Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Le Patrimoine
French Symbolism, and the Triumph of Patriotism over Nationalism


by Graham Lea





(Swans - October 19, 2009)   The notion of le patrimoine is deeply imbued in the French psyche. It connotes more than its literal translation as patrimony, a term not much used in English. (1) In French, the meaning of patrimoine is much broader, and is perhaps better translated as heritage, although this does not give the whole picture. France is far from unique in remembering and preserving its heritage, but it is highly cherished. To gain some insight, it is perhaps helpful to touch first on some French national symbols, and to examine notions such as patriotism and nationalism.

Le matrimoine is occasionally used, but it is best known as the title of a 1966 novel by Hervé Bazin, an autopsy of a 1950s marriage describing how women's lives have changed. It would be excessive to suggest that the derivation of patrimoine from pater (father) is male-dominant, since Marianne is a key emblem of the French Republic, an allegory of liberty and reason. She was depicted in 1848 by the artist Honoré Daumier as a nursing mother. On the Arc de Triomphe, the sculptor François Rude showed Marianne as a fierce warrior singing the Marseillaise (a war song), but perhaps the most magnificent of her sculptures is the 1889 Le triomphe de la République by Aimé-Jules Dalou at the Place de la Nation in Paris. The wartime Vichy régime, on German instruction, destroyed many Marianne statues. Today, representations of Marianne are prominent in French law courts; they replace statues of the virgin in schools; and she is often seen with her back to the local church, facing the Hôtel de ville. (2)

Marianne can be regarded as a complement, or even rival, to le coq gaulois (the Gallic rooster) that represents France as a nation, together with its history, land, and culture. (3) Marianne represents France as a republican state. The adoption of Marianne was perhaps influenced by the British adoption of Boudica (Boadicea) as an emblem: she was far from being allegorical, having led the Iceni of East Anglia and other tribes against the Roman occupiers of Britain, around 1,950 years ago.

The French government of Lionel Jospin created a new government identifier in 1999, combining Marianne (but not the coq), the tricolore, and the motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, (which was not confirmed until the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic, although it was used from the early days of the Revolution but was largely abandoned thereafter). The motto also appears above the door of some churches, following the passage of the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des églises et de l'état (law separating church and state), although state secularism effectively began with the French Revolution. Roman Catholicism, Calvinism and Lutheranism, and Judaism were funded by the state until 1905. The Loi declared religious buildings to be the property of the state, but made them available for religious purposes without charge. Funding continues today, but it is described as being for the restoration of national monuments.

There were two opposing visions of France: la France cléricale favorable au concordat (clerical France agreeing to the legal settlement) and la France républicaine et laïque (a secular, republican state). The latter vision was supported by two factions: the jacobins (4) who wanted to eradicate the Christian religion, or strictly confine it, and a more moderate group who supported the neutrality of the state.

Neither Marianne nor the coq are defined as official symbols in the French Constitution, where Article 2 states that the flag of France is the only official emblem. It is particularly interesting but hardly surprising that France has no coat of arms, although Jospin's emblem could perhaps be regarded as a modern form of heraldry. A little reflection on the former French custom of removing the heads of their aristocrats, and the association between coats of arms and the aristocracy, makes this omission quite understandable. Some aristocratic families that survived the Revolution do not fly the French tricolore on their châteaux on the quatorze juillet, but hoist their own family flag as a tribute to their murdered ancestors. The fleur-de-lis, a lily much used in French heraldry, probably dates from the 12th century and certainly from the time of the future Louis VIII in the 13th century. Today it is mainly to be found adorning rolls of fabric, as a motif.

Frenchness extends beyond the symbols of the French state. The undefinable part is le patrimoine, but we need to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism if we are to make progress in understanding the French attachment to their patrimoine. As George Orwell remarked, "Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally." It is, he suggested, "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life" that is protected but not projected on to other people. (5)

What is often termed patriotism, particularly in the United States, is in fact nationalism, which Orwell suggested was "inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality." For Orwell, nationalism included "such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism."

A great difference between the French and Americans is that the latter wish to project their lifestyle, and as a result the world has experienced the pestilence of pop music and fast food, to say nothing of the spread of greed in business and finance. The French certainly do not wish to make the whole world in their image; they do not export their savoir faire; and they do not care if other people do not have six weeks holiday, excellent healthcare, and a 35-hour workweek. Above all, they want their independence, and to maintain their lifestyle, whatever their president may dream in his re-engagement with the United States and NATO. French people are just not behind him.

Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace defined American nationalism not by ethnic notions claiming superiority, but by a belief in the supremacy of US democratic ideals. (6) Pei considered it a paradox that the United States was highly nationalistic, but unaware of it. Americans are usually offended if they are called nationalists, since they prefer the term patriot, despite their form of patriotism manifesting itself as nationalism. Pei conceded that American nationalism is triumphant rather than aggrieved. He also considered that the U.S. had generally failed to appreciate the power of its nationalism abroad. American nationalism is forward-looking, with missionary spirit and a short collective memory, Pei suggested. The downside of this is that sordid details are frequently ignored and only the positive side enters the collective memory, because the media suppress bad news.

Anatol Lieven's America right or wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism gives useful insight into the development and current state of what Americans see as patriotism, and which is called American imperialism by critics. (7) The darker side of American nationalism: Its paranoia, its black-and-white Manichaeanism, and its Messianism made it possible for the United States to drag the world into a Cold War that had as its primary objective supporting the American economic creed of unrestrained market capitalism, which has, like communism, failed as an economic system. Nationalism is bound up with greed for natural resources and economic control, although these are now called "security" and "stability." Orwell was right.

France is near the patriotic end of any patriotism-nationalism axis. The French do not engage in arm-chair sentiment induced by an equivalent of the nationalist CNN/Fox/talk radio channels. Such propaganda is a new genre of cowboys and Indians, where the good guys wear steel helmets and body armour and the bad guys have tea cloths on their heads.

Le patrimoine represents the human face of environmentalism, the better aspects of heritage, with more than a touch of nostalgia. During the third weekend of September, more than 15,000 of France's 43,000 historical monuments, famous buildings, and heritage sites open their doors for the Journées du Patrimoine. There are around 12 million visitors to the châteaux and gardens, the museums, archives, and archaeological sites, the windmills and watermills, the churches and abbeys. There are 86 cathedrals open to the public, 46 of which are currently being restored. Artisans of all kinds are active, especially in rural areas. In the small region of Bas-Couserans, Ariège, Pyrénées, there were exhibitions of old local postcards and photographs, accounts of life 200 years ago, a local poetess reading her poems, conducted tours, demonstrations of working oxen and asses, and special exhibitions concerned with local celebrities. There is a slow but increasing realisation in France of the potential of industrial archaeology for creating tourism.

From 2007, crowds have been drawn to the Palais de l'élysée (a modest 18th century residence and presidential office in Paris, now occupied by un certain Nicolas Sarkozy, and where Napoléon signed his abdication), but this year the Moulin Rouge was the big draw, with visitors allowed to go backstage. The two biggest attractions are the Louvre and Versailles.

Web sites associated with le patrimoine have received around half as many hits this year, according to alexa.com, (8) but this did not appear to result in a significant fall in attendance. In most cases, admission is free. Many sites are privately owned residences, and only open for le patrimoine.

Europe, with the Council of Europe in the lead rather than the European Commission, created in 1991 the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, closely based on the 1983 French Ministry of Culture model of the Journées portes ouvertes des monuments historiques (from 1992, Journées nationales de patrimoine). The weekends are often at different times in other countries. France has set a splendid example, but there remains much to be done. Bigger and better Web sites are needed, and more information should be made available locally about the Journées. The French cultural heritage results in some 500,000 jobs, with more than a quarter of a billion euros being spent annually on restoration. It is claimed that 21 billion euros are returned to the economy.

There are five primary factors that have given rise to France's particularly rich patrimoine: the varied geology and physiography; the climate; the rich history; relative ethnic cohesion; and finally, what may be simply described as French civilisation.

In the real world of la France profonde, there is an inheritance and diffusion of beauty that promotes good feelings and bonhomie. The Journées du Patrimoine are but a focus for perpetual values. For around a fifth of the French population to be out and about enjoying les Journées is a considerable achievement. It is an occasion for enjoyment and pride, something very much to be admired. Le patrimoine is not a retreat from the real world of high French taxes and a lifestyle being assaulted by consumerism and an economic crisis; it is the reward for being concerned about the national inheritance, about history, and about enduring values.

Death to theme parks (for their false history, plastic, and fast food)! Death to shopping centres (for their planned ugliness)! Vive le patrimoine!


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1.  If you believe in Google hits (and there is good reason not to do so), there are about 28 times as many hits for patrimoine compared with patrimony.  (back)

2.  Stories abound of Brits disappointedly knocking late at night on the door of an hôtel de ville, only to discover that it is the town hall.  (back)

3.  Gallus is a homonym for an inhabitant of Gaul, and a rooster or cockerel. Gauloises are a brand of cigarettes, approaching their centenary, but no longer owned by the French state.  (back)

4.  From the 13th century there was rivalry between the religious jacobins (Dominicans) and the cordeliers (Franciscans). The former were poor and sober, while the latter were regarded as jovial fellows, giving rise to the song [does anyone know the tune?]:

Boire à la jacobine
C'est chopine à chopine,
Mais boire en cordelier
C'est vider le cellier.

[Boire: to drink; chopine: an obsolete word for a bottle of wine, usually half a litre; vider le cellier: to empty the wine cellar]

The rivalry lasted until 1790, when the Revolution threatened the future of the monks. Political clubs such as the Club des Jacobins Parisien, which met in the Couvent des Jacobins, promoted the French republic.  (back)

5.  George Orwell: Notes on nationalism, May 1945. Complete works: http://www.george-orwell.org/  (back)

6.  Minxin Pei: "The paradoxes of American nationalism." Foreign Policy, May 2003.  (back)

7.  Anatol Lieven: America right or wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism. Oxford University Press, 2004.  (back)

8.  For example, patrimoine-de-France.org and journeesdupatrimoine.culture.fr  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Published October 19, 2009