Histoire de la France contemporaine
Paris, Seuil, 2012, ISBN: 9782021000832; 432pp.; Price: £20.00
Paris, Seuil, 2012, ISBN: 9782021033472; 448pp.; Price: £20.00
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
These are the first two volumes of a new series, Histoire de la France contemporaine. They replace the previous Seuil series, published in the 1970s. As a reflection of the attitudes of current French academic specialists, they are interesting on two levels. Each is a careful synthesis of recent research on the two periods. In addition they indicate how the attitudes of French historians to their history have evolved since the first series appeared. The variation in the starting dates of the two series is startling. The 1970s series began with the 1789 Revolution, whereas the new one starts with 1799. The French Revolution, which in the 1970s was still considered of seminal importance to France, Europe, indeed to the world, seems no longer to be ranked as the beginning of contemporary history. Presumably 1789 will figure as an ending rather than a beginning in the concluding volume of a new Seuil Histoire de la France moderne, which is apparently planned for 2015. While one can appreciate that the demise of Communism in Europe and the elimination of a Marxist interpretation of history, which up to the early 1970s dominated French views of contemporary history, necessitates a rethinking of 1789, it seems extreme to expunge the Great Revolution from contemporary history. A reader might reasonably wonder why the revolutionary baby is being thrown out with the Marxist bathwater.
Volume one, L’Empire des Français 1799–1815, focuses on the European significance of the Empire, making full use of the author’s earlier study of the annexed departments together with the research of some British and Italian experts. Although all the massive conquests of 1792–1814 were lost in 1815 and within half a century new nation states had been forged, the author claims that this transient empire left a positive legacy for later French imperialism (perhaps in the cultural superiority evinced by some of the French conquerors, though this is never explained). This volume has four sections. Each chapter is subdivided thematically, although the basic structure is chronological. Part one present a fairly familiar scenario. Napoleon’s appointment as first consul in 1799 completed the Revolution; between 1802 and 1807 the Republic gradually faded and an Empire was constructed. Former supporters of the Directory backed Napoleon because they hoped to complete existing reform projects, because he offered them jobs and because a successful general was the best guarantee that French conquests would be retained and the civil war in western France brought to an end. Ordinary French people, were less enthusiastic; typically fewer than half of the voters took part in the plebiscites. By 1812 the new Empire (whose republican features soon faded) consisted of 130 departments administered by local elites, under the control of French officials. The Empire totalled 80 million people, including additional vassal states. Former émigrés were employed in senior posts, although their loyalty was dubious. The Concordat crumbled; the Pope refused to approve nominations to bishoprics within the Empire. From 1808 Napoleon lacked support within France for his imperial ambitions.
Part two deals with social issues. Society was managed by an amalgam of old regime and revolutionary features. Landed nobles and freemasons took a lead in the departments, often administered by former pre-1789 intendants, now called prefects. The Civil Code asserted patriarchal authority, but equal subdivision of property among heirs was decreed. New lycées and the centralized University educated the sons of bureaucrats (although they had spaces for only 10 per cent of the potential clientèle), but women’s orders still provided schooling for girls. Local studies show that economic development was very limited. Just over 9 per cent of the land of France, often church property, was sold by the revolutionaries as biens nationaux. Peasants, who constituted three quarters of the 81 per cent living in the countryside, bought nearly 40 per cent, but mainly lacked the capital to move out of subsistence farming. Wealthy purchasers bought the best land and embarked on a modest number of agriculture initiatives, particularly sheep-rearing and sugar beet. Some state encouragement and the availability of former church property for cotton production, facilitated a little industrial growth, but the British control of the seas and the earlier loss of colonies were serious setbacks and left western coastal cities such as Bordeaux and Nantes impoverished.
Part three asks how the French regarded the Empire. Holding it together became a struggle. France was massively behind Britain in armaments’ production. Between 1793 and 1815 Birmingham alone built a million rifles, more than was produced in the whole of France. The British were able to spend three times as much as the French on their technically far more advanced navy. However, although 1.3 million French soldiers were killed between 1792 and 1815 (as many as in the First World War), until 1812, when the war began to go badly, most French people were relatively unaffected by the war. Occupied countries furnished the French army with men, money and supplies. The cost of the army of occupation swallowed nearly 56 per cent of the Italian budget in 1813. From 1809 one-third of French regiments were staffed by foreigners, 700,000 in all. The war was blamed on England and portrayed as a patriotic and republican obligation, not Bonapartist, although Napoleon commanded profound personal loyalty from his soldiers. Patriotism was stirred by the display of the Bayeux tapestry in Paris; Joan of Arc was remembered as a victim of England.
Although army officers had a leading role in running the conquered territories, the Empire was not a military dictatorship. Three quarters of officers were drawn from the ranks, but former émigré and bourgeois officers secured more rapid promotion. Better-off families paid for replacements. Up to 28 per cent of recruits simply failed to appear; a mere 52,000 of those enrolled were volunteers. The Russian campaigns tested patriotic loyalties; 300,000 men died of illness and cold. At first some may have believed that they were fighting a war of liberation, but some began to behave as cultural imperialists critical of decadent, priest-ridden Italians. Local elites were offered subordinate posts, but attempts to create French-speaking lycées, for instance in Turin, were abandoned. The introduction of French reforms of law and administration were unpopular. Curiously the author does not mention that French was the language of educated Europeans at this time.
The final part of the book deals with the ‘Ends’ of Empire. When the Allied military campaigns were launched in 1813, local elites quickly abandoned the French. In 1813–14 Napoleon was unable to amass the necessary reserves in men and money in France, but the Empire did not succumb to internal rebellion, except around Bordeaux. Napoleon’s military defeat allowed the Allies to restore Louis XVIII. Despite his efforts to work with revolutionary institutions and Imperial personnel, the demobilisation of over 200,000 soldiers encouraged constant rumours of Napoleon’s return from Elba. When this came, problems of how to finance a second Empire, gather enough troops to fight Allied armies, and combat both revolutionary and legitimist aspirations proved overwhelming. A second Empire was made impossible because attempts in the summer of 1815 to re-jig the autocratic Imperial constitution to sound even vaguely liberal, were unconvincing, but even more by the Allies’ refusal to consider anything other than the removal of Napoleon. The Marseillaise was drowned by cannon in the 1812 Overture.
This book works hard to live up to its title, ‘the Empire of the French People’. The front cover shows a family pouring over a map of Europe, gripped by the successes of French armies in 1807. The text stresses negatives; that, once France had secured its ‘natural’ frontiers on the Rhine, Napoleon forced the French to accept conquests that they did not want. To explain the mismatch between Napoleon’s ambitions and public opinion the author observes that between 1805 and 1814 Napoleon was in Paris for only 900 out of 3,500 days. In addition, the complex and hierarchical structures surrounding him made him unaware that his unceasing military ambitions, especially in Spain and Russia, were unpopular. Yet the French did not turn against Napoleon in 1814, and there was no active opposition to his return a year later. Napoleon as a person is a shadow in this volume. The assertion that his military ambitions were unpopular after 1808 demands first, some evidence of public opinion, and second, an explanation how Napoleon was able to persist with constant war. The author claims that Bonapartism did not exist until 1814. If not, what was Napoleon’s appeal? The author seems to be accepting, contrary to his title, that, after 1808, the Empire was not that of the French people, but of Napoleon. If so, Napoleon, and especially how he was regarded, cannot be written out of the story, however much one might like to do so.
The period 1814–48 earned two volumes in the earlier Seuil series. Volume one was a general account, volume two a detailed analysis of the regions, making excellent use of the enormous local studies then being written by doctoral students. They are replaced by a single volume, Monarchies postrévolutionnaires 1814–1848, another challenging title. The approach is chronological and descriptive; prolific sub-headings reflect its broad range. Politics dominate, as indicated by the chapter headings, which are divided into predictable periods; the return of the White Flag, the struggle to achieve national reconciliation (1815–20), the ultra-royalist reaction, culminating in chapter four’s rather dismissive title, ‘From one monarchy to another’. Chapter five deals with the attempt of the July Monarchy to ‘set down roots’ (1832–40), while the final chapter runs through the ‘slide to immobility of conservative liberalism’. The book ends abruptly with a very brief narrative of the February Revolution, 1848. The account of politics offers few shocks; the writer eschews interpretation and analysis. His underlying philosophy seems to be to be that political changes were the result of chance and that events can be left to speak for themselves. Occasionally he seems to stop in his tracks and offer a measure of interpretation, for instance the observation that the 1830 and 1848 revolutions were the result of rather similar economic crises.
Where are the revolutions which until recently were the significant events in recent French history? Volume one ignored 1789 and volume two performs a similar sleight of hand with 1830 and 1848. But revolutions are not like white rabbits; they do not disappear. The title of volume two is assertively post-révolutionnaire. Yet both of the ‘post revolutionary monarchies’ fell prey to revolution. The period embraces two revolutions, 1830 and 1848, and several other episodes of popular unrest, in particular in Lyon in 1831 and 1834 and Paris in 1839. The 1830 revolution is no longer ‘Three Glorious Days’, but little more than a passing incident in the middle of a chapter. Revolutions appear here as rather embarrassing accidents, devoid of analytical substance. 19th-century revolutions may not have been Marxist, but they are still worth investigating, if only because revolutions, like the military dictator of volume one, remain serious concerns in the present day.
This volume is far more convincing and compelling when it moves away from politics. The period is shown as a time of wide-spread change. Goujon is particularly well-informed and interesting on economic developments and places commendable emphasis on regional variations. There is a very impressive guide to literary, artistic, religious and cultural developments. Philosophical matters are deftly explored. The complexities and variety in ultra-royalism and later in legitimism are so fully examined that the broad concepts almost melt away. However in the chapters on the Restoration, the ultras seem to swamp constitutional royalism, with the unspoken conclusion that the regime was indeed ‘impossible’, a view that has become popular in recent years, rather than a workable compromise torpedoed by a king and a small coterie out of touch with the country.
Charles X’s replacement, his cousin Louis-Philippe, comes over as a shrewd manipulator, whose demise is in part explained because, as he grew older, he began to believe he was king ‘because he was a Bourbon’, rather than despite his family connections. The front cover picture challenges the title of the book, exposing monarchy as far from ‘post-revolutionary’. It shows Louis-Philippe being offered the crown by the deputies, hemmed in by a turbulent crowd, with national guard banners waving, emphasising the novelty and danger of choosing a king. His heir, the duc d’Orléans, a man of radical liberal views, would have welcomed this element of choice, and if he had lived, the regime might have survived. The fate of monarchy may have turned on his death in a coaching accident in 1840, leaving an infant son. Louis-Philippe was well aware how precarious his death made the regime, which may explain his personal withdrawal into the ‘hereditary’ myth of one of the later paintings of him and his sons, in which the dead elder son appears. Historians tend to be too fatalistic when judging early 19th-century monarchies. Orleanism as a concept slips between the cracks of the last two chapters. There is a musty tinge to the reiteration that the Orleanist regime was held together by self-interest, given that historians now assert that the philosophy and personnel of the successful Third Republic in the 1870s was partly drawn from the ideas of former Orleanist liberals.
The emergence of ideas on social reform is realistically presented. The author succinctly distinguishes between the different early socialist tendencies and tries to explain to whom Saint-Simonism, Fourierism, Leroux, Blanc, Cabet etc. appealed. Republicans pop up where one would expect, but a fuller account of the various strands would have been useful. The February revolution appears from almost nowhere. A more analytical concluding chapter is needed, but perhaps the absence of conclusions is a design feature of the series. Volume one wound down merely with a reference to music written about the Empire.
Both volumes provide well-chosen bibliographies of recent monographs. Volume one contains a references to some research published in English, volume two very little, which is surprising given that the author’s next book is on European elites. Both volumes mention the work of recent historians, but with no footnote references. Unfortunately on a number of occasions the historians mentioned in the text do not appear in the bibliography. Volume one contains a few references to contemporary sources, which are footnoted; volume two cites no original material. While the target audience for the series may include the ‘general’ reader who may not want a guide to further reading, surely this series is mainly directed at undergraduate and postgraduate students, who will need guidance and ought to find the gaps in references frustrating. The 1970s series was published in English by Cambridge University Press and some of the volumes became an essential guide for English-speaking undergraduates. The new series will need some modifications if it is to fulfil a similar function.
Author’s response from Johann CHAPOUTOT, Quentin DELUERMOZ, Bertrand GOUJON and Aurélien LIGNEREUX.
We first would like to thank Professor Pilbeam for reading and reviewing the first two volumes of this new History of Modern France – out of the three that came out in October 2012.
Professor Pilbeam acknowledges this new series for renewing the vision of French modern history, 40 years after Le Seuil asked renowned historians to write an introduction to the history of France. She highlights the main qualities of the volumes, but raises a number of points to which we would like to respond.
Our reviewer was ‘startled’ by the fact that we decided to start this new series in 1799, rather than 1789. This does not mean that we ‘expunge[d] the Great Revolution from contemporary history’. Although this decade has been increasingly explored over the past few years by specialists of modern history – often more convincingly than by specialists of later periods – the French Revolution does remain of ‘seminal importance’ to us: the first three volumes of our Histoire de la France contemporaine deal with it on many occasions and it is one of the main threads which contribute to the unity and coherence of the series. Aurélien Lignereux’s volume examines how the revolution was institutionalized in France and disseminated by the sword of the French armies and the Code Napoléon; Bertrand Goujon shows how three kings tried to reinvent monarchy in France despite and after the Revolution; and in the third volume which was published last October, Quentin Deluermoz, questions the possible ‘end of revolutions’ in the period between 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. In a volume to be published in 2014, Arnaud Houte will assess whether the ‘republican model’ that prevailed between 1871 and 1879 marked the end and the victory of the 1789 Revolution. Far from ‘throwing the revolutionary baby out with the Marxist bathwater,’ we thus address it consistently in all the volumes focusing on the 19th century, until 1914 at least.
The title of the first volume – L’Empire des Français – was chosen in order to make the French and their empire central to our argument. About 50 years ago, Pierre Goubert urged his colleagues to write the history of ‘20 million Frenchmen’ and not to focus exclusively on Louis XIV. This is precisely what Aurélien Lignereux achieved here – but he does by no means forget Napoléon, who is mentioned some 700 times in the text. It is true, though, that Lignereux did not intend to write a biography of Napoléon – dozens have already been published. To study the ‘French and their Empire’, Lignereux resorted to the concepts and methods of the new imperial history – which was so fruitful when applied to the British Empire. The first French Empire might have been a continental one, but the methods and views of our British colleagues were of great help: a down-to-top method in which local cases are studied – without overlooking the local populations annexed to the Empire – in a wide range of monographs on the imperial administrations of an Empire which comprised 130 départements. Aurélien Lignereux shows that the French were reluctant ‘Bonapartists’, and that their resentment against their emperor manifested itself before 1812. The linguistic turn, initiated by many American and British historians, sheds new light on the so-called ‘Bonapartism’ of the French, which emerged mainly after 1815, and historians cannot but acknowledge this fact. Nevertheless, the French were quite enthusiastic ‘imperialists’, as indicated by many studies based on the biographies and prosopography of expatriate civil servants, merchants and soldiers. In other words, this volume explores the political history of a nation by using social and cultural history.
Bertrand Goujon’s volume is entitled Monarchies postrévolutionnaires. Goujon coined this concept, which had never been used before in historiography in order to account for the restored monarchies of 1815–30 and 1830–48. Before this book, they were rather seen as ‘inter-revolutionary monarchies’. On the contrary, this volume shows that the actors in these restorations were trying to find an adequate synthesis between revolution and tradition in the form of a constitutional monarchy – partly inspired by the British example – which was contested not only by the right, with Charles X – who was overthrown in July 1830 – but also by the left, with the revolutionary moments of 1832 and 1848.
This book is thus by no means ‘too fatalistic’: on the contrary, it keeps the realm of the possible open and considers the past through the vantage point of Charles X and Louis-Philippe’s coevals. This choice was also a way to avoid a teleological approach to 19th-century French history: the two restorations did not directly lead to a revolution – just as it was not inevitable that the period between 1848 and 1871 would end with the victory of the Republic over a ‘second empire’ which might well have maintained itself for several decades, had Prussia and Bismarck not decided to build German unity on another war.
Revolutions were not written in the skies of French history. They were sometimes constructed – and here again, the linguistic turn is particularly relevant to our approach. 1830 ought to be read in the light of a broader sequence of uncertainty – let’s say 1828–32 – and this is exactly what Bertrand Goujon does here, by questioning the traditional landmarks of French chronology. As for 1848, it is shortly analysed at the end of Goujon’s book because it is studied at length by Quentin Deluermoz in Le crépuscule des revolutions – volume three of the series. As a matter of fact, Goujon’s conclusion focuses on the Orleanist point of view on the 1848 revolution, while Deluermoz analyses that of the ‘républicains’. Lignereux and Goujon did the same thing for the years 1814 and 1815: while Lignereux explored the period from the eyes of Napoleon’s partisans, that is to say, from the eyes of the people who wanted him to come back to power, Goujon studies the same period from the point of view of those who supported the Bourbon Monarchy: this overlapping helps to better understand an event or a sequence by confronting the contrasted visions of its actors.
To conclude, we would like to account for some of the formal elements of the series. Our reviewer was rightfully critical of the front covers and the illustrations that were chosen by the publishing house. They are too conventional and not quite relevant – but they are part of a marketing strategy that the authors are seldom allowed to discuss. If, by any chance, the image matches the content of the book – as is the case for L’Empire des Français – all the better. Sometimes it does not, and Bertrand Goujon had to make do with a portrait of Louis-Philippe that did not quite reflect the content of his text.
Footnotes were not allowed by the publisher except when the authors referred to first-hand documents which are not mentioned anywhere else, yet the works of our colleagues are generally referred to in our texts (‘As Y shows’, etc …) and their books are listed in the bibliography of each volume. The conclusion was left to the discretion of each author. Some historians do not wish to conclude and they are perfectly entitled not to. We look forward to the opportunity the pocket edition of our books will provide to correct these, and are confident that the texts will be formally satisfying when the time of translation comes.
Professor Pilbeam is right when she writes that our series is aimed at ‘under- and postgraduate students’ as well as at anybody who is interested in French history. This was the main difficulty of these first three volumes – and will remain the main challenge of the seven more to come: we try to introduce our readers to the work of professional historians within a narrative that should be pleasant to read and that should cover in the same volume a wide range of historical fields – political, social, military, cultural, economic, international and gender history. As challenging as it may be, we have tried to do so by offering a series that is coherent despite its many contributors: doing our best to respect the perspective of the contemporary actors and to consider the fact that, in their eyes, the future remained undetermined; we have tried to follow the development and evolution of a nation-state that was seen as a model in the 19th century before being deeply questioned in the 20th, without forgetting that the national scale proves insufficient and limited if it is not placed in a wider inter- and transnational context.
How can we make the works of our colleagues accessible to a broader audience? How can we be exhaustive in 400 pages without exhausting the reader? How can we be scientifically accurate and still offer our readers a pleasant and coherent narrative? Everybody knows that squaring the circle is always difficult, if not impossible, yet this is what we have attempted to do.