French History @IHR: Andrew WM Smith on Uprooting Identity in the Languedoc

Date & Place: Monday 29th April, in the IOE Bedford Way, Room 784.

Speakers: Dr Andrew WM Smith (Chichester)

Paper Title: Uprooting identity: European Integration, political realignment, and the wine of the Languedoc (1984-2014)

To listen to a recording of the event, click here (right click to save as MP3)

Andrew Smith introduced a paper based on an article he is currently working on for the European Review of History, to feature in a special issue on Alcohol and Politics edited by Kate Ferris and Stella Moss. This builds upon his research published in Terror and terroir: the winegrowers of the Languedoc and modern France (Manchester University Press, 2016).

The south of France has long been called the ‘Midi rouge’ in French political shorthand: the red of its rustic wines complemented by a staunchly left-wing electorate. Yet, this rang false when Béziers,  one of the capitals of the ‘Midi rouge’, elected a far-right mayor allied with the Front National (FN) in 2014. By re-centring the narrative on the region, we can better understand the values of populist ‘gaucho-lepénisme’, as described nationally by Pascal Perrineau (1996), Gabriel Goodliffe (2012), and Nonna Mayer (2015).

Winegrowing in the Hérault, previously the department’s economic staple, declined sharply during the Socialist Party’s (PS) time in government. Facing up to the realities of national governance, and demands of European integration, the PS left their allies in the south feeling abandoned, as long-running government policy initiatives literally tore up the blanket of vines that dominated the regional landscape. Political structures supported by winegrowers collapsed amidst violent and destructive wine protests in the 1980s, condemnations of ‘wine terrorism’ in the 1990s, and a strong rejection of the European referendum in 2005. Industrial decline and the destruction of civic associations in the winegrower’s unions further discredited the Hérault’s ‘agents of socialization’ in the PS as aloof mainstream political elites.

Against this backdrop, the development of the FN benefitted from a broad group of voters forced to reckon with pronounced negative change to an industry with a long and proud heritage. Cultures of protest adapted and changed, though they did not disappear. The ability of Ménard to capitalise upon this trend in Béziers was an example of how the growth of a suburban electorate coupled with economic decline could be addressed with “shared symbolic references” borrowed from the vineyards only decades earlier, yet shaped for the ear of a new “commuter democracy”.

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