David Garrioch

  • The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
    California, 341 pp, £35.95, April 2005, ISBN 0 520 24180 0

What can be done with a people that produces 246 different cheeses? General De Gaulle’s remark may be apocryphal – France has far more than 246 cheeses – but it captures a central dilemma in French history. How could such a diverse collection of peoples be forged into a single nation? The question remains pertinent. Despite an apparent unity, regional differences and identities remain strong. There are Breton, Occitan, Basque and Corsican independence movements, and even a tiny separatist grouping in Savoy. Regional cuisine is proudly preserved, and a Burgundy mustn’t be confused with a Bordeaux. Much of France’s 19th and 20th-century history was, as Eugen Weber put it, about making ‘peasants into Frenchmen’, about creating national unity around one language, one history, one set of national symbols. French imperial policy worked the same way, stressing the cultural assimilation of the colonies to form a ‘greater France’.

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