« Nos ancêtres les Gaulois »: national histories and the misuse of history

By Sam Rowe (@SamuelRowe12)

‘Dès que vous devenez français, vos ancêtres sont gaulois.’ [‘As soon as you become French, your ancestors are Gaulish.’] These were the words uttered by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy during a political meeting in 2016 while campaigning for the 2017 presidential elections. He proposed that French identity, essentially linked to citizenship, had at its core a link to ‘Gaulish ancestors’. This idea was not particularly new, and had become a part of the roman national (a French concept for a traditionalist, nationalistic vision of history) in the 18-19th centuries (even in vocabulary, like gallicisme). More recently, the idea was subverted and played with in the Astérix comic book series, which portrays the last Gaulish ‘resistants’ to Roman occupants, the irreducible Gauls.

Sarkozy’s idea is problematic for a number of reasons.

First of all, it is an instrumentalisation of history for political aims, which is already questionable and a subject of tension in the French academic landscape. It is linked to the wider crisis of the historian’s place in society – public figure, political figure, pointless erudite?

The debates surrounding the politicisation of the French history a long history behind them. Indeed, the Annales historians coalesced in part around a rejection of histoire événementielle (political and institutional history marked by major events) and the roman national. These schools had been built during the Renaissance and institutionalised under the educational system of the Third Republic, especially through the work of Ernest Lavisse, dubbed ‘l’instituteur national’ [‘the national schoolmaster’]. Both concepts encouraged a linear progression of history not unlike the idea of manifest destiny, with a strong biological component claiming descent from the Franks and Gauls. The birth of France was thus situated at the Frankish king Clovis’ baptism (before 511). The birth of French culture, similarly, was identified with the Oaths of Strasbourg (842), due to it being one of the first appearances of a dialect of the Old French language in writing. The Ship of Theseus paradox comes to mind: the France of 2022 is not even that closely linked to that of Louis XVI pre-1789, let alone any polity that existed more than 2000 years ago, as entities and identities constantly evolve and are reshaped.

As for the Gauls themselves, it would be useful to point out several things. In reality, Gauls consisted of confederations of Celtic tribes, whom we mostly have access to through them the eyes of the Romans. As incaders, the Romans not only invented an imaginary single group of ‘Gauls’ but did not accurately portray how the inhabitants of Gaul thought of their own organisation or what they deemed to be ‘their’ territory. Indeed, indigenous inscriptions seem to suggest that parental and tribal identities prevailed. Gaul was mostly an ancient ethnic label – though the term was still used to refer to the inhabitants of a formalised geographical unit for several centuries after the Western Roman Empire fell into decline. The term is useful to historians, but of extremely little value for modern identity. Identity evolved, and it would be simplistic to portray that progression as linear after centuries of shifts – whether through migration, the adoption of new strategies of identification, shifts in politics, and the shifting of already vague borders. Not only that, but the impact of Gaulish culture on modern French culture is negligible outside of minutiae, like the contribution of a handful of words (e.g. trou). The ancestral argument means little – whatever the genetics at play, one cannot descend from an imaginary community – and the concept of gallicisme only enables the exclusion of many other groups, whether prehistoric or more recent; biological or cultural; Visigoths, Corsicans, Arabs…

Still, this was supposedly what Sarkozy thought a decent answer to questions about immigration.

Do genetics matter? Ironically, his words – meant to suggest that integration molded people into some sort of Gaulish-descended Frenchman, even if they were from another country or ethnicity – not only ignored the actual situation, but hinted at such a biological link, even if to subvert it by making it more imaginary. This was met with widespread ridicule. It revives exclusionism and an idea of genetic essentialism. People from the French outre-mer departments in the Caribbean are French by citizenship and culture and every meaningful sense of the word, but cannot be said to have Gaulish ancestors or any sort of Gaulish inheritance once they became or become citizens – at least, any more than a metropolitan French citizen. What it means to be French has constantly evolved, layers of French identity have been reordered and reshuffled, and such an identity can only be situational. Sarkozy himself is unquestionably French, yet his bizarre statement risked being misinterpreted as excluding him. Far right commentators were quick to mock him as Un hongrois chez les Gaulois [‘a Hungarian in the land of the Gauls’] due to his partly Hungarian ancestry. What Sarkozy really meant is that on becoming a French citizen or culturally French one becomes a spiritual descendant of the Gauls, as adoptive ‘ancestors’ – in essence, corresponding to a common cultural mould of the ‘ideal Frenchman’. However, they are in no meaningful way ancestors to anyone, making it a terrible foundation for modern French identity. Playing with ideas of shared ancestry, even when imaginary, is a dangerous game in a multiethnic and multicultural world where identities are intricate and deeply personal constructions. Anyone disagreeing with Sarkozy would thus not be a ‘real Frenchman’, leading to the circular ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

As historians or enthusiasts, we should be careful about modern politicised uses of history, and especially of manipulated national histories, even in seemingly positive narratives.1 Fights to control the discourse around history, as with the loi Taubira scandal,2 are also part of this manipulation in trying to establish what is true or not. Manipulation of history remains a major problem that historians, for a variety of raisons, struggle to counter. During the current French elections, Astérix and Gaulishness were discussed once more: populist candidate Eric Zemmour repeated Sarkozy’s words in 2021, claiming it was an anti-racist call to unity.3 A tract written by historians followed, addressing nineteen false historical claims which Zemmour had made. The problem will likely never go away, although historians can try and publicly refute mistaken claims and narratives.

1 With too often little self-awareness: UK and French secondary schools and universities actually take the time to address these misuses, in a way some countries do not. I witnessed such a shift: Clovis was the bon roi Clovis who converted and was the first ‘King of France’, in some teleological continuity, when I was a young schoolboy in 2008 – criticism of such notions only became known to me at the undegraduate level. Indeed, they had already been countered by historians decades ago, but the programme scolaire has an undeniably political and nationalist slant to it and remains a matter of tension: why teach children dangerous falsehoods, even under the guise of simplifying history or moulding them into ‘French citizens’?

2 For reasons of space, I cannot address this fully: the gist of it is that an anti-racism association, later backed by minister Christiane Taubira, attacked a historian who – for entirely sociological reasons of definition – did not think that black slavery (here, I translate les traites négrières) was systematic enough to be termed a genocide, as the objective was not to eradicate the race (the definition of a genocide as established by Hannah Arendt). Regardless of our own individual positions on the matter, it is widely viewed in French historiography as a scandal (taking the historian’s side) and a questionable encroachment of politicians into the world of historians and free speech. The somewhat more positive outcome was that slavery is now listed as a crime against humanity, but the damage to the public image of historians and the government was already done.

3 In a similar vein, he opposed ‘the French’ to ‘strangers’, saying he preferred the former group.

Image credit: A Vichy-era postcard celebrating the history of the French Postal Service, labelled ‘The post in the time of the Gauls’. Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PM_110365_Liebig_Chromos.jpg

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