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Thread: France : an ethnically and culturally divided country

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    Post France : an ethnically and culturally divided country



    I am currently reading the best and most amazing book I have ever read about France or French social history : The Discovery of France by Graham Robb.

    Only the first 3 chapters (out of 17) have changed completely my image of French society, especially in the central, mountainous and isolated parts of the country that I know much less than the North and the big cities.

    Robb explains that most of the French countryside remained a tribal society well into the 19th century, and even into the early 20th century. Most communities were egalitarian, self-governing, had their own assembly and laws, their own justice, and its members were strongly discouraged to marry outside the community (meaning outside the village or hamlet).

    Rivalries and even wars were common between villages, but crime was almost unheard of within a community. This might be because most of the people were related (a bit like in Scottish or Irish clans), but also because the risk of being banned or shunned from the community was deterrent enough to keep people in line.

    Each village had its own measure system on purpose to prevent competition from the outside.

    Anyone who wasn't a local (born and raised within a few miles) was considered a foreigner.

    As recently as in the 1860's and 70's army officers had the hardest time to recruit people from the deep country because they would only fight close to home, or didn't feel any sense of patriotism towards France as a whole. No wonder that France lost so easily against Germany in 1870-1, when nationalism was rampant in Germany.

    I many ways, rural life in France hadn't changed much since the time Julius Caesar wrote that Gaul was subdivided into innumerable tiny regions. It is as true for the culture and mentality as for the lifestyle. In 1807, an Alpine village was reported to have retained the customs of using Roman numerals for every day usage, centuries after the rest of the country had adopted modern numerals.

    Here is an illuminating passage from page 35 :

    "About ten times as many illegitimate children were born in Paris than anywhere else, not because Parisians were more promiscuous but because girls who 'sinned against modesty' were often forced to leave their pays."

    And these are just a few highlights from chapter 2.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 23-02-09 at 20:19.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    I am currently reading the best and most amazing book I have ever read about France or French social history : The Discovery of France by Graham Robb.

    Only the first 3 chapters (out of 17) have changed completely my image of French society, especially in the central, mountainous and isolated parts of the country that I know much less than the North and the big cities.
    What little I do know of France, is of the big southern cities of - Toulon, Bordeaux, Lyons, Grenoble, Nice, Marseilles, Toulouse, Montpellier, then the generally much smaller northern cities of, Nantes, Rouen, Rennes, Lille, Strasbourg and Paris. PS I hope your not confusing 'central France' with the Massif Central, which quite clearly lies in Southern France.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Derek Knatchbull View Post
    What little I do know of France, is of the big southern cities of - Toulon, Bordeaux, Lyons, Grenoble, Nice, Marseilles, Toulouse, Montpellier, then the generally much smaller northern cities of, Nantes, Rouen, Rennes, Lille, Strasbourg and Paris.
    Smaller northern cities ? The Greater Lille is the fourth most populous French city after Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lyon (and Grenoble) being central, only Marseille is actually southern. Strasbourg and Nantes have an urban population of about 700,000, more than Nice and almost as much as Bordeaux. Rennes and Rouen are about the same size as Toulon and Montpellier, with about half a million inhabitants. I don't count the city proper, but the urban area with the suburbs.

    PS I hope your not confusing 'central France' with the Massif Central, which quite clearly lies in Southern France.
    The boundaries of Central France are roughly marked by the Loire valley, starting in the Massif Central (Auvergne) and running through Berry, Orleanais, Tourraine and Anjou. I would include Poitou, Saintonge, Burgundy, Lyonais and Savoy in Central France as well.

    It is widely agreed in France that the 45th parallel separates the northern wheat-growing and butter-cooking Oil-language culture from the southern wine-growing olive-oil-cooking Oc-language culture.

    Graham Robb also mention this, and has an interesting map of French dialects showing a buffer zone between Oc and Oil running from Saintonge through Auvergne to Savoy.
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    From the same book, Robb explains (p. 117-9) that many places named after saints were sites of pre-Christian cults (usually Celtic) renamed by the Catholic Church. It was common to use the name of a saint similar to the old deity, so that, for instance, many of the Saint-Mard or Saint-Maurice were old sites dedicated to the cult of the Roman god Mars. The patron saint of Brittany, Saint Anne, is the Christian adaptation of the Celtic goddess Ana (or Anann or Anu).

    Places named after saints are much more common in the west, centre and south of France, and rarest in the north and north-east. Robb explains :

    "The pattern of saints' name is curiously reminiscent of a long-term trend that is known to geographers and historians as the Saint-Malo-Geneva line. This imaginary line runs diagonally across the country from the Cotentin peninsula in the English Channel to the northern French Alps. At least until the late nineteenth century it appears with surprising regularity when various sets of data are plotted on a map: south and west of the line, people tended to be shorter and to have darker hair and eyes; they were less literate, lived in smaller places, had less taxable income and were more likely to be employed in agriculture.
    The Saint-Malo-Geneva line may predate the north-south divide [i.e. the 45th parallel], and it may reflect ancient and otherwise untraceable movements of population. It may be the 'strange attractor' of a chaotic process involving geology and climate, invasion and migration, enterprise and inertia. It does at least suggest that the Christianization of France was subordinate to other realities and trends, and it raises some tricky questions. Did the Church consolidate the nation by creating parishes and dioceses, or was it simply implanting itself - as it did in Lourdes - on societies and beliefs that already existed? Was modern Gaul created or only conquered by the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church? And were 'superstitions' and popular religion just jumbled bones or Druidism or a coherent system of belief?"


    In my opinion, the Romans conquered a land full of pagan beliefs not so different from theirs, and Celtic deities either continued to exist as before, or merged with Roman ones. The arrival of Christianity did not change much. Pagan deities became Christian saints with similar attributes, on sites that had been venerated for centuries or maybe millennia.

    The Saint-Malo-Geneva line coincides roughly with the limit between Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica. The north and north-east are also the most Germanised parts of France. French Flanders, Lorraine and Alsace were all formerly Dutch or German-speaking regions, and of course Normandy was settled by the Vikings.

    In terms of climate, the north and north-east are colder than the north-west, due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream on the Atlantic coast. This is why Ireland, which is more north than the northern tip of France, is warmer than Germany or even northern Italy in winter.

    So I think that Robb is right when he says that the divide involves geology and climate, invasion and migration. It is a divide between the warmer/milder Celtic south and west and the colder Belgo-Germanic north and north-east.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 21-03-09 at 01:34.
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    Domestic animals played a very important role in historical France, probably since pre-Roman times. Peasants sang to their animals in the fields until the late 19th century in central France. France was also one of the first countries to care about animal rights.

    From p.168-9 :

    "Cows and horses lived next door to their owners. Sometimes large holes were cut in the wall between the stable and the house so that the animals could see what was going on and the humans could converse with their workmates. The tall and bristly pigs of Brittany played with children and were given names. In 1815, in central France, the Scottish writer Sir Archilbald Alison was surprised to find un every cottage 'a very motley and promiscuous set of beings': 'The pigs here appear so well accustomed to cordial welcome in the houses, that when by chance excluded, you see them impatiently rapping at the door with their snouts.'
    Animals were christened, dressed for church and welcomed into the home, were, not surprisingly, well treated or at least no more roughly than their owners treated themselves. Many animals that had outlived their usefulness in the fields were fed until they died."
    ...
    "The more spectacular creature to share the lives of humans beings was the Pyrenean brown bear. Visitors to the remote valleys of the Couserans regions were often alarmed to see children playing with bear cubs."


    From p. 171 :

    "From the mid-eighteenth century, being kind to animals was standard injunction in books for children."
    ...
    "To moralise the working classes was the aim of the Society for the Protection of Animals, founded in 1848, sixteen years before the Society of the Protection of Children. The first law against cruelty to animals, the Grammont Law of 1850, outlawed animal fights in towns and cities, not primarily because animals suffered but because violent sports were thought to give the proletariat a taste for bloody revolution."


    From p. 179 :

    "By then [1899], wealthy French dogs could travel in special railway carriages. In 1902, the Paris depositary for sick animals that had turned into a festering heap of vermin was replaced by a proper hospital on the edge of the city at Gennevilliers. Three years later, the dogs of Paris had their own ambulance. An Anti-Vivisection Society was founded in 1903, and in 1905, one of the proudest symbols of the new relationship between animals and humans appeared in the streets of Paris: dogs wearing special goggles and riding in the passenger seats of automobiles."
    Last edited by Maciamo; 28-03-09 at 14:13.
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    It seems like the book is speaking about Italy........patriotism towards national states it is an invention ......an invention that nearly destroyed Europe during the XX century...Anyway i strongly disagree with the book when it says that france lost easily the war with Germany because of the lack of patriotism of his soldiers. I think that german army officers faced the same problems with german peasants,


    PS Sorry for my poor english

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    I had no idea that France was THAT divided not so long ago. I wonder how many languages were spoken in France in the 18th century.

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    The fact of so big divissions in French society is really new to me. The problem with peasants looks to me the same like problem partisans in Yugoslavia had in WW2 - peasants didn't want to fight for anything but their villages.

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    This is fascinating. In Spain and Portugal there are definite ethnic and cultural divisions between north and south and rural and non-rural, to some extent. This is especially true of traditional Celtic regions (north-central-to-north in Portugal and the northwest in Spain) where they identify much more regionally than with the country as a whole.

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    Viva la diférence!

    This is exciting stuff to me. I have always thought that the view of Europe as being divided into "nations" is not accurate, does not reflect reality, and even going back 2000 or more years, the notion that European society and culture are at their heart or root "Graeco-Roman" seems also a gross oversimpliflication.

    There is a saying in Spain: "Cada comarca un país." Comarca means the local region, generally a valley with a few villages in it. There is not an equivalent word in English. Anyway, "Every comarca is a country," is the meaning of that.

    Every little place has its own sausage, its own cheese, etc. All that rural culture is why I much prefer to be out in the boonies in some small town in Spain, France or Italy, rather than in some city, which despite the superficial differences ends up seeming just like another USA city in many ways.

    I also agree heavily that much of that culture can be traced right back into the distant past... before Rome even. I think the extent of the persistence of old ethnic culture in Europe is wrongly obscured by the aforementioned over-emphasis on the modern nations, and on Greece and Rome.

    For Spain a very interesting book by the anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, called Los pueblos de España, explores all the local and regional differences to be found until recent decades in the housing, food and habits of the people all around Spain. There's a park in Barcelona by the same name which has exhibits showing these same cultural variations. Commercialized, tourist-oriented, but still interesting.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Barros Serrano View Post
    This is exciting stuff to me. I have always thought that the view of Europe as being divided into "nations" is not accurate, does not reflect reality, and even going back 2000 or more years, the notion that European society and culture are at their heart or root "Graeco-Roman" seems also a gross oversimpliflication.
    There is a saying in Spain: "Cada comarca un país." Comarca means the local region, generally a valley with a few villages in it. There is not an equivalent word in English. Anyway, "Every comarca is a country," is the meaning of that.
    Every little place has its own sausage, its own cheese, etc. All that rural culture is why I much prefer to be out in the boonies in some small town in Spain, France or Italy, rather than in some city, which despite the superficial differences ends up seeming just like another USA city in many ways.
    I also agree heavily that much of that culture can be traced right back into the distant past... before Rome even. I think the extent of the persistence of old ethnic culture in Europe is wrongly obscured by the aforementioned over-emphasis on the modern nations, and on Greece and Rome.
    For Spain a very interesting book by the anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, called Los pueblos de España, explores all the local and regional differences to be found until recent decades in the housing, food and habits of the people all around Spain. There's a park in Barcelona by the same name which has exhibits showing these same cultural variations. Commercialized, tourist-oriented, but still interesting.
    I know exactly what you mean. Political frontiers in Europe, as in many other parts of the world, are essentially artificial. What matters most are cultural and ethnic borders.

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    Red face El pueblo español... that's it.

    Sorry...actually the park is called: El pueblo español.

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    Quote Originally Posted by antibus View Post
    ........patriotism towards national states it is an invention ......an invention that nearly destroyed Europe during the XX century...
    I believe that it was patriotism that ultimately destroyed the Third Reich and Japan. It will no doubt destroy the U.S. too.

    I think all of the critisizm about European countries losing their ethnic/national identity is exagerrated and Im pleased that we are entering new and more comprehensive phases of EU membership. I think, for example,that allowing Turkey membership is a very good thing for everyone.

    Sticking together can be an advantage to enduring difficult circumstances, but its the diversity (with similar goals) that allows mankind to move forward and yet more humane/tolerant.

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    Untill the 19-th century there was no such thing as a nation-state in Europe. Within European countries such as France and Italy there were many ethnic groops that spoke their languages and did not identify with what was to be their future country. Where the identity was the strongest and most consolidated we have today areas that still speak their language , such as Sardenia, Corsica, Basque etc. Well up untill the 19-th century europe was devided by hundreds of ethnic groops, that were latter incorporated into nation-states. For instance, 150 years ago different regions and ethnic groops in Italy and France did not know what Italy and France are, let alone identify themselves as Italian and French.
    And someone touched on the ancient greec subject, wich yes is true that the history of ancient Greece is over simplifyed. In ancient greece by the way no one even new what greece was!!

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    no, it's not that simple.
    In Ancient Greece they created the Greek League , and later with the Kingdom of Cassander, it looker pretty close to today's Greece:



    Also, in Roman Greece :






    In the Latin Empire, it was almost like today Greece :







    In the past Italy was unified,
    The Italian Province in the Roman Empire , was like today Italy minus the Islands (Sardinia, Sicily):





    Roman Gallia was pretty much like today France :


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