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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 4 - A Nation? Peasants, Language, and French Identity
Chapter 1. The Birth of National Identity and Agents of Modernization [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: Okay, I want to do two things today; but, I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to end up talking about what I want to, and that’s schools and the role of schools in identity. But first of all I want to talk a little bit about the question of when, and it’s a big historical debate, when people in France began thinking of themselves as French, and then I’m going to specifically look at the role of schools in that. And I guess I’d better talk a little bit about schools today too, because identity is something in an age of mass tourism that’s a little hard to hold onto. So, I think I’m going to talk about that as well, at the end. I know I am because I love talking about it. And so I will be repeating just a couple of things that I said the first day, but many of you were shopping other things the first day.
So, sort of the problématique, or the question to be resolved, is when did people in France, the majority of the population or all the population, begin thinking of themselves as French, as opposed to something else? And as I said the first time, that in 1789 about half the population of France spoke French. In 1871 about a quarter of the population spoke French. And so it’s a leap of faith to think that the language you speak totally informs your identity or who you think you are. I gave the case of Alsatians who spoke German who, many of whom considered themselves French after Alsace and much of Lorraine were annexed to Germany in 1871.
Now, there was a book published in — a long time ago, ooh-la-la — by a friend of mine who unfortunately recently died, sort of an homme de lettres, a wonderful writer called Eugen Weber, that put forward a view that some people find convincing and which I don’t find convincing at all. But it became sort of the canon or the accepted, assumed truth about national identity and France — was that in his view until about 1880, until the Republic became rooted, that you had in provincial France and particularly in rural France and particularly in the south of France, you had almost a total unawareness of what it was like — of French identity.
Somebody in about 1864, if I remember right, went into a school in the Lozère, which is France’s least populated department (only about 77,000 people now live in the Lozère) and asked them what France was, and the students in the school had absolutely no idea. And this particular book marshaled all sorts of evidence about sort of savage beliefs, as he put it, that people believed it was just a superstitious, isolated, rural France in which civilization, entre guillemets (in quotes), could only come through, along with national identity, through these sort of agencies of change. And this is what sociologists used to call Modernization Theory, almost at its worst; and I say this with considerable affection for my late friend Eugen Weber, and we had debated this before.
And the three big agencies of change, some of which you’ve already heard a little bit about, according to Weber, that transformed peasants into Frenchmen were railroads; that is, again the trunk lines reaching out from Paris, all railroads leading eventually to Paris; secondly, military conscription, teaching people Breton or people from Gascony or even limousins, people from the center of France, good French, or males anyway, by forcing them to speak French; and third, schools; that is, the increase in literacy in France, dramatic.
In the course of the nineteenth century there was always a big gap between male literacy and female literacy, and this gap is closed, such as by 1900 the vast majority of people in France can read and write. How do we know that, by the way? Well one of the ways that historians have tried to assess those things in the past is looking at military conscription records or, for example, looking at the people who are witnesses to life’s great ceremonies, births, marriages, deaths, whether they can sign their name or whether they just simply write an X, that they can’t sign. And of course there are other ways of knowing this too, studying school records and this sort of thing. So, this is the basic kind of interpretation that became for many people quite compelling, as I said the other day. So, by 1914 you have these Bretons, and Breton is a language that has nothing to do with French at all, being able to go off to die in 1914 or subsequent years singing the Marseillaise. Now, the role of language in the military is an interesting subject. If you take the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had at least, depending on how you count it, twelve major national groups or nationalities, to get anywhere in the Army, and the Army was this kind of social promotion, to become an officer you had to know German; in order to become a bureaucrat or to become a teacher, in most parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you needed to know German.
And so the argument has been about France, as well. The traditional view is that these — the schoolteachers gradually, while they’re sort of forcing the Virgin Mary off the walls of public schools, replacing her with Marianne, the female image of the Republic, are also bringing French to all of the little kids and therefore civilizing France and turning French peasants into French men and women; or so that is a conventional view. Well, I don’t agree with that view, and what I want to do is nuance it and then, drawing on some of the research of my friend Jean-François Chanet, talk a little bit about the role of schools in the last half of the nineteen century, and then talk a little bit about the role of schools now, because as I said I find it interesting.
Chapter 2. Regional Languages of France [00:06:44]
Now, the whole question of timing is essential in trying to understand when we can at least, and this may be sort of a leap of faith, assume that French national identity had permeated all of the départements in France; and Corsica is a case apart, that’s even more complicated. So, the question is timing. But again, simply to repeat what I said the very first day, if you look around the map of France, what did people speak in 1871, what did they speak in 1789? They don’t always speak those same things now. In most cases they don’t. So, that suggests that timing is crucial in all this. But just again, I did this the other day but, what the hell, let’s do it again, up here, in Flanders, many spoke Flemish; if you’re moving into Lorraine, amputated Lorraine and Alsace, most people, the vast majority, and we’ll be more specific about this when we talk about the origins of World War I, spoke a German dialect that’s very similar to that spoken in Fribourg. Savoie was annexed in 1860, they spoke a Savoyard language or dialect that’s very much like Piedmontese, in the case of Italy.
Language is fascinating. At the time of the unification of Italy in the 1860s and ’70s, remembering that Metternich once said that Italy was a geographic expression, the percentage of the Italian population that spoke now what we consider to be Italian was about five percent; that is, the people spoke Tuscan or what they speak around Florence. So, if you move down here, and they spoke Provençal, which is a real written language and had a revival with various poets in a place called Les Baux here, which has turned into kind of the equivalent of EuroDisney, sort of a tourist trap, like so many places in the south; moving to Languedoc, they spoke a language of Oc, they spoke Languedocien and with all its patois variants, spoken language variants. In Auvergne they spoke an Auvergnat patois. Down here they spoke Catalan. Here they spoke a patois, influenced by Spanish. Here they spoke Basque which doesn’t have anything to do with anything, outside of a little bit of Hungarian and Finnish. Up here they spoke Gascon, and I gave cases before of people speaking patois, even in Normandy and even, for that matter, in the Valley of the Loire. And here they spoke Breton.
There’s a wonderful book, if you want, now here’s a good paper topic, take a book called The Horse of Pride, written by a man called Helias. He wrote it in Breton. It was translated into French and then into English, and it’s about growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in Finistère, which is the most — the furthest, most Breton of all the départements, and it’s about what happens when the outsiders, that is the French, begin to come. And they start calling the French Kodakers because they come with Kodak cameras, and so they become the Kodakers. And so the church says you got to — we have to stop all these crazy superstitions — in Brittany people rubbing statues to cure themselves from various ailments. The most ludicrous was probably a saint, an imaginary saint called Saint Sans Pissou. So, if you rubbed or said prayers to Sans Pissou — you probably already got it — you cured yourself of urinary tract infections, sans pissou.
So, they send in these priests who are supposed to preach in French, in Brittany. This is the 1920s. So, again the question of timing is crucial. And at one point he tells this hilarious story where the priest, and I guess I can remember this, when I was little tiny boy, the priest would turn around and say, at some point in the Mass, “Kyrie eleison.” I guess that means, “Christ has mercy. And he would turn around and all these Bretons, particularly all the Breton kids, he’d turn around and say “Kyrie eleison,” and he was greeted with gales of laughter because Kyrie eleison means, in Breton, purely by coincidence, “there are many wagons.” And then they would all laugh at him.
And so there was a failure to understand each other, and the idea that somehow these Bretons were all kind of plooks, were bumpkins, were uneducated people who could never become part of the true France because they didn’t know French very well. And of course what the Breton do is they move to Paris, in large numbers, and the first thing you see in the Gare Montparnasse is the Assistance, still today, it’s the Social — the Office of Social Assistance for Breton, and they all live around the Gare Montparnasse, which is why so many cafés around the Gare Montparnasse in Paris are named after Breton towns — La Ville de Saint-Brieuc, La Ville de Nantes, Dinan, and all this kind of stuff.
Okay, so what about timing in all this? So, was Weber completely wrong? No, it depends on what you’re talking about. If you wanted to talk about when people in the Loire begin thinking themselves as French, the answer is really in the seventeenth century or in the eighteenth century. And certainly the French Revolution, which precipitates this enormous civil war in the west, was basically a war between Jacobins, that is, Paris centralizing French, and people speaking patois who resisted, in the name of religion and in the name of their nobles, who resisted the influence of the French State. And if you’re going to take — Alsace and Lorraine were conquered by — Louis XIV would have conquered Wyoming, if he could have — and they become French in the seventeenth century. So, there was a shared identity there.
You can have more than one identity. You have more than one identity in your lives yourselves, so it’s kind of silly to look for this one national identity that emerges. If you wanted to — one of the historical facts that’s bad news for this kind of general, oversimplified interpretation is a series of events, that doesn’t concern you in this course, and that is the Revolution of 1848. There’s a big revolution in 1848, and what begins as an urban revolution in Paris, and in Rouen, and in Limoges, and Lyon and all sorts of places, becomes basically a rural movement of people on the Left, in much of the center, but much, even more of the south of France; and it ends in 1851, when Louis Napoleon, the prince — the guy who would become Prince President, who would become Napoleon III, when he has a coup d’état, the 2nd of December, 1851, and people in Paris wake up with pill boxes. But what happens next — and don’t write this down, but it’s good to know — is that it gives rise to the largest national insurrection in France in the nineteenth century, to defend the Republic. And most — the Secret Societies that were formed have a lot to do with this. I once read the interrogation of a great-great-great-great uncle of our neighbor who was arrested for trying to defend the Republic, and his interrogation had to be translated from patois into French.
And so in departments, I won’t go through them all, but from the Pyrénées-Orientales, to the Aude, to the Gers, the Hérault, the Gers — Bas-Alpes, for now it’s called the Alpes — Haute-Provence, the Drôme, the Ardèche and all these places, they rise up to try to defend the Republic, and the vast majority of those people that did were peasants, and many of them did not speak French. Now, political action is a form of establishing one’s own national identity. They were fighting for a French republic. One of the ironies is that people, for example, in Catalonia were fighting in Catalan, in the Catalan language, for a Jacobin view of the Left, held by the Left, that would view their own language as something antithetical to progress of the civilization that people thought was represented by the French language.
So, the question of timing here, you could argue that for this area here, which was extremely backward, though I hate that word — the Limousin, these departments here — you don’t have to know the departments — but the Creuse, the Corrèze and the Haute-Vienne, where I used to live in the Haute-Vienne — I don’t have much affection for it actually — but that these areas, the timing is much earlier than 1880s, and they didn’t have to wait for trains, military conscription or even to be able to know the French language vis-à-vis the school.
Chapter 3. Modernization of Transportation: Roads, Railways and Identity-Formation [00:15:20]
And so there’s some more things that could be said, also in terms of explaining how complicated this whole question of identity is. And we have a tendency, people who believe in modernization and that everything has to pass though modernization, believe that history runs on railroad tracks, and all you have to know is when the train arrives in the station, and that you forget people along the way. A friend of mine once said, “it’s bitter hard to write the history of remainders.” That’s something that’s always haunted me, that phrase; people who weren’t modern and therefore aren’t interesting and shouldn’t be studied. But in fact the roads, the increase in roads in the eighteenth century, the improvements in roads in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, were more important than railroads were in achieving in many parts of France this kind of integration.
And furthermore, if you look at the expansion of the French economy — and again the only — what we’re thinking about is timing, don’t worry about these details, just having you think about national identity — the French economy expanded rapidly in the 1820s and ’30s and ’40s, and again in the 1850s and ’60s, when railroads had something to do with the ’50s and ’60s. But it expands with the improvement of roads that bring people into towns that make them aware of La France and make them aware of politics. And what these, all these departments, there were eighteen of them that rose up in 1851, that rural people before — as they dropped their — and run across the fields, dump their pitchforks and their hunting rifles as the troops come. But all, every one of these people, what they really had in common was that they were in areas in which the market had expanded in the 1820s and the 1830s through better roads.
So again, railroads were important. The first railroad ride that many people took in France were pilgrimage sites, to Lourdes and things like that, more about that another time. But that’s not all that’s important, and if you just look for what is “modern,” that is like TGV, or the godawful trains going to New York from here, then you miss a lot of the action. So, the timing is important. But what about 1914, did these Bretons who are conscripted, did they really know much about France, that they’re going off to fight for and to die for? Well, that’s a leap of faith as well. Certainly it’s true that the French language spreads among Bretons, through the war experience, those people lucky enough to have survived, that weren’t in the 1,500,000 dead. But that’s coming during the war, it’s not necessarily coming before the war at all. Furthermore, just because one didn’t speak French, did that condemn people to eternal backwardness?
I’ve studied strikes in Limoges in 1905 and before that in which the workers were striking against big companies, against Haviland, the porcelain — oh, that’s another story — the Haviland American Porcelain Company, they were chanting, “long live the Social Republic,” not in French but in patois, but in patois, in a Limosin patois, and not in French. Does this mean they don’t — they’re not French? No, it doesn’t mean that at all, but it just means that part of their identity is being from that particular part of France, and you can have multiple identities. And so the sort of simplistic view of when these people start seeing themselves as French is extraordinarily complicated. What about Corsica? You’ve still got about seven or eight percent of the population, that’s just a guess, who don’t want to be French at all. You still have people blowing up occasionally these high rise apartments, condominiums, in Corsica because they don’t want tourists there in August, and to an extent — I’m not for blowing up anything, but who can blame them not wanting tourists there in August; we’re just blighted by tourists in the south. So, it just is terribly complicated. And of course the case of Brittany is classic. Gradually the French Language moves in this direction, but still in the 1920s and ’30s the overwhelming percentage of the population still speak Breton in daily life.
What about — just an aside, one of thousands of asides — but what about time since World War II? Before I get to schools, what do people speak — when does patois disappear? Well, I’ve always been interested in that because we live in a village of about three hundred and thirty-nine people. It’s a very old population. The church bell rings slowly, very, very often, and another of us has been snatched away, sadly. In the south, in this part of France, in the Ardèche, in what you call the Vivarais, the Bas-Vivarais, it doesn’t matter, people spoke patois in daily life in the 1920s and 1930s, and then people who were old would speak it among themselves in the 1940s, the 1950s. The people that I know that are old, including my boule partner — boule, we play boule, and we drink a little Chardonnay — oh, I’m not supposed to say that, but we drink a little Chardonnay on the side, or pastis, quelque pastis de temps de temps; pas de temps de temps, tous les temps! — the people that are playing — my friend who’s 80, he can understand patois but he can’t read it and he can’t write it. When I asked him to correct some sentences that I’d copied in patois, in a book that I did, for the French translation, he couldn’t do it. So that’s disappeared.
But say in Auvergne, Auvergne are these departments here, I won’t go through them all but Aviron, Cantal, Haute-Loire,et cetera, Puy-du-Dôme up here, maybe Dallier a little bit — in the 1960s and early 1970s patois was still spoken in many households. And when the classic, kind of eternal triangle, that is, the parents, the school kid and the teacher, was often then had something to do with language, because the parents felt themselves at a disadvantage because their French wasn’t as good as their patois; and this isn’t the 1860s, this is the 1960s. And in Corsica there’s still people who speak Corsican language but basically almost everybody now speaks French. And even in the movie I mentioned this the other day by Jean, Jean de Florette, and all of that, there they had to equip one of the main actors, Daniel Auteuil, they had to train him, even though he’s from Avignon, how to speak with a real Provençal accent. But that’s false because in the 1920s, when he comes back from World War I, they’re going to be speaking Provençal, they’re not going to be speaking French.
Now, what about — well, I don’t even have time to get into this, but about universities? One of the things that’s been good in the last 20 years in France is that before — as I said, de Gaulle wanted to crush regional languages and cultures like grapes — but one of the things that’s happened is that now universities are very active in teaching these languages that are part of the regional identity; that is, not necessarily antithetical at all to the sense of being French. The University of Nantes, which is horribly rightwing; but, Rennes, Rennes in particular teaches a Breton, and there’s been a revival there; or Perpignan, very, very strong in Catalan studies; and in Toulouse, which — there’s a very good university there, though the city is wonderful but the university is a dump; and also when we had the big explosion there, we were there when that all happened in the Fall of 2001 where — there were some even more horrible explosions in this country, as you well know — the whole campus was sort of moved by this huge explosion when this chemical factory blew up. But there, there’s been a revival in the teaching of Occitan, the sort of Languedoc languages that were soon to disappear, et cetera, et cetera.
Now, so, be a little cautious in assuming that well everybody in 1914 felt themselves French, or thinking that these sort of agencies of modernization are what created this, what we’d have to admit is a strong French identity. But also one of the things I’m able to see — I’ll probably be in tears by the end of the lecture because I’m so afraid that these regional identities are going to disappear and that tourism may have something to do with that as well, and that would be too bad, with the end of these license plates and things like that, that I mentioned before — that’s not impossible. Ironically, those of you, anyone who’s been to France or been anywhere, know that the green Guide Michelin, in a way that may have even had, along with the gastronomy guides, as a way of at least making people think about regional culture, tying it closely to what is unique about a region and presenting it to tourists, and what’s unique about cuisine. And some of the really famous — and now if you want to spend deux cents cinquante baldis for one person to eat in these places it’s $250.00 per person. Some of them have even so emphasized their local origins of what they’re preparing that this may work against this sort of onslaught of this single French culture, and so, well, let all these flowers continue to bloom.
Chapter 4. Schoolteachers and Schoolhouses: Education, the State, and Identity [00:25:42]
Now, what about schools? Certainly Weber, like anyone else, is right that schools make a huge difference. And the history of schoolhouses is very interesting. Now, basically until 1833, until 1833, and I’ll explain why 1833 in a minute, there are two things that could be said about the teaching of anything, or three things. One is that girls were much less likely to go to school than boys; second, that many schoolteachers were forains which were — or mobile. There are people who simply would go from town to town, teaching for a month or two, that villages — some were very resourceful and would start schools, taking advantage of one of these people — but that the church, education was primarily dominated by the Catholic Church, and education in the informal sense as well.
Now, to be sure five percent of the French population were Protestants, more about that when we get to the Dreyfus Affair. But the priest was often, in the eighteenth century, the only person who could read in many villages, and his reading knowledge would be basically limited to the Bible, repeating things that he’d been trained to say. But the church and the teaching Sisters, the nuns, really dominate, in many parts of France, in places that were still practicing that old-time religion, dominate education. Now, in 1833 a law comes along called the Guizot Law. Guizot was a Protestant from Nimes. He was not what the French would call rigolo, he was not a very happy-go-lucky guy that you want to have a couple of beers with or a couple of 7-Ups with. And he was Protestant, and so what he wanted to do was to wrest education away from the clutches of the Catholic Church, as he saw it. So, through his inspirations they pass a law that says that in every village in France, in every one of France’s 36,000 communes, you had to have a school. Now, the reality was that many were so poor that they couldn’t.
In our particular village, and I’ll have to make reference to this because I’ve studied it a little bit, the school moves from rented place to rented place. But 1833 matters, because the schoolteacher now has the stamp of official authority. He is supposed to teach in French. Now, how do you know that? When I say he has the stamp of official authority, what does that mean? So, I got curious as to what that means, and to see what difference he made I did the following, which is that, as I said before, the big rights of life, birth, baptism, marriage, death, have to be witnessed. And since the French Revolution this is kept by the State, not by the parishes. So, you have to have people who witness it, who say, “I see this baby, I sign on the dotted line.” Now usually what you do in a small village is you would take some notable person, who knew how to read or write, perhaps your wealthy uncle, or somebody’s wealthy uncle, and then you’d — because the person can sign his name — and then you’d take your cousin, who probably couldn’t sign his name, but can make a pretty good X, when push comes to shove.
With 1833 I start looking at all these registers, just for a day, that’ll do it, but I look at all the births and all the baptisms and all the marriages and all the deaths. And what happens is this proud signature of the schoolteacher. He becomes this sort of, not obligatory, but the chosen person to say, “I have seen this baby,” “I have seen this couple,” “I have seen this corpse.” And does that tell you something? Well, French schoolteachers still have this wonderful signature that my kids who write terribly, have terrible signatures, like mine, were never able to pick up. But that tells you something because he has — he’s supposed to get a minimum salary of two hundred francs, which is virtually nothing; some people are paying him in asparaguses, depending on — or in endives or in apples, or not paying at all. Families that were too poor were exonerated from having to pay anything. And he’s just barely scraping by. But he doesn’t have a red, white and blue sash, like the mayor does, but he represents the State and the authority, and above all the prestige of the State. And he’s a challenge in his very existence to the Virgin Mary being on the wall of these public schools, these are public schools.
Now, in 1850, this is before the course, it doesn’t matter, there’s a law called the Falloux Law, which you can forget as soon as I said it; and in the Falloux Law, really it’s a compromise with the church, and Louis Napoleon hands back control over local committees to the church. And in parts of France in which people still practice religion, where religion still mattered, in private and public life, to the degree it always had been, you still have people that want to have church schools.
And in the north of France — when you’re reading Germinale you have to also imagine you’ve got these Belgian nuns with these wild hats that they used to have, still teaching in the schools. You have convent people coming down that know a little literacy, not very much, and they’re teaching and they’re doing the best they can. The quality of the clergy in France was never higher than in the eighteenth century; it was pretty low in the nineteenth century. But still you have these competing sources to educate the young people.
Now, parents often resist their kids going to school. Why would they want to do that? Well, mothers are responsible for the household economy. You have to have enough money to keep the household going. And for very many people, and not just workers and peasants, it was difficult to explain what difference in the long run that mattered if their child learned how to do more than the very minimum of learning how to read and write.
So, I got ahold of some statistics on truancy, for example, and that was pretty interesting to see. And it’s quite clear that whenever there was a harvest, a silkworm harvest in much of the southeast of France, a wine harvest in Champagne or in Burgundy or in Bordeaux or Languedoc, almost anywhere, or the various harvests that begin in July, usually with the grain, the kids just didn’t go to school because they weren’t needed there. But there’s always this tension, because parents said, “my little girl should be in CP,” or “my little boy should be in CP,” which is the equivalent of first grade, “but I need her,” or “I need him to watch the small animals.” The big kids watch the big animals, that’s the way it is.
The big kids go on the transhumance; that is when you take the sheep up into the mountains. We still have that. Every year we still — my kids go on the tour, or at least one of them goes on the transhumance, with the sheep going up in the mountains. And they would say there’s no way I’m sending my kid to school. But in France, as you’ll read from Chip Sowerwine’s book, they put in laws, as they do in Italy, as they do in Germany, and as they do in Britain, that says you don’t have any choice, pas du choix; you have to go to school, and you have to be there until the age of eleven or the age of twelve. So, the assumption is, in this kind of view of how this all works, is that these guys, these teachers, male teachers — increasingly women teachers later, but only later, it becomes a job along with — well we’ll talk about this some other time, along with department store clerks, and when clerks becoming more female as opposed to male, it becomes a way for peasant girls and working class girls or young women to get jobs.
But the view is that these teachers, who are called instits in French, instituteurs, but just teachers, these primary school teachers — virtually nobody went to lycée, goes to high school; hardly anyone goes to lycée until, really until the second half of the nineteenth century — that these people are teaching the French language, and that this is how you’re going to learn it. And there’s always a story told almost everyplace how in school, even during recess, recreation, recess, the last person who says a word in patois has to clutch for the remainder of the period some oddly shaped rock or coin, until somebody else screws up and says a word in patois. Are you kidding me? It doesn’t work like that at all.
Jean-François Chanet started, he went out to study, in the 1850s and ’60s and 1870s, schoolteachers and schools, and he begins with surveys, some of which I’ve read. They asked schoolteachers, “what do you want for yourself, what do want for your village, for your school, and what do you want for your kids?” And they would reply. But these guys, they’re filling out forms that their superiors in this hierarchical, centralized society are going to look at, and if they write, “basically they don’t understand French, we talk about the great battles of Napoleon, but we do it in Auvergnat, in patois, or we do it in Languedocien or we do it in Catalan, then they’re going to get themselves in trouble.
So, you have to sort of sneak around a little bit these sources. And the more Chanet looked at these places, it’s clear that regional identity is still very important. The famous map of France or the famous map of the world that had, in the 1890s, after the big period of New Imperialism, you have the color of France in its colonies in Senegal or what now is Mali or Réunion or anywhere. But you have to begin with a region. And so they’re beginning with a region. If they’re from the Heyraud, if they’re from Montpellier or from around Montpellier, that is their frame of identity. And so it’s absurd to think that they weren’t actually teaching in these languages, local languages and dialects, in patois, just as it’s absurd to think that people who didn’t master French, perfectly, or even very well at all, didn’t have some, depending on the timing, some sense of being French.
So, these schools are terribly important. And they could be teaching about all this stuff they had to learn about the kings of France and all this crap that they still learn, over and over again. And they’re teaching that stuff in patois and in dialect. And maybe in the north of France — you have to — everybody’s always talking about this imaginary line from St. Malo to Geneva, here, and it’s mostly in the south of France where these languages persist, and I don’t mean persist in a derogatory sense but where they continue to thrive. But this bilingualism will continue.
And also, a lot of the views of these sort of backward provinces are written by Parisians or by military officers, for example, who shop, and they find some peasant walking down the street and they say, “hey you, can you give me this information?” And that person understands perfectly well what they want but they identify some person coming, speaking French, as a tax collector or a military guy or something like that, and you’re apt just to give that secret smile and pretend like you don’t understand a damn thing, just a secret smile. And then they go back and they write, “boy, I’ve never — these people here they can’t speak French at all, they are hopeless, they are out of date, they are plooks, they are bumpkins,” and all of that.
So, but eventually, as I said, you have these schoolhouses that they will improve over time, they get more resources, they’re made to have more resources. The towns do more and more for them. Girls schools start up, girls education increases rapidly and thus it’s quite — another Zola novel, which is a great one, called Au Bonheur des Dames, which is about a department store, it’s about the department store Bon Marché, in Paris. For these young women get really miserable jobs, and what they’re doing is they’re sleeping in dormitories, under horrible, sort of draconian regulations about what they can do. But for them to get those kinds of jobs they have to be able to count, they have to be able to read, they have to be able to write.
And so women’s education increases dramatically during this whole time. But what does not change is the prestige that the schoolteachers have, that they maintain as representing not only national identity but also regional possibilities, and in teaching the youth of France how to read and write.
Chapter 5. French Schools and Regional Identity Today [00:38:59]
Now, I thought, just because maybe you’ll find it interesting for the last ten minutes, since I did what I basically wanted to do and held myself down in not giving countless and countless examples, is talk a little bit about now. Because one of the things that I became interested in is how, if these areas in the south, particularly, that are tourist infested, during the year, if they are going to remain more than simply sites for tourists from the north, from Belgium and from Germany and from the Netherlands and literally from the north of France, to come and visit, schools have to maintain their traditional role in representing the identity of these communities.
And those of you who are — if there are any people here from Nebraska, where my wife is from, or from Idaho or from Oregon, where I’m from, from Eastern Oregon, or from Wyoming and places like that, will know the process by which schools are closing down, because there are not enough kids left. France had in 1851 — two-thirds of the departments in France in 1851 were larger than they were in 1939, because of two things; one, the collapsing birthrate, which I will talk about another time. In much of France people stopped having babies, point, period, or they’ll have 2.1 babies or 1.8 babies — that’s kind of hard, but statistically. And second is that what in French you call le grand départ, or the big departure, starts, as people who have lost access to common resources, for example, in the mountains, or the silk industry collapse or the wine industry collapses — more about that when I talk about phylloxera disease; don’t write that down or even try to spell it now — there is this huge withdrawal from the countryside toward more urbanized departments, and because the population has stopped growing basically by 1900, if it wasn’t for the arrival of people from Italy and other places, and from Spain, the French population wouldn’t even reproduce itself, it wouldn’t even stay constant.
In much of France, and indeed I would argue of 36,000 communes, let me say that perhaps in ten or twelve thousand communes, after World War II, there were one-room schoolhouses. And a one-room schoolhouse you know, you’ve seen movies involving them. They have them in the United States too. In a one-room schoolhouse you’ll have all the kids, have all the grades being taught by one person. Our kids were several years in a one-room schoolhouse. It’s a great way to grow up. In France you have grades from first through fifth grade, they’re called CP un, CP deux, et cetera. And the oldest kid, if he or she is remotely intelligent, will help with the younger ones, but everybody’s together in the same school.
And with the depopulation, what they did is they tried to have single sex schools, you have a boys school and a girls school. But that becomes too expensive, because the State is paying for all this and the communes are paying part of it. So, what they do is they say, okay, we’re going to have one school. It’s called in French a classe unique, and it’s a wonderful way to grow up in — where you’ve got cats and you have dogs and you have the older kids are trying to get ready for their exams; they don’t have it anymore, but a brevet to show that through a certificate that they have been in class through our equivalent here in America of the fifth grade, and you might have a — if they have a kindergarten you might have a little boy or a girl peeing in the corner, literally, while all this other stuff is going on.
In our class a dog gave birth during the middle of math in our class in this school. And all of the tests that people have had show that kids with — who come out of that environment do just as well, in fact even a little better, than people in your normal class where you’ve got everybody in the first grade, there they all are, and here’s the second grade, and you’ve got sort of an elite class for those people whose parents are pushy enough to get them in that; and you got all that stuff, and some of which you’ve seen. But as all this is expensive what’s happened over time is that these one-room schoolhouses are closing down. And between 1975 about, and about let’s say 1990, 10,000 one-room schoolhouses in France closed. And what this does is it causes unemployment for schoolteachers but many of them can stay on in other capacities. But it means that there are long bus rides; they are already long bus rides because many départements don’t have that many high schools and you’ve got to take buses in order to get to the high schools, and that sort of thing. And that is sad because that’s a wonderful way to grow up, in these schools. And that’s part of regional identity and village identity that’s going to disappear.
And let me give you an example, again from our village, because it’s interesting. We were faced with the fact that the school was going to be either grouped with another village, a detested rival, or be shut down. So, what are our kids supposed to do, where are they supposed to go to school? And one day we were convoked to the town hall, to themairie, by our schoolteacher. And our — most of our parents’ meetings with the schoolteacher ended with a bottle of armagnac, I’m pleased to say, and we’re all dear friends; even the people that you’re not dear friends with you got along with fine. But remember what I said about the role of the school. The school represented, from the outside, France looking into the village, in principle, teaching French, providing opportunities for people to get educated, get a job in the post office or the train station or in a department store in Paris, Avignon, Toulouse or wherever. And one day we were convoked by the mayor, and the mayor then wasn’t a friend of ours, just somebody we knew, and he had a sash on, and he said vous instead of tu, he spoke to us formally. And the teacher was nervous, he said, “God,” he said, “we have the great pleasure of having Monsieur la Maire.” And we’re all looking at him and saying, “Quoi?, qu’est-ce…?” “Monsieur la Maire is going to hear, he’s going to be here to talk to us.” And we’ll all a little nervous because our school is maybe going to close down. We’d started a semi-illegal cantine to feed the kids, lunchrooms so that parents wouldn’t put their kids in the other school. At one point we had like nine kids left in the school, we could get closed down, and we were a little nervous. And the guy says, “my friends,” which he’s not, we’re not — he said, “we are gathered here together so that we can best see how we can cheat the State.” And the minute he said cheat the State we had an alliance, all of us, because how are we going to keep a semi-illegal lunchroom going so that we can keep a couple more little kids in our school, how are we going to do that?
And I realized then that the relationship had totally changed, that the school still represents France. It’s a cruel system where you’d be in the fourth grade and your teachers will call the parents and say, “votre fille, elle est nulle.” That happened to one of my daughter’s friends — your daughter, she’s nothing, she has to go off and do this menial job because she’s never going to make it to the next level. There’s always tension in these parents’ meetings. It’s a cruel system. But it was the outside looking in, it represented the possibilities of France and the French language which we’ve already — we’ve exaggerated. And I suddenly realized that now it was very different, and that if our village, like all these other villages, are going to remain living, vivant, and more than just a Michelin infused speck on the dot where people come along with their green guides because it’s so beautiful — and this is true of all of these places; they’re not all equally beautiful — that our school has to survive. Because even people whose families have hated each other’s guts for generations, who detest each other, all agree that since the church is now just a voluntary association like any other, like the pétanque club, the boule club, or the fut club, I mean the soccer club, that the only thing that arguably will hold the village together is the identity that comes through this school, the school of this particular village which is called Balazuc.
So, just simply in conclusion let’s not exaggerate this one national identity, nor assume that modernization has to come crashing along. Let us realize the complexity of national and regional identities, which can become intertwined, which are intertwined, and let us realize that these schools have a remarkable role still in these communities, terribly important at the most basic level, and that remains in France, neighborhood and village. See you on Wednesday.
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