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This Controversial History Book Is Causing a Stir in France and Beyond. Here’s Why

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A history of France, newly available in English, has shocked some readers by what it omits, as much as what it includes. Patrick Boucheron, a French specialist of medieval Italian history, organized the project after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. These shook a country already riven by xenophobia and anti-Semitism after the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a young Frenchman of Moroccan Jewish ancestry in 2006, and related events. Amidst the turmoil four years ago, right-wing French presidential candidates called for a return to a sense of national identity through a teaching curriculum reflecting an insular France. As a counter-offensive, Boucheron asked dozens of historians employed by elite Paris institutions to produce brief essays arranged in chronological order. As the publisher explains, the book dynamically “conceives of France not as a fixed, rooted entity, but instead as a place and an idea in flux, moving beyond all borders and frontiers, shaped by exchanges and mixtures.” So interactions within the country itself and outside are offered, as when ambassadors from Persia or Siam appear at a French royal reception, or when Chile’s President Salvador Allende, a hero for the Gallic left wing, was overthrown in 1973; all are highlighted as part of the nation’s history.

The result, France in the World: A New Global History — a bestseller in France in 2017 — is lively, especially in episodes about prehistorical cave dwellers and agriculture, which read like lofty versions of historical fiction. The book is meant to serve as a reaction to the idea that there exists a single version of French history, and it concerns insular France. And it’s hard to argue, both on the virtue of the book’s content and also the success of it, that it hasn’t succeeded in making that argument. However, it also raises important questions about what readers get out of this exercise. The editors suggest readers jump around between the essays, to gather new knowledge here and there. But if you read it through, in search of more than factoids, are you rewarded with a true history of France — or left with little more than a supplement to mainstream history?

There is a certain devil-may-care boldness in the choice of subjects. Few other histories of France devote a chapter to Allende, let alone the death of Joseph Stalin, on the grounds that the murderous Soviet dictator was loved and mourned by French Communists. Yet many French subjects of interest and importance are excluded.

One key story overlooked is The Appeal of 18 June 1940, a radio broadcast by Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, generally seen as the origin of the French Resistance to the German occupation during World War II. After a chapter on a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police in 1942, neither the French Resistance nor collaborationist Vichy France is explored. Chapters are sparse for that era; we go from the French Front Populaire in 1936 immediately to 1940 and the official naming of Brazzaville, in what was then called the French Congo, as capital of Free France between 1940 and 1942. Also in 1940, the discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux, an occasion for more prehistory, which this book does well and evocatively.

But then the next chapter is on the 1942 deportation, and after that, it is 1946 and the Cannes film festival, so World War II gets short shrift. The great Resistance hero Jean Moulin, eulogized by André Malraux in a celebrated bit of French oratory in 1964 when his remains were reburied in the Panthéon, is not even mentioned here. (As an overall rule, major things associated with De Gaulle are scanted — one admittedly oversimplified reason might be that de-emphasizing the important, and arguably international, time of German Occupation of France is in key with the later view by Mitterrand and other French politicians that Vichy France was not really France, so there was no reason to ever apologize for wartime atrocities carried out by the government at that time.) Instead, we lurch ahead to 1946, when the first Cannes Film Festival was presented, highlighting France as a center for world cinema. Written by a film historian, this chapter repeatedly recalls that a French government minister, Jean Zay, had planned a film festival at Cannes. Readers are not told that Zay was among the Jews murdered by a militia composed of French Nazi collaborators.

Internationally influential French thinkers from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan to the political scientist Raymond Aron are also omitted. Instead, we are given some comparatively frivolous mini-essays about Coco Chanel and the opening of the Negresco Palace Hotel in Nice in 1913, lauding France as fashion center and tourist mecca. Fair enough, but why no chapters about wine and food, two equally fabled French commodities? There has been some accommodation for English language readers, as a prefatory note indicates that some cuts and additions were made in the translation process: “We have translated 90% of the French-language essays,” the note reads, but we are not told whether this means that 10% of essays were axed completely or simply trimmed.

More serious disappointments include a chapter on the philosopher René Descartes, which, instead of explaining his writings, describes how he travelled to many different countries. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, with over 16,000 death sentences carried out by the government, is relativized. So instead of seeing the Terror as a uniquely French matter, with Robespierre as deputy to the National Convention in 1794 declaring that the “basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror,” it’s likened to America’s Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which resulted in deportations, or political repression in Netherlands and Austria. In all these places, it is suggested, “revolutionary wars led to authoritarian clampdowns.” Yet a difference does exist between clampdowns and gory government-organized massacres.

To such criticisms, Boucheron has insisted that his book is just an alternative reading of history, created for pleasure, and not intended to be exhaustive. Stéphane Gerson, who supervised the English language edition, responded in a preface to other complaints. The supposedly diverse, internationalist book was written mostly by male authors, mainly affiliated with Paris institutions. Gerson curiously explains that this was because the project had to “move fast.” Surely he did not mean to imply that female scholars and those based in France’s former colonies could not be relied upon for prompt, efficient work. In any case, this is not exactly a woke volume; essential dates in French feminist history are forgotten, like 1974, when Minister of Health Simone Veil championed legalized abortion in France. If historians are to be encouraged to write creatively, all the more important for their subjects to be chosen carefully.

French literature, music and art are also mostly missing. In a debate printed in Le Point weekly, Boucheron rhetorically asked, “Why should France be more defined by its literature than by its landscapes?” Yet without its books and culture, not to mention its food and wine, why should the world take any special interest in France?

The American historian Robert Darnton, a specialist in microhistory, praised France in the World as a “breath of fresh air,” although he recommended dipping into it, rather than trying to read it straight through. Indeed, Boucheron’s team helpfully suggests thematic sequences of chapters to read for those who prefer to jackrabbit through historical data rather than going right through the book. Other leading historians were more critical. In the debate in Le Point, Patrice Gueniffey, an expert on Napoleon, called France in the World a “crumbled history made of disconnected fragments.” Pierre Nora, whose Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past described places and objects making up the national identity of France, was troubled by Boucheron’s alternative dates for French history. In an article for L’Obs magazine, Nora likened these alternative dates to the alternative facts currently rife in Washington, D.C., insisting that verifiable truth was the historian’s ultimate goal. Readers will enjoy this sometimes quasi-flippant Parisian intellectual pirouette through history, picking and choosing principal subject matter with panache. Others seeking a more weighty portrait of France’s individuality may miss justification for the Elizabethan essayist Francis Bacon’s comment that the French are “wiser than they seem.”

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