France by its cities

Keeping in mind that history cannot be made or understood without geography, David Chanteranne revisits the complex relationships that people today have with the great figures of France who, during their lifetime and subsequently, have shaped their territories.

Forgetting Paris to defocus your gaze

The primary goal of the work is made explicit by its ambitious and catchy title: to take the opposite view of a history dictated by Paris by focusing on the provincial towns which, themselves, also conditioned the construction of the state just as much as they defended its identity. and the particularities of our regions. Assuming the bias of his choices in the face of impossible exhaustiveness (p. 15), the author selected 29 cities, each associated with an individual with a singular destiny and a historical event to which it is linked.

Part of a current desire to understand France from its margins, this approach is justified by the author who immediately recalls the recent nature of the concentration of institutions in the capital (p. 15). The challenge is courageously taken up because, apart from the passage on Sainte-Genevive presented as a precursor of Gallicanism (p. 44), only the chapters on Cluny and Versailles concern Ile-de-France. The map of the 29 towns covered shows that the capital blends into a dense cloud of points between the Loire and the north-eastern border, land of endless conflicts from the baptism of Clovis (496) to the World Wars and the main nerve zone of the territory. It also underlines the key role of border towns which, despite their peripheral position and their recent annexation to the East, represent almost half of the places visited. On the other hand, it shows the limits of this decentralization, the work not covering the entirety of France and neglecting several regions, particularly in the center. note that Brittany, absent here, is evoked through Anne of Brittany, as well as the expedition of Jacques Cartier thought from Saint-Malo.

From the Phocens to the de Gaulle-Adenauer couple

Mixing up the long story is the second challenge that the author sets himself. By the use of the term chronicles, the title echoes Braudlian thought revisited by the geohistory of Christian Grataloup. Although tracing the origins of the Nation back to VIe century before our era is debatable, the story starts in an original way from the installation of the Phocens in Marseille to end the dawn of European construction putting an end to 1,500 years of conflicts, these constituting one of the main threads of the book. The author recalls that national unity was achieved by force, through wars driven as much by expansionist ambitions as by defensive concerns (p. 13).

Despite the absence of intermediate parts and conclusions which would have made it possible to explain a too artificial common thread from one chapter to the next, a chronological division emerges implicitly around five key moments. Heirs of the ancient origins mentioned above, the Franks had to build legitimacy for themselves, while the kings of France, their successors, had to assert themselves against the main neighbors then against the Nation, the latter finding itself torn during the latter two shekels. Contrary to what its title implies, the book first honors the territorial and political construction of royalty until 1789, when reflections around a feeling of belonging proving the existence of a Nation took over. The historical periods are fairly represented and few regimes are passed over in silence like the Restorations (1815-1848) and the IVe Republic.

Specialist in the Napoleonic epic, the author rehabilitates the XIXe century too often neglected in the face of the crushing weight of XXe century which bears the most accomplished remarks. This shows how Napoleon III exploits his meeting with the people of Niois in 1860, inscribing the connection of the city to the Nation in the heritage of the Revolution (p. 241-242 and 246). Finally, each chapter takes place over a more or less long time, that of the posterity of the historical character and/or the event discussed. Thus, the arrival of the Phocens is an opportunity to sweep away more than 2,000 years of heritage in two pages (p. 23-24).

Investigate around places of history(s) and memory

For each chapter, the event recounted is linked to a specific place: a rue Saint-Michel Paris, Sainte-Catherine Bordeaux, a district the Old Port Marseille, Fourvire Lyon, a political building palace of the dukes Dijon, castle of Versailles, citadel of Belfort or religious Saint-Hubert Ambroise chapel, Strasbourg cathedral, a port like the Bay of Angels (Nice) or even a train station like that of Metz. from these places of memory, the author thus proposes a walk in the city center, an approach which is reminiscent of certain recent popular and media historical accounts recounting France. In this, David Chanteranne seems to address a large audience, sensitive to the heritage of his country.

Paul Delaroche, The assassination of the Duke of Guise, 1834

The arts are also used to link small and big history with the aim of leading the reader to reflect on the strength of these more or less familiar places. Apart from a few cinematic references like those on the film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola (p. 227-228) or an archaeological approach to the center of Cluny (p. 63-64), the author also tries the analysis of paintings, the example of The assassination of the Duke of Guise by Paul Delaroche (p. 185-186) or even sculptures. Among the latter, particular attention can be paid to the Lion of Belfort carved by Auguste Bartholdi in homage to the city's resistance to the German invader in 1870-1871 (p. 249 and 255-256). Likewise, a number of anecdotes will intrigue the public, such as the corpse of William the Conqueror who, swollen with alcohol from the barrel used to transport him to Caen, was unable to fit into his coffin (p. 104). Others aim to demystify figures of France, sometimes controversial, and re-establish certain truths.

Deconstructing the national novel

Charles de Steuben, Battle of Poitiers, October 732, national museum of the Château de Versailles, 1837

David Chanteranne is part of the trend, established for around forty years, aiming to break with the national novel inherited from the Third Republic following Suzanne Citron, Colette Beaune and more recently Tienne Bourdon. Thus, dwelling on the long and laborious preparations for the Battle of Poitiers (732) reminds us that Charles Martel's victory over the Arabs was not won in advance, contrary to what the legend suggests (p. 69-71). This episode is also an opportunity to deconstruct the controversies fueled by the slogan I am Charles Martel wrongly exploiting the attacks of Charlie Hebdo like a clash of civilizations. As the author points out, the Carolingian also decimated Christian allies alongside the Muslim enemy (p. 73-74). In the same way, he demystifies the Maid of Orleans by providing a nuanced, factual and rational explanation of the capture of the city in 1429 (p. 134-137).

Conversely, the author tends to rehabilitate the action of certain fallen princes like Charles the Trash, forgotten in Nancens for the benefit of Duke Stanislas who gave his first name to the famous place (p. 144 and 150). In addition, the work partly takes the opposite view of a story that is still too masculine by addressing no less than ten wives of a sovereign whose role may have eclipsed that of their husband. Thus, Clotilde of Burgundy had taken the destiny of France in hand by convincing Clovis to convert to Catholicism (p. 55). Finally, the author goes off the beaten track by tackling, alongside these figures enjoying a mythological aura, some little-known episodes such as the miraculous healing of Louis XV Metz in 1744 or the liberation of Corsica in 1943 which led us to reconsider the issues surrounding the liberation of Paris.

If each chapter refers to one or two reference studies, they cannot always suffice to compare the points of view, just as the author does without a general bibliography which could have been useful on the affirmation of the Nation and the State in France, to situate the currents of thought to which it is linked. Furthermore, if he relevantly mobilizes essential primary sources (Strabo, Sutone, Gregory of Tours, Hincmar), these could be the subject of a certain critical perspective essential for the ancient and medieval periods. Other authors would benefit from being presented, just as these columnists, witnesses And historians anonymous (p. 41, 62, 70, 99). In addition, the six extracts from archives transcribed in the appendices are welcome, although nothing is said about their choice and they deserve more visibility in the story so that the reader fully understands their interest.

And if the course of events had been completely different

Despite the absence of a conclusion which would have made it possible to take stock of this eventful history, we can above all retain from the work that the national project, far from being linear and continuous, could have been defeated as it depends on a number of wars, diplomatic reversals and, above all, exceptional destinies. This idea echoes various studies on the construction of the territory and the political imagination showing that royalty asserted itself in fits and starts, having for example to come to terms with the wavering loyalty of neighboring dynasties which could have upset the course of events. Let us think of the unions with Alinor of Aquitaine and Anne of Brittany and the corresponding territorial additions, uncertain until the last moment (p. 108-111 and 156-158). In the modern era, royalty imposes itself by blood to constrain a nation that is sometimes protesting, whether it involves assassinating Blois, an overly ambitious close relative (p. 183-185) or besieging rebellious subjects like the Rochelais (p. 190-193).

Immortalized by the canvas of Henri-Paul Motte shown on the cover of the book, this last affront partly founded the legend of Cardinal Richelieu, the incarnation of an absolute monarchy reaching maturity. Likewise, the final chapters, focused on tumultuous relations with Germany, remind us that the construction of the Nation retains deep stigma within it. As evidenced, in the aftermath of the Great War, the difficult reintegration of Alsace-Moselle (p. 263), a region which still retains strong particularities today, and continues to escape republican reforms starting with the law of separation of churches and of the state considered to have united the homeland.