Moreover, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? played into established representations of France as a “rational” nation, whose roots lay in René Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum”. This Cartesianism was a matter of substance, but also style: “what is not clear” affirmed the writer Rivarol sweepingly in his De l’universalité de la langue française (1784) “is not French”. Hence the French fondness for abstract notions, as the essayist Emile de Montégut observed: “there is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, and whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies”. Seen as typically Gallic, too, was a questioning and adversarial tendency: as Fernand Giraudeau put it in Nos moeurs politiques (1868): “we are French, therefore we are born to oppose”.
Reflecting on the characteristics of France in his Identity of France (1986), Braudel observed that the nation had come into being through an incremental process: Frenchness was “a residue, an amalgam, a thing of additions and mixtures”. It recognized itself in “a thousand touchstones, beliefs, ways of speech, excuses, in an unbounded subconscious, in the flowing together of many obscure currents, in a shared ideology, shared myths, shared fantasies”.
Pierre Nora’s monumental collection Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984–92) lamented the fragmentation of the unified culture of Frenchness. Writings about the fate of the nation became increasingly bleak and inward-looking – a crisis highlighted by fears of a loss of France’s global “rank”, and the growing nostalgia for an ethnically and culturally homogenous nation (often disguised, confusingly, as a defence of republican laïcité). This declinist spirit was reflected in two best-selling pamphlets, Alain Finkielkraut’s L’Identité malheureuse (2013) and Eric Zemmour’s Le suicide français (2014); and in Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel about the election of an Islamist candidate to the French presidency, which bore the resigned title Soumission (2015). Discussions of the integration of post-colonial minorities revived old French exclusionary stereotypes: postcolonial citizens were cast as the boorish “provincials” of the twenty-first century, incapable of rational Cartesian thought and threatening the social cohesion of the nation. Stridently rejecting any concession to multiculturalist ideals, conservative historians and politicians even proposed to restore a coherent historical myth of Frenchness (the “roman national”). As French political elites struggled to give voice to minority postcolonial narratives, literary fiction stepped into the breach, notably with Kamel Daoud’s novel Meursault, contre-enquête (2013), in which the faceless Arab murdered in Camus’s L’Etranger steps out of the shadows.
However, the apocalyptic nightmares of the declinists were challenged from the outset, notably by the signatories of the 2007 Le Monde petition calling for French creative writing to abandon its narcissistic tendencies and open itself to the world; over the past decade, this “littérature-monde” has significantly broadened the horizons of the annual rentrées littéraires. The trend was confirmed in 2017 with the election of Emmanuel Macron, who celebrated France’s European identity and vowed to promote a more effective dialogue among the nation’s conflicting historical “memories”. This dynamism was echoed in the intellectual sphere with the publication of the Histoire mondiale de la France, an edited collection which has sold more than 100,000 copies. Affirming the mutually constitutive relationship between France and the world, it mocks the obsession with France’s Roman and Christian “origins” by opening with a chapter on prehistoric cave paintings in the Ardèche; it also defines modern French civilization as a métissage, a “fraternal and dynamic blend of cultures”. By displacing the Eurocentric assumptions of contemporary French identity, and confronting the implications of France’s imperial and colonial heritages, the Histoire mondiale opens the door to that most alluring of prospects: a genuinely universal republican vision of Frenchness.
France - no longer European.