interesting to observe how different it was
between English colonization ("we respect local cultures
because they are and they will always be different") and
French colonization ("they
are lucky, they will become like us"). This also sounds
familiar.... This is why France maintains a huge diplomatic
and cultural network, compared to her size : read
more about it. Read about de Gaulle
and about French possessions.
Read more about historical
More to come..
The chauvinistic section
Read a rather grandiose
and lyric vision of France by Charles de Gaulle, in the very first page
of his War Memoirs :
my life, I have thought of France in a certain way. This is inspired
by sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me tends
to imagine France, like the princess in the fairy stories or
the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional
destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has
created her either for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes.
If, in spite of this, mediocrity shows in her acts and deeds,
it strikes me as an absurd anomaly, to be imputed to the faults
of the Frenchmen, not to the genius of the land. But the positive
side of my mind also assures me that France is not really herself
unless in the front rank ; that only vast entreprises are capable
of counterbalancing the ferments of dispersal which are inherent
in her people ; that our country, as it is, surrounded by the
others, as they are, must aim high and hold itself straight,
on pain of mortal danger. In short, to my mind, France cannot
be France without greatness."
More about de
Gaulle and America.
The French have the reputation of being
very chauvinist (the word itself comes from a character in a
XIXth century play, a fellow named Chauvin who was a soldier
of Napoleon). To reinforce this reputation, here is a list of
"do you know who invented ...?" : the cinema,the sardine can, etc.. and who discovered the HIV virus ? Click here for the answer.
A more serious section...
A historian vision : what is France ?
Who are really the French ? What to they have in common that grounds their national identity ? Which episodes of their national history are keys to understand their vision of their own country ? etc. An authoritative serie of books about these questions isLes lieux de memoireby illustrious historian Pierre Nora, who coordinated the work of tenths of the best French historians to product more than three thousand pages on the subject ! It is a serie of essays, some of them extremely brilliant on such various subjects as : Left and Right, The persecution of the Protestants, The French Academy, The forest, and two or three hundred of others. (Realms of Memory. Rethinking the French Past, Columbia University Press, 1996). A must to understand France from an academic viewpoint.
A short bibliography of some
of the books I like :
- Fernand BRAUDEL, L'identité
de la France, Arthaud, 1986 (The identity of France,
Harpers & Collins, 1988) (this book is definitely a must!)
- Jean FAVIER, Paris- 2000
ans d'histoire, Fayard, Paris, 1997
- Pierre NORA, Realms of memory
- The Construction of the French Past, Columbia Univ. Press,
(a key book to understand the French identity)
PAXTON, Vichy France, Columbia University Press, New York,
- Alain PEYREFITTE, Le Mal Français,
Plon, Paris 1976 (a very clear-sighted book on the major weakness
of the French society : the inability to progress by reforming
in English : The Trouble with France, Random House, 1981.
- Ronald ROSBOTTOM, When Paris Went Dark. The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944, Little, Brown & Co, 2014
PEYREFITTE, C'était de Gaulle, Paris, Fayard, 1994
(2 vol.) (after having worked closely for de Gaulle, a mine of
extraodinary quotes about France, the French, the Americans... read some of them)
- Alan RIDING, And the show went on - cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris, A.Knopf, 2010
- Barbara TUCHMAN, A Distant
Mirror-The Calamitous 14th Century, A.Knopf, New York, 1978
TUCHMAN, The Guns of August, Bantam, 1976
- Eugen WEBER, Ma France,
- Gordon WRIGHT, France in
Modern Times, Norton,1987
- Theodore ZELDIN, France 1848-1945
Intellect and Pride, Oxford 1980
- More to come...
And also :
- Michel CARMONA, Hausmann :
his Life and Times and the Making of Modern Paris, Ivan R.Dee
Pub, 2002 (in French : Haussmann, Fayard, 2000)
- Ina CARO, The Road from the
Past - Traveling Through History in France, A Harvest Book,
- Stephen CLARKE, 1000 years of annoying the French, Transworld Pub., 2010 : a funny chronicle of centuries of love/hate relations between France and UK
- Robert DARNTON, The Great
Cat Massacre, Vintage, New York, 1984
- Laura Dee DOWNS & Stephane
GERSON, Why France ? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring
Fascination, Cornell University Press, 2007 (American historians
tell why they decided to study French history)
- Nancy MITFORD, Madame de
Pompadour, Sphere Books, New York, 1968
TIERSKY, François Mitterrand - The Last French President,
St.Martin's, New York, 2000
- More to come...
- For more bibliography, click
here and see some questions
about the French and history.
- "What is it to be French?" : read about the controversy on "national identity"
|To related pages : history of Franco-American
relations (#2), getting mixed up with all these kings? (#5), to more
French history (#3), to the Gallic roots (#4), French styles (in furniture, castles, etc), French taboos, etc...
To top of the
Back to home
Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French.
Order her books:
- "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
- "French Toast, An American in Paris
Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press,
New York, 1999
- "French Fried, The Culinary Capers
of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001
More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming
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and on speeches by Harriet and/or by Philippe Rochefort
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