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Triumph of the clerks

Jonathan Sumption

10 October 2007

12:21 PM

10 October 2007

12:21 PM

The Discovery of France Graham Robb

Picador, pp.400, 18.99

To the outside world, France has always seemed monolithic. The richest and most powerful of Europe’s nation-states until the 19th century, intellectually and artistically insular at most times, intensely nationalist throughout, the French have been fascinating neighbours but never easy ones. Yet until the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, few of its inhabitants felt truly French as opposed to, say, Auvergnat or Périgourdin. They lived in a geographically isolated and highly diverse provincial communities. They spoke many languages and dialects, venerated different saints and observed a variety of possessive local customs. Until well into the 18th century, most Frenchmen used the word ‘France’ to refer to the region around Paris. It was a bad place, where tax collectors and recruiting sergeants got their orders from.

The French nation is the creation of the state to a degree which is unique among European nations. It owes its existence to imperial notions of central authority preached to an indifferent population by the servants of the medieval monarchy and transmitted intact through generations of public servants. The revolutionaries, bent on eliminating older and more intimate loyalties and on mobilising the full resources of the country for war, imposed a rapid and forcible programme of integration and bureaucratic centralisation to which the population did not take easily. Nineteenth-century historians, like Michelet and Lavisse, added the great national myths and that sense of historical destiny which is peculiarly French. Roads, railways and broadcasters have done the rest. In spite of a growing interest in local history, dialects and folklore, modern France has become a remarkably homogeneous society.

Graham Robb claims to have discovered an older and more variegated France still living beneath the uniform exterior. Readers who know the country will be sceptical about that. But what he has actually written is something far more interesting, namely the story of how these ancient differences were gradually extinguished in the name of enlightenment and national unity. This is not the tale of wars and annexations which provides the stuff of standard histories. It is a story of language, geography and the daily experience of provincial life, of the loss of innocence and sinfulness in favour of a generalised correctness which is much the same whether you are in Paris, Lyon or the middle of the Ardèche.


The first condition of local particularism is ignorance. Robb is surely right to say that the first stage in the process of averaging out the differences among Frenchmen was to map out the country, thus providing its citizens with some knowledge of the next valley, and the state with the ability to find all of them. France was the first European country to commission comprehensive national maps, a process begun in the 1740s and only completed in the time of Napoleon. The Cassini maps, so called after the hereditary dynasty of official mapmakers which made them, are still among the most beautiful maps ever made. The surveyors were often assaulted and even murdered by villagers suspicious of the whole enterprise, and perhaps they had a point. For after the mapmakers came the roadbuilders. And after those the regulators, census-takers and battalions of official busybodies and, in the opposite direction, the tides of migrants in search of employment and an escape from the cramped horizons of village life.

The very landscape of France is in many places the confection of lawmakers and bureaucrats. Enlightened agriculture, disafforestation and officious replanting with imported species, mining, the pressures of mass tourism, and the elimination of much rural industry with the growth of the cities and the arrival of the zoners and planners, all of these have contributed to the creation of a landscape which travellers often assume to have existed from time immemorial. With the growing role of the state in daily life, wide dissemination of print and products and the onset of mass internal migration, the tribal rules and local gods of French provincial life have lost their appeal, to be replaced by the impressive confection represented by modern France.

Language is the great symptom. The French state decreed that its servants should speak the dialect of Paris as early as 1539. The revolutionaries regarded a uniform language (inevitably Parisian) as an essential condition of national solidarity. Yet the gradual adoption of French by the whole population owed less to official intervention than it did to snobbery and ambition. People will always learn to speak the language of the bosses, and the bosses come from Paris. The same thing happened spontaneously in England long before Lord Reith laid down that the only true English was spoken by the upper classes of London and the south-east.

Graham Robb is by background a literary historian, the author of biographies of those quintessentially Parisian writers Balzac and Hugo. He is a natural metropolitan. By his own account, it was not until he was in his late thirties that he ‘began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority’. He did it on a bicycle, whose leisurely speed, he says, offers the best way of observing the variety of the country. But do not be deceived. Observation has its place, but this is not a guide book or a travelogue. Robb’s cycling tours of France have contributed more questions than answers to his work. The Discovery of France is a thoughtful book, the fruit of much research into some compelling but little-known byways of French history, and a reminder that what the tourist sees is only a fraction of the story.


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