Like the United States, France is a melting pot. But while on this side of the Atlantic newcomers came to the United States, on the other it was France that came to the newcomers.
For three-quarters of a millennium, the kings of France pursued a policy of determined and generally successful expansionism, engorging their small principality in the Seine basin into a domain stretching to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. Had history taken a slightly different bounce, what is now Burgundy might have been as independent as Belgium.
As slow as the process of expansion was, the process of digestion was even slower. On the eve of the French Revolution, the kingdom was divided by radical differences of law, time zones, tax rules, even by customs barriers. The language of Provence or Languedoc was at least as different from that of Paris as the language of Lisbon was different from that of Madrid. And within the old province, language differed from town to town, from village to village.
The Revolution was a Parisian event imposed on often violently resisting provinces. Nineteenth century French governments – whether royal or republican – ruled the provinces from above like an imperial power, each departement governed by a Paris-appointed prefect accountable to the ministers in the capital, not the population below.
The historian Eugen Weber introduced into English the story of the bubbling French melting pot in his classic work, Peasants Into Frenchmen. As late as 1870, a majority of so-called Frenchmen almost certainly did not speak French. Three innovations of the late 19th century launched the assimilative process: universal schooling, railways, and conscription. One great social change of the 20th century completed it: urbanization. Today we might wonder whether another social change, mass migration, will undo the work.
In his new book, The Discovery of France, Graham Robb seizes and extends Weber’s ideas with such enthusiasm that eventually he seems to have become convinced he invented them himself.
The Discovery of France aggregates stories – some fascinating, others less so – around a rather wan argument: that travel and tourism by the French within France should be regarded as instrumentalities of unification as powerful and as important as Weber’s schools, railways, and draft. His book is not so much a description of primordial France as a description of the metropolitan elite’s encounters with that France. He opens with a shocking story of the first cartographer to map a mountain near the Rhone River, 350 miles south of Paris in the 1740s. He wandered too close to a village that mistrusted his strange clothes and strange behavior – and hacked him to death.
Robb piles such stories one atop the other until pre-20th Century France comes to seem as remote from modern life as the interior of the Congo.
In the 1770s, a cure near Auch was heard to call out before Mass, “Sorcerers and sorceresses, wizards and witches, leave thou the Church ere the Holy Sacrifice commence!” – at which some of the congregation stood up and walked out.
The vague location and dating of the story do not exactly inspire confidence. Flipping to the notes, one sees a citation to a magazine article published in the 1870s. And how did that magazine writer get the story? Not explained.
The effect on the reader – at least this reader – of the accumulation of anecdotes is one of simultaneously gathering fascination and incredulity. I came to feel not that I was being told something, but that I was being sold something: that the author was sifting and selecting not for its truth value but for its shock value.
Yet that said – what better way is there to spend a Bastille Day away from France than by dipping into this strange glimpse of the obscurities and antiquities of the country? Robb’s work may not deserve to be placed alongside Weber’s masterpiece on the library shelf. But it will certainly entertain visitors if left on the bathroom shelf. And for sure, it beats watching Sonia Sotomayor’s graceless evasions on cable news.