Modern Languages

Transnational French Studies: it’s not all baguettes and berets

By Charles Forsdick and Claire Launchbury

As a site of arrival, transit and departure, the airport epitomizes the transnational. Exemplary in this regard is France’s largest international airport, Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle. Opened in 1974, by taking the name of the recently deceased de Gaulle, it sought to project French exceptionalism, a renewed national self-confidence in the aftermath of the Occupation and the sense of a reconstructed nation in the years following the Algerian War of Independence. As such, it belongs to a wider tradition of performing national identity in France through major building projects, exemplified by the grands projets of François Mitterrand in the 1980s and 1990s. Radical publisher, author and journalist François Maspero used the location as the starting point for his interrogation, in Les Passagers du Roissy-Express, of later-twentieth century French identity. Having travelled to the airport to meet a friend in trans-continental transit, his attention is turned to the geographical everyday dimensions of this space. Continuing a long tradition of French ‘vertical travel’, Maspero’s aim is to move beyond the performance of national identity through airport architecture – and to focus instead, in an almost microscopic way, on places that are customarily ignored, especially by the international traveller, in the form of a collaborative project with photographer Anaïk Frantz, along a journey from the airport into central Paris following the RER-B, re-performing yet simultaneously subverting the itinerary of initial contact with France experienced by many international travellers. The method adopted is a simple one of deceleration in order to pay attention to the everyday.

Produced against the backdrop of the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, this project becomes a much more profound meditation on France in the final years of the twentieth century than a simple ludic constraint. As a wry twist on the grands voyages of generations of adventurers, anthropologists and colonisers, Maspero aimed to explore the banlieue, so frequently marginalized and homogenized in the French imagination and in the very political discourse by which these tendencies are simultaneously legitimized. Instead of a simple trajet from airport to city centre, Maspero and Frantz travel the short distance between stations, disembarking, checking into local hotels and exploring the surrounding area. Rather than the ‘Roissy Express’, the train which runs directly to the national tourist icons of Parisian cliché (the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe or the Tour Eiffel), the travellers discover a different France that defies the stereotypes of Frenchness, of which the 1989 commemoration became such a powerful vehicle. The banlieue they describe is a profoundly transnational space, characterized by a population of multiple origins, languages and belongings. This heterogeneity results from years of decolonization, migration and other forms of displacement to create a rich network of communities whose co-existence Maspero and Frantz observe. What emerges here, in this careful attention to the everyday, is an alternative narrative of French identity, actively transcending the limitations often imposed by formal considerations of the French nation. It is this seemingly oxymoronic transnational Frenchness that we have sought to explore in our volume.

Pierre-Yves Saunier suggests that ‘transnational history’ might usefully be replaced by thinking about ‘history from a transnational perspective’. The approach underpinning the volume we are co-editing on ‘transnational French Studies’ follows a similar logic. It is certainly not our claim that this is the only way to explore France and the wider French-speaking world. We foreground instead the many benefits of approaching French studies ‘from a transnational perspective’. In doing this, we steer away from the methodological nationalism that has often characterized the study of France outside France and suggest that adopting what Mike Kelly has called the ‘regard de l’étranger’ should be tempered by an active acknowledgement of the transnational dimensions of the nation-state. In studying a range of phenomena – language, literature, cinema, comics, sport, music – our approach is not to perpetuate any consecration of the national but to deconstruct it.

Roland Barthes’s study of ‘mythologies’, the examination of how modern myths are socially constructed and subsequently normalised, forms part of a long critical tradition within France itself upon which we draw productively. While many of these relate to national identity and a notion of ‘Frenchness’, our aim is to suggest that this type of deconstruction or demystification should also allow for a transnational analysis. The mechanics of nation-building have a tendency to evacuate or domesticate influence from elsewhere, a tendency particularly marked in France as a result of the assimilationist underpinnings of French universalism. In this context, we evoke literary figures such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and Irène Nemirovsky; singers including Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg and Dalida; and visual artists, ranging from Marc Chagall to Pablo Picasso. All adopted French nationality and in doing so saw any emphasis on their transnational origins thoroughly eclipsed, compelling evidence that republican identity is incredibly resistant to accepting identities that acknowledge mixedness or are in any way hyphenated or hybridized.

The contributors to our volume on Transnational French Studies analyse phenomena often cast in a national frame through a transnational lens. The result is not an impoverishment of our object of study, but a greater understanding of its nuance and richness as we explore many and diverse historical, cultural, social and linguistic connections. There can be a tendency when studying France to perpetuate stereotypes about the subject area, internalizing hegemonic assumptions about the French language or perpetuating hierarchies that divide the centre and periphery of the Francophone world. This book suggests that it is our task as students of French and Francophone cultures to challenge such received ideas. Where better a place to start than with those markers of French national identity, the beret and the baguette (often joined in the figure of the beret-wearing, baguette-carrying Frenchman)? These are staple items of external – and often internal parodies – of Frenchness, but both are, we would argue, transnational phenomena par excellence. Although a hat similar to the modern beret has been in existence for centuries throughout Northern Europe, its contemporary manifestation emerged on the borders of France, in the Basque country, where it is still popular on both sides of the Pyrenees. The baguette – the long, thin loaf known in English as a ‘French stick’ – has a similarly transnational pedigree, despite the close regulation of its manufacture according to national norms. Jim Chevalier, author of one of the few histories devoted to bread in France, explained its transnational genealogy: the result of the growing tendency in the early nineteenth century for French bakers to use a particularly refined type of Hungarian high-milled flour called using ‘gruau’ common in the production of Vienna bread; the associated introduction of Viennese steam oven baking to Paris in 1839 by the Austrian entrepreneur August Zang; and the presentation at the 1867 at the Universal Exposition by the Austrian industrialist Adolf Ignaz Mautner von Markhof of compact yeast. Without these factors, the baguette – only named as such in 1920 – would not have been possible in the contemporary form we know so well.

Transnational French Studies encourages us to think about ‘France’ in these different ways, engaging critically with contingent understandings of the ‘national’ and developing the heightened critical sensitivities that the transnational affords. We are finishing work on the volume at a time when protestors in France link the killing of Adama Traoré in police custody in July 2016 with that of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Forging connections between different national histories of colonial racism and its contemporary afterlives, these global events remind us that the forms of transnationalism we explore are not intellectual abstractions but key indicators of global events that actively shape a nation but also stretch far beyond it.

Transnational French Studies is due to be published June 2021 and is part of the Transnational Modern Languages series.

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