- Histoire mondiale de la France ed. by Patrick Boucheron
A group of French scholars has offered a vigorous and, judging by the book's library triumph and Alain Finkielkraut's irate reaction to it, an effective and successful rebuttal to those who, in the Hexagon, have been loudly opposing the idea of a multicultural France. Delivering an engaging and eclectic work that splendidly speaks to France's longstanding relations with the world, Patrick Boucheron and his confrères have produced in Histoire mondiale de la France a book that might very well put to rest the recurrent and divisive question of identity in France.
Directed by Patrick Boucheron of the Collège de France, Histoire mondiale de la France is the collective effort of over a hundred scholars—most of whom are historians, but also anthropologists, archeologists, literary critics, and political scientists—who entice readers into a grand tour of French history. The collection spans large in terms of time frame—from 34,000 b.c. to 2015—as well as topics and geography, taking readers from Sweden to Haiti, New Caledonia to Armenia, Cannes to Dunkirk. In a series of fast-paced chapters, some narrated as engaging anecdotes, others more academically presented, Histoire mondiale de la France brings France into the world and the world into France's history.
The volume opens with a brief ouverture that highlights the project's approach—looking at French history en très longue durée through the lens of world history. Adopting a chronological line, Histoire mondiale de la France is divided into thirteen sections, each of which is comprised of a brief introduction followed by short chapters labeled with a date, in red, serving as title. A subtitle and a two-sentence synopsis accompany the date-title and invite readers to a stroll into the chapter which concludes with bibliographic references and cross-references. Each of the thirteen sections in Histoire mondiale de la France is illustrated by a black and white image that is discussed in a following chapter. The image is juxtaposed with the section title, which is printed in white against a red background—the black, white, and red colors of the page thus echoing the jacket cover in a subtle reminder, and modification, of [End Page 406] the Tricolore. At the end of the book a names index is available as well as a subject index teasingly entitled "parcours buissoniers."
Structure wise, the book is much less revisionist than its critics like to claim. Several of its thirteen sections coincide roughly with a period of 100 years, thereby adopting a rather conventional periodization. Titles for the sections are equally unexceptional. Section 6, for example, contains twelve chapters spanning 1633 to 1720 and is entitled "La puissance absolue." Similarly, the eleven chapters comprising the period 1751 to 1794 are gathered under the section heading of "La nation des Lumières." 1515, 1789, 1914, and 1968 are dates with which school children in France are familiar and they all appear in Histoire mondiale de la France. The collection, however, goes well beyond historiographic orthodoxy. By including dates that, to the neophyte at least, might seem more surprising (e.g., 882, 1712) and by revisiting common tropes, the book brings past and present, local and global into rich dialogues. "1539: L'empire du français," for example, showcases the Villers-Cotterêts ordonnance and its ramifications in modern France. "1610: Le climat politique de la France baroque" proposes juxtaposing Henri IV's assassination and the first ecological crisis in America. Histoire mondiale de la France thus invites a reexamination of well-studied places and historical moments such as Chauvet, Versailles, and World War II, as well as a serious investigation of important episodes that have yet to be fully integrated into French mentalités as well as further studied by scholars. Encouraging original avenues for studies, Boucheron and his team achieve a balanced view of French history in a volume that, in spite of its brief chapters and its unusually large time span, is neither fragmented nor unifying in...