Composition Francaise, Looking Back on a Breton Childhood. Gallimard, 2009 By Mona Ozouf

Composition Francaise, Looking Back on a Breton Childhood.
Gallimard, 2009
By Mona Ozouf

In 1944 during the German Occupation, Mona Ozouf was called to the office of her headmistress, with her mother, to answer an accusation, at the age of thirteen, of having spent the previous two years organizing support for Sinn Fein. Her mother defended her by saying that Mona wouldn’t know what Sinn Fein was; her daughter was incensed by this defence but kept quiet.

Her daughter did know, not because she had been agitating, but because she had read the contents of her father’s bookshelves; he was a socialist and a Breton nationalist, and had died when his only child, Mona, was four years old. Her description of her life at home with her widowed mother and grandmother is very moving.

The historian Mona Ozouf is one of the French authorities on the French Revolution, and she has quite a strong media presence; she was interviewed recently on France Inter about her reading preferences (literature before history) and her name is often mentioned. Her present book looks at the history and politics of Breton feeling but ends with reflections on differences today within the French state brought about by immigration. She looks at the role the French Revolution played in suppressing local differences and the role it is being made to play today against the expression of communal differences.

She still has sympathy for the Breton nationalism of her father; she also has sympathy for the tendency of Maghreb immigrants to live communally. The Republic is ‘One and Indivisible’ but it includes Bretons and Algerians. There is no contradiction, you can be French and Breton, French and Algerian. The demands of the different groups should be examined on their merits; if the Bretons wanted certain jobs to be reserved for Breton speakers, this would not make sense because they are too few. If Algerian girls want to wear a scarf in class, this should be allowed because it is better for them to receive an education in a state school than no education. Mona Ozouf is being both pragmatic and logical; could you accept that a group speaks Breton and puts out a black and white flag on the 14th July, but refuse another group the use of its language and symbols?

The French continue to invoke the Revolution and the Republic in their political discussions; so different interpretations of events can be roped in as counter arguments. Ozouf does not put it as crudely as that, but I read her in the light of my learning of history at school, and the received ideas that stayed with me since, and which she indirectly invites me to revise. I will go through these received ideas one after the other.

Received idea one: the Revolution destroyed the old territorial units of the provinces by cutting up the country into brand new, smaller units with new names, the départements.
In fact, as Mona Ozouf points out, the new units had to follow older boundaries, if only because they were given capitals (chef-lieu), which could only be existing towns. At first, moreover, the head of the département, the representative of the King, was to be elected locally. The Revolution might have liked to start again with new boundaries, but it could not be done. We were told at school that the Revolution proclaimed France to be ‘One and Indivisible’; I did not understand this, of course France was one and indivisible; it was like being told that the sky was blue and the grass green. I did not understand at the time that this was a slogan, a statement of intent, not a statement of fact.

Received idea two: the Revolution had no sympathy with the regions.
In fact, at the beginning, revolutionary laws and decrees were translated into the regional languages, Breton etc, often with compliments to the region added by the translator. It was only later on that attitudes hardened.

Received idea three: the later Revolution, with the centralising Jacobins and Robespierre, is the true Revolution.
In fact, they were victorious over the less centralising Girondins only because of war circumstances. We could with profit go back and study Brissot and other revolutionaries. The Republic was founded in 1792, after the flight of the King; before then, few called themselves republicans. The Republic and what sort of republic should be established was discussed later, feverishly, during a state of emergency. What came out was an emergency solution, which has prestige because its authors saved the country at war.

Received idea four: the Republic is the fruit of the French Revolution.
In fact, the First and Second Republics (1792 and 1848) were short lived; the first continuous long lasting Republic was the Third Republic, which, founded after the 1870 military defeat, started a continuous republican regime. The principles of the founding fathers of the Third Republic were different and allowed for far stronger civil society, with eventually freedom of the press and of trade unions. The Le Chapelier law of 1790 banning associations was repealed only in the 1880s. The legislators of the early Third Republic knew how to make their new laws accepted, by not demanding immediate and absolute compliance. For example, with the separation of Church and State, schools were taken from the clergy; crucifixes then had to be removed from school walls; the directive was, depending on circumstance, to wait for a time of redecoration, take down the crucifix, and forget to replace it afterwards. If there was protest, it would be put back, if not, it would not be replaced. Alsace-Lorraine returned to France in 1918, having been spared the upheaval of the separation of Church and State. It was not forced to undergo that process, after its inhabitants protested very strongly.
Mona Ozouf describes the world view of the nondenominational school in one of its aspects: children were deemed to be equal and similar; the differences between them were studiously ignored. Their origins, their homes, were left behind once they entered the classroom. The books they were given as class readers, for example ‘The Tour of France of Two Children’, gave them a description of France as a whole, and an idea of the nation. The message of ‘no difference’ was not however the message she received from home, which was ‘equal and different’. As for catechism class, where the children from the state school were placed at the back of the classroom behind the children from the religious school, the message there was that inequality was the normal state of things.

Received idea five: Jules Ferry, Minister for Public Instruction at the end of the nineteenth century, sent teachers to all corners of France with a mission to make all children French, and eradicate local languages.
In fact, most teachers were locals, and their official instructions were to start with the geography and history of the locality; many did, and came to write books about their region. As for the local language, official policy was to forbid it at school, but parental opportunism played a larger part in diminishing the local language: they knew their children should learn French if they wanted the easier life of the towns.
The politicians at the birth of the Third Republic were called the Opportunists. Not a name to set the pulse racing, not one to serve as a founding myth of the nation, but one that could be usefully studied in a time when accommodation and flexibility in social relations are called for.

Is Mona Ozouf revising history, and telling us that our idea of the Revolution are incorrect? It could be argued that the clarifications brought out in Composition Francaise are not an absolute contradiction of the traditional interpretation; you could say the historian filled in the detail without changing the story.
When I learnt recently that the Irish Brigades had taken part in the Battle of Valmy in 1792, a vital and glorious revolutionary victory, I was not best pleased. What! Foreigners! Mercenaries! In our hour of danger and glory! They may have been on the right side, their officers may have spoken French like the natives, but they weren’t French. However, this is a detail that does not change the story.
Valmy and the French Revolution are the foundations of the state. I wonder if Mona Ozouf’s book could shake these foundations, from the best of motives, and Liberty, Equality and Fraternity might be shaken out at the same time, and what is there to replace these ideals?

The power of words is immense and you change them at your peril. It is dangerous in my opinion to revise the French Revolution as Mona Ozouf does; it would be better to find new arguments away from history. Politicians always invoke the French Revolution to bolster their arguments; on wearing the burqa, a communist mayor, on the radio station France Inter, in December 2009 invoked the 1789 decree on freedom of religion ‘as long as it does not disturb public order’. Let him invoke this and involve his public in a shared identity, but then let us carry on the discussion; the phrase is meaningless by itself and needs interpreting, away from 1789. A historian, asked in the context of the 2009/10 debate on ‘national identity’ when nationalism had ever done any good, replied: ‘Valmy’. Let us keep Valmy, it is a founding symbol, which represents strength and generosity. We need opportunism of course too, but not on the same level and at the same moment.

The words ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ are taking on a new importance today, when this type of vocabulary and idea can sound quaint and archaic. I do not think we can keep these ideas in all their authority without the revolutionary foundation and origin. It is true that unfair tax policies and attacks against mutual societies, in France, are what threatens fraternity, but the idea that fraternity is an ideal is something fundamental which exists in France, and not in Britain or the U.S., and thanks to the Revolution, or the idea of the Revolution that is remembered. Let us remember also that France is in danger of dividing between the privileged, who live in better off areas, and the very underprivileged, who suffer every kind of deprivation in ghettos surrounding the cities. The solution is in the State, which must keep income tax at a realistic level and redistribute tax income among local areas to achieve equality among the citizens and keep France one.


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