While France continues to tear itself apart over its colonial history, Sébastien Ledoux, researcher in contemporary history at the University of Paris-I – Panthéon-Sorbonne and teacher at Sciences Po Paris, analyzes, in The Nation in tale from the 1970s to the present day (Belin, 348 pages, 23 euros), the factory of collective memory. Author of Duty to remember, a formula and its history (CNRS éditions, 2016), the historian subtly deciphers the shadows and the lights of the French national narrative.
How would you define what you call the “national narrative”?
The national narrative is a social fact: it establishes between the State and its fellow citizens a narrative and political contract which places individuals in obligations towards the nation – the sacrifice of the soldier “dead for the country” is one of them. the ultimate scene. It is a story of indebtedness: it is intended to arouse membership in a community-nation by sharing the same historical imaginary. This narrative of the history of the nation is based on the choice of certain events and certain characters from the past: the narrative plot has points of origin, symbolic referents and a horizon of expectation.
“At the end of the 1990s, the nation no longer symbolizes its historical continuity through its victories and its heroes but through the victims of the crimes it may have committed”
The national narrative as we know it emerges at the end of the XVIIIe century and during the XIXe century: the existence of the nation and its future are then dissociated from the royal figure and from the dynastic continuity to be linked to the sovereignty of the people. This narrative, which occurs in a process of secularization of society, replaces the providential narrative which made events the result of the will of God. Its elaboration testifies to a new interpretation of time: it replaces contingency with coherence and fatality with meaning.
What are the main features of the traditional French story of the XIXe century?
A synthesis between monarchical and revolutionary heritage emerges at the beginning of the IIIe Republic around great glorious events and great characters – Clovis, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Napoleon mainly. This historical narrative is continuous and progressive: it personifies the nation as natural and immanent and inscribes it in an exceptional destiny. France’s vocation is to achieve the progress of humankind within a universal framework.
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