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French Historical Studies 23.2 (2000) 215-238
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Teaching French History as Colonial History and Colonial History as French History
Alice L. Conklin
Teaching National and Regional History in a Global Age
“France enjoys a privileged place in the imagination of educated Britons and Americans precisely because it is so stubbornly different. They argue that France must modernize its economy and political system, but they also mourn the passing of the old France; they [like the French] fear that a new France will be less French.”1 So writes Alan Riding, the New York Times Paris correspondent reviewing Jonathan Fenby’s new book, France on the Brink.2 If we believe both Fenby—an English journalist who has covered France for twenty years and married there—and Riding, those of us who have always been drawn to France’s différence should be seriously worried. As fin-de-siècle globalization presumably levels all cultural particularisms before it, France risks becoming a lot more like America. Most familiar among the unwelcome transformations already well underway, we regularly read, are the growth of urban and suburban ghettoes crowded with Asians and Africans from the former colonies and the attendant eruption of race riots, xenophobia, and extreme nationalism directed against these latest immigrants. La grande nation, which long prided itself on its color blindness, ability to assimilate new peoples, and absence of the race problems that have plagued the United States, now must confront just what it means to be multicultural, multiracial, and French at the end of the twentieth century. [End Page 215]
The ongoing debate on French identity triggered by the most recent immigrant crisis has often been confusing to American observers. The French Left still seems locked into a universalist discourse that, by ignoring difference, ironically obfuscates the everyday practices of racism immigrants encounter. The French Right claims to respect difference—but only outside of France, where it rightly belongs. Despite the blind spots evident in this debate, I have found that its existence, and the globalization ostensibly threatening French identity, have made the teaching of French history much easier. A country that seemed eternally associated in the minds of students with berets, cheese, and baguettes can now be presented to them as a sister republic founded on the same central contradiction as our own: an inspiring celebration of human rights and freedom in tandem with a troubled legacy of discrimination on the basis of race (not to mention gender). In the United States, this discrimination took the form of slavery, imperialist expansion in Latin America and the Pacific, Jim Crow laws, and the current, more subtle, forms of racism that continue to haunt our culture. In France, it was embodied in ongoing overseas colonization efforts that began with Napoléon’s Egyptian campaign and were followed by two vicious wars of decolonization, emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, and today’s popular claims that it is not the French but the immigrants refusing to assimilate who are racist. At the same time, French identity, which seemed fixed and constantly unfolding, can now be taught as the unstable product of specific historical forces in which certain events are consciously forgotten and others are deliberately remembered. The nature of these forces and the malleability of memory need to be better understood if today’s integral nationalists—in France or elsewhere—are to be thwarted and a genuinely color-blind France is to be created in the future.
These two orientations—French history as colonial history and the construction of the French nation and national identity—have governed my approach to making French history relevant to today’s undergraduates and preparing them for a world of dissolving boundaries yet constantly rekindling nationalisms. Neither flattens the différence between France and America nor dwells excessively on the ugly underside of French history over the last two centuries. Instead, they each provide somewhat familiar points of departure for American students to begin exploring what is unique about the French experience of modernity...