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Tyee Books

Think France Is Fragmenting Now?

Graham Robb's weird, myth-busting history found a 'crazed human landscape of tribes'.

By Matthew Mallon 4 Sep 2009 |

Matthew Mallon is a Canadian writer and editor living in Paris, France. He intermittently updates his blog at

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Stilt-walking shepherds of Landes.

Of all the traffic you might have encountered on the road to Paris near the end of the 18th century, the most peculiar -- and heartbreaking -- would surely have been the donkeys loaded down with baskets stuffed full of drunken, illegitimate babies. These doomed shipments were the result of well-meant legislation that made the nuns of Paris' foundling hospital responsible for overflow from institutions as far as 250 kilometres away, as Graham Robb explains in his often revelatory history of rural France: the donkey carters started in Brittany, Lorraine or the Auvergne, with four or five infants per pannier, "but in towns and villages along the route they struck deals with midwives and parents. For a small fee, they would push in a few extra babies. To make the load more tractable and easier on the ears, the babies were given wine instead of milk. Those that died were dumped at the roadside like rotten apples... for every ten living babies that reached the capital, only one survived more than three days."

Robb, a biographer and avid cyclist who conceived his book while riding the back lanes and byways of rural France, has packed it as full as any of those tragic baby baskets with vivid glimpses of life in the French countryside, from the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day. The world he reveals is compelling, and myth-busting.

"The result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library," The Discovery of France could be called revisionist history, if it weren't for the fact that so little of the real past in these places has ever been written about in any coherent fashion before. The average Francophile may be aware of De Gaulle's famous quote: "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" But cheese is just the surface of the "crazed human landscape of tribes and clans" that Robb discovers. Far from the homogeneous nation state divided into a handful of picturesque regions that most tourists -- and indeed many Frenchmen -- imagine the country to be, he has uncovered a France that was, and to some degree still is, as tenuous and illogical as any post-colonial state.

For Canadian readers, this offers the revelation that even an ancient nation such as France is as provisional, shape-shifting and improbable as our own young, identity-conflicted country.

Using memoirs and reports from a few literate but mostly unfamous Frenchmen and the odd -- very odd -- pre-tourism foreign traveler, Robb discovers that in the not-so-distant past, the French countryside was a largely uncharted land of deserts and vast swamps, impenetrable forests and empty plains, a place "where witches and explorers were still gainfully employed while Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris."

Robb has great fun with a 1799 French-German phrase book written for travelers by one Mme. de Genlis. You can follow the general tenor of travel in post-Revolution France by glimpsing some of her key phrases:

"Your carriage is heavy and overloaded.


"I believe that the wheels are on fire.


"The horse is badly wounded. It is dead."

French not spoken there

As intrepid travelers and heroic map-makers and the steady trickle of entrepreneurial peasants that journeyed the roads and tracks of La France Profonde were often reminded, to come from a village ten kilometres to the east was to be considered a foreigner; to travel 50 kilometres was to find oneself in a new land, where customs, physiognomy and language were completely alien.

Especially language. Robb titles his chapter on language after the many ways of saying "yes" in the different dialects of the country -- O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oye Awé Jo Ja Oua -- and "even this is a simplification... As the sun travelled over the Franche-Comté, it changed its name to souliel, soulet, soulot, s'lot, soulu, sélu, slu, séleu, souriel, seriel, s'riel and seroille." Shortly after the Revolution, Abbé Henri Grégoire estimated that a mere three million French people -- 11 per cent of the population -- actually spoke French (official French is the dialect of Paris and its surrounding region). Six million were completely unable to speak the language at all, while another six million could barely struggle through a sentence -- all this while French, the literal lingua franca, was the continent's international language of diplomacy. In 1880, it was estimated that only one-fifth of the population was comfortable in the national tongue. (Perhaps this chaos explains much of the overprotective attitude France still has towards its language.)

What about that other great unifier, religion? Again, appearances are deceptive. While the average French peasant would have been fairly sure that they were Christian, and for the most part Catholic, in truth the country was rife with cults and barely disguised pagan ritual that changed within an afternoon's travel. One village's Virgin Mary was different from and superior to the next village's -- and the Virgin was by far the most important deity. Jesus was a character in folk tales, who walked the French countryside alongside Gargantua and a frequently gullible Devil. God was remote and not very interesting.

Catholic dogma was absorbed into pre-existing local traditions, and rendered unrecognizable. Priests who tried to impose orthodoxy risked assault or worse from angry villagers. Even the saints and holy icons of a village had to watch their step: "When the phylloxera epidemic wiped out their vines, the people of Mouzon in the Ardennes threw the statue of their saint into the river Meuse... In 1887 a visitor to a convent in a large Provençal town noticed that Saint Joseph had been turned to face the wall. It was explained that Saint Joseph was 'doing penance' for having failed to persuade a landowner to leave a certain piece of land to the convent in his will. If he failed again, he would be taken down to the cellar and thrashed."

Stripped of romance

The lives revealed in the book, so different from those of the usual 300 or so characters that make up the cast of traditional French history, are rich and strange, even in their poverty. You meet the stilt-walking shepherds of the Landes, able to easily overtake horse-drawn coaches, and hear the last traces of the "whistling language" of the Pyrenées. You discover that democracy existed in France well before the Revolution, in isolated villages that elected their own officials. Women, left on their own while male family members worked far-off fields or wandered the region selling goods, had more control over communities than their men-folk cared to admit. (And while plenty of jobs were considered "woman’s work," there was no rural activity that females were not involved in.)

Life was, in some rare instances, better, but more often worse than we can imagine. Trying to discover why mortality rates were so high in one region, an official discovered that at the first sign of illness, weary, over-taxed and underfed peasants immediately hopped into their fetid beds and hoped to die: surely the next world would be better. The common complaint was not that life was too fleeting, but the opposite: the tedium of it went on far too long (this in an age when life expectancies were decades shorter than our own.) But the image of ceaseless, back-breaking labour is also untrue. Diets were far too poor to allow such exertion, and the slow pace of country life was often a necessity born out of sheer lack of energy. "A ploughman who took hours to reach a field beyond the town was not necessarily admiring the effect of morning mist on the furrows and the steaming cattle against the rising sun; he was trying to make a small amount of strength last for the working day, like a cartload of manure spread over a large field." In many parts of France, peasants literally hibernated for the entire winter, packed tightly into their dwellings for warmth, deliberately slowing their metabolisms to get through the long, bleak season.

By the mid-19th century, the standardization of culture and language, aided by technology and the explosion of phenomenons such as tourism, was in full swing. As France began to discover itself, most of these micro-cultures disappeared, in many cases replaced by simplified versions of regionalism imposed by Parisian "experts" and foreign visitors. The second half of the book describes that inexorable progress with occasional regret, but Robb is no conservative fantasist, pining for the good old days. Be glad you are alive today, rather than, say, headed for 18th century Paris in a donkey pannier.

The new France

The "process of forgetting" described by Robb in the tail-end of his book seems to be a large part of any efficient modern nation-building, but it is not complete by any means: the country is still much more than the series of clichés most tourists seek, still complicated, layered and in many cases, unknown to itself. Above all, it is still changing. I am lucky enough, from time to time, to visit relatives who live amid a tiny clutch of farm buildings and sunflower fields in the Poitou-Charente region of western France. It's a famously "backward" part of the country, in the middle of nowhere between Poitiers and the touristy harbour town of La Rochelle. When they first arrived in the late 1980s, part of the ongoing wave of English refugees who regularly flee the U.K., the area was nearly abandoned to a dwindling population of white-haired farmers and Anglo immigrants. Today, the nearby town of Niort is the wealthy centre of France's insurance industry, the Brits are in retreat thanks to the collapse of the pound, and young French families are beginning to re-fit and re-fill once-abandoned cottages and farms. 

When I return from my relatives to my home in central Paris, I live in a mini-Vietnamtown, surrounded by Pho and noodle joints in 400 year-old buildings. In my previous apartment up in the northeastern arrondissements of the city, I was just another pale newcomer among the Hutus and Tutsis, Algerian Jews, Wen Zhou Chinese and countless others. A current controversy in the city revolves around the takeover of an old garment district near Canal St-Martin by an insular Chinese community, while in the course of my two years here, I've noticed a steady disappearance of the traditional Auvergnat tabac owner.

In his epilogue, Robb mentions the Paris banlieues, or suburbs, infamous for their riots, disaffected youth and desolate architecture -- and their nearly impenetrable slang, which has seeped into the daily conversation of most Parisians of a certain age -- and posits them as a newly undiscovered part of France, a fresh, unknown region full of strange customs that only the most intrepid visitor dare visit. It's a great conceit, with a grain of truth. But Robb's book is already a bit behind the times. He mentions a certain minister of the Interior and his description of the banlieue's rioting young inhabitants as racaille -- or scum. That minister is now the leader of France, and just this spring, announced a vast, ambitious scheme -- called Grand Paris -- to re-make the banlieues and integrate them into a larger version of the capital. This is either, as cynical observers would have it, Sarkozy's attempt to impose a legacy on the city in the manner of Mitterand or Pompidou, or a genuine attempt to revitalize an urban wasteland and reclaim a generation of excluded French citizens. The only thing that can be sure at this point is that the banlieues will, like everywhere and everything else, change.  [Tyee]

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