French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting […], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).

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