“Le Corrèze avant le Zambèze”: Futures, Presents, and Directions in French History

In this sixth post in a series of reflections on the New Directions in French History Conference in London in September, Andrew WM Smith (UCL) reflects on the connections between past and future in the work of doing history.


Thinking about New Directions in French History meant asking big questions about the discipline. It led me back to reconsider some of the big questions I’ve studied in my own research, at moments when momentous change is just round the corner.

In 1956, the journalist Raymond Cartier publicly questioned the value of the French Empire in the pages of the weekly journal Paris-Match. His articles spawned a movement, broadly known as Cartiérisme, which criticized colonial spending and instead called for domestic investment.

Why, he asked, is France wasting money on Empire, when it could support more important causes closer to home? Why not fund ‘the Corrèze before the Zambèze’?[1] Cartier’s jaded rejection of the value of empire weighed expectation against experience. His was not a principled decolonization, nor was it an attempt to build partnerships of development, rather it was a reactionary retreat, naked in its self-interest. Amidst a tumultuous climate in France and the senescent French Empire, disengagement with empire promised relief, but also an abnegation of the future.

This interaction of the future and the present, I believe, is a crucial point when considering Cartier’s proposition, and it bears a broader comparison to our role as French Historians.

Much of what I study looks at identities outwith the national framework, both beyond and below. This has always suggested to me that although French history is distinctive in its markings, it is certainly not unique. Since the ‘global turn’, the porosity of national borders has ensured that transfers, bonds, and entanglements that heed no boundaries have become important issues for research. This invites a type of history which considers how ideas of ‘national genius’ are diffused, as well as constructed.

What, then, is French history? Eric Fassin has written on the exoticism of the French for foreign observers, with nested symbols of Republic, nation, and people all texts in which to read, and stages on which to perform exceptionalism. For them, he chides: “Nothing ever happens in France except the eternal return of Frenchness in its confrontation with history.”[2] I think, however, it is important for us not to ascribe this culturalism simply to poor history. It has been, and continues to be, actively cultivated both by actors and observers. One need only look at responses to the recent attacks in Paris to find commentators willing to pile calumnies against French republican culture and politics (and a subsequent wave of sage correctives offered in contrast). The game, it seems, is pitching Anglo versus French models, Islam against the West, or multi-culturalism against the universal. To consider these as mutually incompatible is to read history as a flat text of internally consistent logic, and to engage in exactly the culturalist duality that Fassin derides.

And yet, those flat texts are undeniably popular.

There has been an effort to renovate the probity of sweeping narratives, in works like the History Manifesto, with its focus on ‘deep time’[3], and amongst bodies that promote the importance of national histories, like ‘Historians for Britain’, providing “urgently need[ed]” historical perspectives.[4] These concepts have been rightly challenged in the Academy, though I think they have subtly found traction in the broader consciousness. Despite their appeal to the past, they encourage that slide towards the value of self-interest and the present, over the longer-term value of development and the future. This can be seen in the anxious entreaty: ‘Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late.’[5] These calls echo the present focus of Cartier’s complaint. Yet, as Lynn Hunt notes, “Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation.”[6] This, like Cartier’s choice, is not a principled change of direction, but a submission to the present in spite of the future. In this instrumentalist history, we’re not answering the big questions, but vaunting expediency.

All the while, as professionals, we are asked to balance this compliant focus on utility, with our own lofty desires to develop our field. As we analyse the past in our work, we must pay heed to the tensions of future and present in our methods. In the broad direction of our work, we strive inexorably toward the modern. This is a contested term, though I think Reinhart Koselleck well surmised it as the ratio between “the space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation”.[7] This ratio avoids the staid assumptions that simplistic readings of the modern can involve, and can show us a useful path for our own work. The beauty of such ratios is that they allow us to shift our lens between the local, the national, and the global. If we are to spy New Directions through this lens, it is perhaps in more artfully reconciling these different layers, combining detailed readings of social and cultural history into syntheses of broader political and economic significance.

The challenge, and opportunity, is to produce larger histories that will answer the ‘so what’ question quickly, offering a messy, grainy insight into the real subtleties of our stories,[8] whilst trying to break out of broad, reductive and culturalist narratives that offer little more than a teleological sneer at history’s losers, or cheer for the heroes of our past.

We can, and must, do more than build a pantheon.

Yet, we cannot, in spite, build a hermitage instead. The bond between teaching and research is as intuitive as it is vital. It speaks through our sense of time: binding the analysis of the past to an investment in the future. It can be difficult to enthuse with Koselleck, or amuse with Foucault, or to find ways in which the messy detail of the past can be retooled for coherence.

That, indeed, is our challenge. Drawing from our teaching, and our commitment to engage, we must present this face to the world. It’s our job to analyse, to communicate, and to light the fires of enquiry. It remains our challenge to demonstrate that the quality of our research is inextricably bound to the quality of our teaching and the social value of our profession.

This brings me back to the idea of Cartiérisme, and affords us the opportunity to reflect on how that rhetoric is echoed today. We can plot in today’s news similar debates on insularism, about folding inwards, and about studying only ourselves. These vices spring up amidst debates on national values, and the suspicion of the variously defined ‘other’. In good conscience, we can be historians for ought but history. We should not be afraid to be diverse, nor afraid to move beyond our comfort zones. In the telling of stories, in our engagement with audiences, and in our attempts to answer the grand “so what?” we need flexibility as we need rigour.

This for me is the essence of finding love in a cold climate – communicating how we can meet the valuations of the present, whilst producing work that is rigorous and speaks to the future. This game is balancing ourselves between REF, rigour, and actual recognition.

Where can we position ourselves? What needs can we fulfil? We cannot abandon the Zambèze, in our insularity, yet neither can we ignore the Corrèze, with starry eyes turned ever outward. For me, if we are to plot the new directions in French History, or any other, we must balance our own rigour and regard for the past, against a steadfast duty to address the future.


[1] In particular, that comparison juxtaposes a department of France in the Limousin region (the Correze) with one of the largest rivers in Africa, the Zambezi. France had little imperial presence in this part of continental Africa (the island of Madagascar sits nearby), and the comparison is chosen more for its assonance than for the specific places. Nonetheless, it juxtaposes France proper with the idea of Overseas development. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t Cartier that first used this phrase, but rather Jean Montalat, who cited Cartier and used the phrase in a discussion in the National Assembly in June, 1964.

« Au moment où nous discutons de l’aide que la France apporte aux pays sous-développés et à certains pays voisins, la tentation est grande pour moi, député, maire de Tulle, alors qu’un slogan à la fois facile et pittoresque court les rues, à savoir «la Corrèze avant le Zambèze », de vous rappeler quelques arguments anciens. Je ne le ferai pas. Mais il me sera cependant permis de dire aujourd’hui qu’à nos yeux le meilleur mérite des articles de M. Raymond Cartier dans Paris-Match, c’est peut-être d’avoir rappelé aux Français que, dans beacoup de domaines, hélas ! la France est encore un pays insuffisamment développé. »

[2] Eric Fassin, ‘Fearful Symmetry: Culturalism and Cultural Comparison after Tocqueville’, French Historical Studies, 19:2 (1995), pp. 454.

[3] D. Armitage & J. Guidi, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), 52.

[4] ‘Britain: apart from or a part of Europe?’, History Today, 11th May 2015. (URL: http://www.historytoday.com/david-abulafia/britain-apart-or-part-europe) (Accessed 13/07/2015).

[5] D. Armitage & J. Guidi, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), 125.

[6] L. Hunt, Measuring Time, Making History, (Central European University Press, 2008), p.91.

[7] Reinhart Kosellek, Futures Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), pp.255-276.

[8] Chapeau to Will Pooley and his excellent blog on the topic: https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/grainy-history/


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Feature Archive: La Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris

Kaylee P. Alexander is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University. Her dissertation research focuses on the visual culture of the cemetery and the market for funerary monuments in nineteenth-century Paris. Here she talks about the resources available for historians of France at the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

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