Transnational France
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Transnational France

The Modern History of a Universal Nation

Tyler Stovall

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Transnational France

The Modern History of a Universal Nation

Tyler Stovall

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About This Book

Now in its second edition, Tyler Stovall's Transnational France takes a transnational approach to the history of modern France that draws the reader into a key aspect of France's political culture: universalism.

Beginning with the French Revolution and its aftermath, Stovall traces French history right up to the present day and examines France's relations with three other areas of the world: Europe, the United States, and France's colonial empire. The book shines a light onto both French identity and the history of the world more broadly, which allows the reader to engage with French history in a much wider context. This new edition features an additional chapter on France in the twenty-first century that offers an analysis of current events and issues as seen through historical perspective. Issues addressed include anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the gilets jaunes, as well as the impact of Brexit, the maturation of the National Front under Marine LePen, and the administration of Emmanuel Macron.

Giving a global view of France's history, this is the perfect volume for students of modern France and French history courses.

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1 French Revolution, World Revolution

DOI: 10.4324/9781003057499-2
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, leader of France’s revolutionary armies, invaded Egypt, attempting to win local hearts and minds by, among other statements, claiming that the French people were Muslim. A year later, a group of French expatriates allied with the Sultan of the south Indian kingdom of Mysore to set up a Jacobin club in his kingdom and mobilize to fight the British. In 1802 when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces invaded Guadeloupe to reinstate chattel slavery, his armies faced those of the former slaves. Both sides brandished tricolor flags, and men of both armies fought and died to shouts of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The French Revolution was not only an event of world scope and importance, it in many ways shaped the modern world, constituting a foundational event in the rise of globalization. It lay at the heart of what historians have termed the ‘Age of Revolution,’ impacting peoples throughout the Atlantic basin and beyond. Yet this relationship did not go one way: if events in France had an impact far beyond the nation’s borders, so too did the global context help shape the pace and direction of the Revolution at home. The barricades of revolutionary Paris arose from local concerns, but at the same time the conquerors of the Bastille often reacted to events beyond the nation’s borders. The French Revolution was also one of the great world wars of the modern era, conflicts fostered by the constant interaction between Parisian radical politics and developments abroad.
Perhaps most important for this study, the Revolution created the modern idea of universalism in modern France and welded the identity of the French nation to that idea. The revolutionaries considered themselves motivated by principles applicable to all of humanity, and fought not just for a more just France but for a better world. At the same time they forged the identity of a nation, based precisely on universalist principles. Thus was born the paradox of national universalism, a paradox that more than anything else has shaped not just the political culture but the very identity of France since 1789.
In many ways, the French Revolution created the idea of modernity, both for France and for the world in general. It was the first modern revolution, against which all subsequent political upheavals would be measured. It established the norm for the modern nation-state, grounded both in political institutions and in the powerful political culture of nationalism. Finally, in important respects it created the modern idea of empire, radically reshaping this traditional political form. At the same time, it fundamentally reshaped social and cultural life in France itself, breaking down old social divisions and fostering new ones. In consequence, the great Revolution became the lodestone of French national identity in the modern era, as well as making France a global symbol of progressive change. However, it also tied France as a nation-state to the influences and fortunes of the wider world, inscribing a global dimension at the heart of the modern nation.
Figure 1.1 The Storming of the Bastille, 1789. Source: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

France and Europe in 1789

‘Happy as God in France,’ ran an old Yiddish saying, and indeed life for the French in the eighteenth century seemed fortunate in comparison to the rest of Europe and the world. France was a nation of unusual prosperity, blessed with abundant and fertile farmland, the greatest city on the European continent, and a lively commercial and intellectual life. While France did go to war, for example during the Seven Years War, such conflicts were fought far away from the national homeland; the kind of military anarchy that had devastated central Europe in the Thirty Years War had no place in living memory. Above all, France had a prosperous and independent peasantry, the vast majority of the population. Many owned their own land, if only tiny parcels of it, and most (but not all) could generally live life free from want and starvation.
Map 1.1 France in 1789
The substantial advantages of life in rural France, and to a significant extent in the country as a whole, appear more evident when compared with conditions in the rest of Europe. In important ways France occupied an intermediary position between the burgeoning capitalist societies of Britain and the Low Countries, on the one hand, and the more traditional societies east of the Rhine river, on the other. In contemporary England life in the countryside was being rapidly transformed by the changes, such as crop rotation and better methods of swamp drainage, collectively known as the ‘Agricultural Revolution.’ Such new methods sharply raised agricultural productivity, and the increased food supply in turn prompted increased population growth, urbanization, and ultimately the Industrial Revolution. However, local peasants often did not benefit from such innovations. A key aspect of the Agricultural Revolution in England, the enclosure movement, rationalized farming by privatizing the village common land often essential to the survival of the poorest peasants. New foodstuffs, most notably those miraculous American imports, corn and the potato, helped somewhat, but many of the most vulnerable farmers in Britain and the Netherlands found themselves confronting a choice between flight from the land or starvation.
In central and eastern Europe, by contrast, farming seemed to have improved little since the Middle Ages. Agricultural techniques remained traditional, and consequently productivity remained low. Peasants, the overwhelming majority, ate sparingly, mostly hard bread, and often worried about getting enough to eat. Moreover the independence of the French peasantry largely eluded them. In contrast to western Europe, the early modern era saw an increase in serfdom in the East. Far from owning land, many farmers in eastern Europe were still owned by it. With relatively few cities or towns to offer an escape from the travails of rural life, peasants in east and central Europe often led a precarious existence.
From these perspectives, French peasants, and the nation as a whole, were fortunate. Only a small minority were serfs, and popular ideology identified the country as the land of free men. At the same time, French commercial and landowning interests lacked the power of their British counterparts to force the enclosure of common lands, so that the landowning peasant remained a staple figure of the countryside and indeed the nation’s image of itself. Traditional enough to offer many of the protections of earlier centuries against the harsh new logic of capitalism, yet modern enough to provide a vibrant urban sector and a high standard of living, eighteenth-century France did in many ways seem to outsiders a blessed land, one of prosperity and contentment.
So how did such a happy nation produce one of the great revolutions of modern times? The poorest of the poor do not usually trigger revolutionary upheavals, but rather those who have some social means and standing but feel unfairly restricted by the political and institutional structure of their society. Eighteenth-century France, located partway between a dying feudal order and a nascent capitalist one, illustrated this. In 1789 France had 26 million people, divided into three estates whose origins went back to the Middle Ages. The first estate, the Catholic Church, owned about 10% of the land in France and was dominated by officials of noble origin. The second estate, the nobility, constituted roughly one to two percent of the population yet owned a quarter of the land. The aristocracy dominated positions in government and administration, in general constituting the wealthiest sector of society. To an important extent the first two estates enjoyed exemption from major taxes like the taille, a tax on land.
The fact that the last of the three, the Third Estate, included everyone else in France and thus accounted for nearly 99% of the population, graphically demonstrated how obsolete this system of social rank and privilege had become. The peasantry, who alone accounted for four-fifths of the nation, owned roughly half of French land. This group varied widely, ranging from the wealthy farmers known as the ‘cocks of the village’ down to the poorest landless peasants. France also had a substantial and growing middle class, concentrated in the cities and towns, as well as large urban working-class communities. The various strata and classes of the Third Estate had little in common, except for the fact that they lacked the privileges of the first two estates. The middle class, or bourgeoisie, saw their share of the national wealth increase during the eighteenth century, yet its members lacked the social and political status that a noble title could bring. Many peasants paid substantial dues of feudal origin to aristocratic landowners, and resented having to pay taxes not imposed on the nobility. The divisions between the estates were not absolute: in particular, the wealthiest members of the bourgeoisie not only lived like nobles but often socialized with them. Nonetheless, hatred of the nobility was widespread in France during the late eighteenth century, frequently serving to unite an estate that would soon don the mantel of the nation as a whole.

Enlightening the World

Hostility to the nobility certainly helped bring about the Revolution, but such hatred was nothing new in France. The rise of the new set of ideas and values collectively known as the Enlightenment not only challenged the old feudal order systematically, but also provided an alternative to it. The relationship between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution is by no means clear-cut: its main figures emphasized reform, not insurgency, and the majority of people in France knew little about it. It did however help undermine the status quo in French society and politics. Emphasizing progress, change, and the primacy of human reason over superstition and traditional authority, the Enlightenment provided a language revolutionaries could use in their assault against the reigning order of things in 1789.
Even more than the Revolution itself, the Enlightenment was both French and global at the same time. The flight of French Protestants from their homeland in the late seventeenth century played a key role in the origins of the intellectual movement. Not only did the exile of the Huguenots loom large as an example of irrational religious intolerance, but French Protestants based elsewhere in Europe attacked the established order far more harshly than critics within France itself. Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, which called into question the authority of the Bible, was a case in point. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the high point of the Enlightenment, intellectual circles devoted to its ideas could be found not only throughout Europe but also across the Atlantic, in both North and South America. David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland, Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn in Germany, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in British North America all belonged to Denis Diderot’s Republic of Letters. Even the works of French Enlightenment writers often took an international perspective, such as Baron de Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation, and they frequently published their works abroad to avoid France’s censorship laws.
At the same time, French thinkers dominated the Enlightenment. The vibrant intellectual and social life of the French capital, the largest city on the European continent, played a major role in this. Most Parisians could read by the late eighteenth century, and many took part in the public culture of cafes and newspapers, whose numbers mushroomed during the eighteenth century. On the eve of the Revolution Paris had 100 Masonic lodges, drawing men from a wide variety of social backgrounds committed to Enlightenment values of progress. The city’s famed salons, social gatherings usually hosted by women of the aristocracy, provided opportunities for Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophes, to spread their ideas among the Parisian elite. Also important, however, was the fact that France combined an active public sphere with a repressive monarchy and clergy. This clash between modernity and tradition, similar to that between feudal and capitalist views of society, made France’s philosophes more focused than elsewhere on fighting the established order and thus championing the new. A key feature of modern French life, the politically engaged intellectual, was born in the Enlightenment.
Key to Enlightenment philosophy was the belief that its ideals applied to all men at all times. Universalism defined the movement, both in France and on a global scale, for several reasons. Inspired by the Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as taking the idea of general principles governing the physical world and applying similar insights to the study of humanity and society. Just as nature was shaped by universal laws and standards, so too was the human experience. The central clash between the Enlightenment and the Church also shaped the universalist expectations of the former, a negative mirror of the Christian universalism long espoused by Rome. The emphasis of the philosophes on the centrality of the French language underscored the fact that the universalism of the Enlightenment was very much a French universalism; in 1780 King Frederick II of Prussia wrote an essay on German literature praising the clarity of French. As the Enlightenment grew in power and influence in eighteenth-century France, so too did the assumption that French culture would play a central role in realizing its universalist aims. The French Revolution would go a long way toward putting that assumption into practice.
Yet for all its insistence on universalism, Enlightenment philosophy did not embrace an egalitarian vision of humanity. The vaunted equality of men generally did not apply to women, for example. Many male intellectuals resented the power high profile women enjoyed in the Parisian salons, and often embraced a vision of females as inferior to men, passive and weak. In books like Emile and Julie, or The New Heloise the great philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau made it clear that a woman’s place was in the home, subordinate to the man. Enlightenment universalism also led to a new sense of racial hierarchy, arraying peoples from superior to inferior according to a racist vision of humanity which invariably placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. As would become clear during the subsequent history of modern France, the legacy of the Enlightenment would prove both inspirational and at times problematic for the French people, and for the world as a whole.
During the 40 years before the Revolution broke out French Enlightenment thinkers successfully challenged the authority of the Church and the monarchy. They demanded freedom of speech and of the press, and insisted that human reason, not religion or tradition, should be the supreme arbiter of human affairs. In 1751 Denis Diderot started publishing the massive Encyclopedia, a collective work featuring the work of leading philosophes that aimed at nothing less than the application of reason to all fields of human knowledge. Officially banned by the royal censors, the Encyclopedia was simply too massive and prominent to suppress entirely, so it soon reached a wide reading public. Editions of Enlightenment works published outside France, especially in Switzerland and the Netherlands, also undermined the efforts of the French censors to restrict the new ideas. During the 1760s the philosophes established their dominance over Parisian intellectual life, infiltrating institutions of official royal culture like the Académie française. By the time both Voltaire and fellow philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau died in 1778, even influential members of both the Church and the royal court had embraced their ideas, and France as a whole seemed to be moving along the path of reform laid out by the Enlightenment.
For this reason, although the ideas of the Enlightenment certainly influenced the upheaval of 1789, we must look elsewhere for its causes. Ultimately the Enlightenment preached reform, and successful reform at that, not revolution. The national universalism of the movement was one of its greatest legacies, but a different aspect of international concerns had a more immediate impact in triggering the birth pangs of modern France.

From Crisis to Revolution

A combination of international concerns and domestic problems together brought about the collapse of the ancien régime in France. The French monarchy had viewed France as the leading nation in Europe, devoting a great deal of energy and treasure to realizing French continental hegemony. The foreign policy ambition of Louis XIV in particular had established a model of French greatness on an international scale. Yet it was an expensive model, and even though France was a wealthy nation the inability of the governments of the ancien régime efficiently to mobilize its resources ultimately spelled disaster. As 1789 would demonstrate, absolute monarchy could no longer realize the dreams of French universalism; the Revolution would provide a new model for modern France.
The first major upheaval in what would come to be called the Age of Revolution took place not in France, however, but in Britain’s North American colonies. Although fundamentally different from France’s great revolution in many important respects, the American War of Independence foreshadowed it in at least two ways. First, it drew strongly upon Enlightenment principles, thus demonstrating that that movement’s vision of a progressive republic was indeed feasible. Second, it helped bring to a head the fiscal crisis of the French monarchy, thus directly precipitating the events of 1789.
The American Revolution had an enormous attraction for the progressive intellectuals of France. Widely interpreted as an uprising for liberty and human rights against a despotic king, the cause of the American colonists seemed to draw directly from French Enlightenment philosophy. Thei...

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