At the end of December 1989, France ended commemorations of its revolution two centuries before. Jack Lang, the culture minister, declared: “Let us pause and take it all in and remember how fortunate we are to experience this amazing moment. This evening does not mark the end of the bicentenary, but rather a prelude: a kind of overture to the third century of our freedoms in the making.”
This moment of naive optimism is all the more remarkable because the French are rarely prone to excesses of ebullience in modern politics. Each president seems to secure record lows in opinion polls. The fury of the street is never far away.
An enticing and quixotic history of France reaches these shores outre-Manche at a time when both countries have seldom felt so ill at ease. France in the World, a 1,392-page volume of essays, was published at home at the start of 2017. Since then France has had to contend with terrorist attacks, gilets jaunes, the calamitous fire at Notre Dame, resurgence of the far right, Trump, Brexit and other populist oddities and, in Emmanuel Macron, the foe of just about everyone.
Beginning with pre-history and ending with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan in 2015, this is a chronicle of the French, wedded not to territory or blood lines, but to certain ideals and ways of thinking. It is defiantly liberal-leftist in its vision of the past, seeing in colonialism and global finance the roots of most contemporary ills.
This is a book to dip into and enjoy. It is inconsistent, perhaps necessarily so. The thematic and geographic range is vast – from farming to philosophy to social mores, from Algiers to Siam, the Suez Canal to England’s south coast.
It contains gaping holes and bewildering choices. The first world war is assessed largely from the vantage point of New Caledonia and a guerrilla war involving indigenous Kanaks and French colonial forces. An abiding theme throughout the narrative is the shadow cast across several continents by French imperialism. Rather than focus on German capitulation and the Treaty of Versailles, attention turns to the International Labour Office, the role of Coco Chanel and perfume and the endearing story of Charles Aznavour and Armenian immigrants.
The editors, Patrick Boucheron (French version) and Stéphane Gerson (English version), are at pains to explain the methodology, devoting 35 opening pages to outlining their thinking. The nearly 150 essays are written by just over 100 historians.
Some of the tales are fascinating takes on familiar periods. The persecution of Huguenots and mass migration following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes deftly provides a modern context for the phenomenon of intolerance and flight. The Dreyfus affair helps explain the antisemitism that predated and followed. A section on the Black Death in the 14th century recalls how the devastation was exploited by the powerful to clamp down on nascent freedoms. A lesson for our times – even though this, and a later chapter on 19th-century cholera, was written before the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the most riveting essays is on the controversy surrounding publication in 1949 of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The story is both universal and quintessentially French. Albert Camus, for all his progressiveness, accused her of “making a mockery of French masculinity”. Seventy years later Catherine Deneuve and many others were having similar palpitations over #MeToo.
The most idiosyncratic chapters are perhaps the most compelling. The revolutions of 1848 are an essential ingredient in any European history curriculum, but how many people know much of the Year of Utopia or the “first communist banquet” which took place in Belleville in 1840? “The social utopias forged in 1840 sought not only to improve the conditions of French labourers,” writes historian François Jarrige. “They aspired to nothing short of the wholesale regeneration of humankind.”
The land of romanticism was also the land of harmonisation and rules. From March to May 1875, Paris hosted an unusual summit. The 20 attending nations were not there to manage border disputes or divvy up the world. Instead they signed the “Metric Convention”, which standardised the new measurement. It was embraced by virtually all, except the island nation that is Britain.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is language that defines Frenchness. Villers-Cotterêts is a commune to the north-east of the capital, one that apparently has not too much to show for itself. Today it has a population of 10,000 and an extreme right-dominated municipality. In 2014 its newly elected mayor refused to participate in ceremonies celebrating the abolition of slavery. Since 1539 it has, however, been synonymous with an event far more propitious, even if the location was an accident. Francis I, who happened to be staying at his château in woodlands nearby to hunt game, decided at this spot to sign the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, establishing the French language as obligatory in legal and state documents. The French have taken up the cudgels ever since.
Three and a half centuries later, Victor Hugo posed the question: “How does one recognise intelligence among peoples the world over”? He proceeded to answer it himself: “There is one sure sign: whether or not they can speak French.” By this standard and by others too, Brexit Britain does not perform well.
• France in the World: A New Global History is published by Gallic Books (£19.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.