Sie sind auf Seite 1von 2

412

REVIEWS OF BOOKS

This elegant, concise and eminently readable book considers the invention of the
French nation. That is to say, it not only considers some of the political, social and
cultural developments which have shaped France over the last two hundred years but
also, more importantly, analyses how and why certain of these developments subsequently
came to find particular purchase in the public psyche. It traces the way in which French
national identity was slowly constructed, via a complex process of attaching symbolic
significance to an entire host of cultural traits and practices, historical places, events,
people and institutions (p. 228), sometimes deliberately so. Thus, rather than a simple
history of France, or a mere deconstruction of contemporary notions of Frenchness, the
book provides a subtle and compelling essay on the process of nation-building in the
two centuries following the Revolution (p. xii).
The book is divided into three sections. The first (Inventing French History) considers
key elements of French history from 1789 to the present. As Baycroft notes, a cohesive
national story is a key element in any national mythology. This section thus introduces
the reader briefly to the role of the Revolution, Napoleon, the political development of
the republics and various conflicts (up to and including the Second World War and the
Algerian War) in shaping the French nation. Throughout, the discussion considers not
just the events themselves but also the interpretations placed upon them and the

Downloaded from http://fh.oxfordjournals.org/ at Universidad Adolfo Ibez on August 30, 2013

France. Inventing the Nation. By Timothy Baycroft. London: Hodder Education.


2008. xvi + 243 pp. 19.99. ISBN 978 0340 705704.

REVIEWS OF BOOKS

413

The Open University

PAUL LAWRENCE
doi:10.1093/fh/crp058
Advance Access published on July 23, 2009

Downloaded from http://fh.oxfordjournals.org/ at Universidad Adolfo Ibez on August 30, 2013

significance accorded to them by both the historical actors involved and subsequent
generations. The second section of the book (Inventing French Experience) considers in
greater depth the way in which the experience (or rather, its interpretation) of war,
revolution and colonialism have served to shape French society. The third and final
section (Inventing French Identity) sets out, via a consideration of the cultural constituents
of French national identity (together with discussions of the role of religion, gender, race
and region), to analyse who and what has been genuinely considered as French and
upon which ideas, images, symbols and characteristics their identity has been built
(p. 168). The book as a whole provides a convincing examination of both the evolution
of France and the development of the various constituent elements of French national
identity.
There is much to admire here. The book is a model of concision. Almost everything
one can think of gets a mention somewhere, but this breadth does not come at the
expense of a focussed argument. The writing style is clear and engaging, and the analysis
is perceptive. There are inevitably some minor quibbles. The structure of the book
means that there is some overlap in subject matter which verges on repetition at times.
The reader is told in section three (p. 141), for example that the protests of 1968 were
started by students unhappy with overcrowded conditions and wishing to protest also
against the Vietnam War. However, the causes and outline of events in 1968 have already
been discussed in section one (p. 70). In other instances, the structure disadvantages the
reader the other way around. The nature of the Dreyfus Affair, for example is not
explained when first mentioned in section two (p. 104) but is explicated when
encountered in the following chapter. More substantively, the book could perhaps have
benefited from some more overt discussion of its theoretical underpinning. Baycroft is
an expert on theories of nationalism and, while he deftly introduces some such material
at the start of the section on identity (pp. 16972), more of this would have increased
the attractiveness of the work to academics already working in the field. More onward
citation via footnotes might have been one way to accomplish this. That said, the way in
which the book is constructed makes it ideal for students at all levels or for adoption as
a teaching text on courses considering French history, contemporary French society and
the development of nationalism and national identity more generally. Overall, this is a
lucid and compelling work which will undoubtedly appeal to students and academics as
well as (and it is rare to find a book which actually lives up to this oft-made claim) the
general reader.