Modern history


When the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889, the statesman-turned-journalist Jules Simon declared, “We are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower.” This universalist vision of the Republic at its centennial sheds light on the choice of Jessye Norman, an African American woman draped in a French flag singing the national anthem, for the French bicentennial celebration in 1989. The notion that a thousand-foot tower located in Paris belonged to the world is consistent with the modern government vision of France and its role as a place in and for the rest of the world. Yet a government’s symbolic gestures crafted for large audiences can also regrettably flatten the diversity of experiences on the ground that make up a nation’s and a people’s history as well as the complex alchemy out of which nations and peoples continue to be formed.

The realities of modern France are far more multifaceted than the visions proffered through such public spectacles of nationalism, as this short introduction hopes to have shown. In the world today, power redounds to those able to draw diverse peoples together in and across place, rather than one in which physical distance is used as a basis for maintaining power, especially over far-flung empires. Because France is, and has been, a literal crossroads, it is even more worthy of consideration. Not only have the actions of people in France contributed to the present global condition, but French people have also invoked the human and universal in ways that go beyond using it as an excuse for imperial conquest. France thus offers a bright mirror in which we can see as many triumphs as tragedies over the course of the last two hundred years. The Revolution’s world spirit shaped it as a global event, and subsequent democratic movements have modeled their own aspirations in a knowing relation to what happened in France in 1789.

There is no point in looking at France through rose-tinted glasses, nor in bemoaning or celebrating its decline. New ways of examining the past from our contemporary context have resulted in rethinking the coherence of place, especially the usual focus on the nation as the central object of history. We now have a new appreciation of diasporic cultures, of migrations, rootlessness, borderlands, the transnational mixing of cultures and identities, and for the images and objects that speed across cultures and through space. Yet all these formulations make France more important, not less so. Things that happened in the place of France and in its name also shed significant light on these very issues of place and mobility in the contemporary world.

This new way of thinking about the past also makes French history new again. Few national cultures have engaged with considerations of citizenship in such global terms; few have articulated the value of linguistic and literary traditions, been shaped by their interaction in the world, cultivated the power of a great capital as a world crossroads, grappled with the challenges of cultural diversity and the role of ethnic and religious identity in reshaping national culture, and embraced the centrality of technology in fostering global communication and determining the shape of the global future as has France. We can look both at France as well as to France for insights into the simultaneously rapid integration of cultures and the concomitant proliferation of differences that characterize the modern world.

We cannot easily resolve the complex and seemingly contradictory conditions of the present global experience. If France has taught us anything, it is that sometimes living with contradiction is a necessary and even wise course of action. Josephine Baker, herself an African American transplant, expressed this typically French duality in the 1930s, in one of the most famous French songs of the twentieth century: “I have two loves,” sang Baker, “My country and Paris. . . . My savannah is beautiful, but what good does it do to deny it: What seduces me is Paris, all of Paris. . . . To see it one day is my beautiful dream.” For Baker as for other global citizens, Paris, like all of France, lives on as a geographical crossroads, a seductive ideal, and a dream of the future.

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