The French Don’t Embrace Their Own History

In Le Monde Diplomatique (English), Chris Bickerton looks at France’s ambivalent relationship with its own history.

IT SEEMS from recent events that the French malaise is no longer confined to the present. It applied to contemporary problems of the nation’s economy and politics, and now it also encompasses the past. Through a challenge to French history it has reached the foundations of national republicanism. The unsurprising reaction to this has been a mixture of Gaullist hand- wringing and post-colonial self-satisfaction. But current debates have also raised some positive and key questions about the role of history, and its relationship to memory, morality and the state.

The leading event was the fudged bicentenary celebration of the battle of Austerlitz, fought between Napoleon’s army and a Russo-Austrian army in 1805, and long celebrated as a great French military victory. In an article in Le Monde, the renowned French historian Pierre Nora (recipient of the legion d’honneur, created by Napoleon in 1802), fulminated against what he called the non-commemoration of Austerlitz (1). He wrote that this was a sign that France had reached the depths “of shame and of ridicule”. The British were able to celebrate Trafalgar, the Belgians Waterloo, and even the Germans were planning to celebrate in 2006 their grand rendezvous with Napoleon, in commemoration of his victories at Iena and Auerstadt in 1806.

Yet, according to Nora, it would soon be impossible in France to teach with pride Victor Hugo’s lines about hearing “in the depths of my thoughts the noise of the heavy cannons rolling towards Austerlitz”.