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La Belle France is a sweeping, grand narrative written with all the verve, erudition and vividness that are the hallmarks of the acclaimed British historian Alistair Horne. It recounts the hugely absorbing story of the country that has contributed to the world so much talent, style and political innovation.
Beginning with Julius Caesar’s division of Gaul into three parts, Horne leads us—in quick, illuminating vignettes—through the ages: from Charlemagne, Philippe-Auguste and the Sun King, Louis XIV, to Cardinal Richelieu and Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac. He shows us a country that has suffered and survived seemingly endless warfare: the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the Franco-Prussian War, World Wars I and II and colonial battles in Indochina and Algeria. He gives us luminous portraits of the nation’s great leaders, but he is as thorough and compelling in his discussions of the lives of the peasants, the haute bourgeoisie, the sansculottes of the Revolution and the great philosophers and writers, artists and composers—Montaigne, Voltaire, Balzac, Renoir, Bizet, Monet, Proust, Satie and Sartre, among them—who have helped shape Western thought and culture.
This is a captivating, beautifully illustrated and comprehensive yet concise history of France.
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Alistair Horne is the author of eighteen previous books, including A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, How Far from Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805–1815 and the official biography of British prime minister Harold Macmillan. He is a fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and lives in Oxfordshire. He was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in 1993 and received a knighthood in 2003 for his work on French history.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When Occupied Vichy’s Admiral Darlan was assassinated by a young French zealot in Algiers in December 1942, Winston Churchill observed to the House of Commons—in exasperation moderated with great sympathy—that the “Good Lord in his infinite wisdom did not choose to make Frenchmen in the image of the English.” Some, on both sides of the Channel, may shout “Bravo!” or “Hear Hear!” but the fact is incontrovertible. With even less likelihood of challenge, the same could be said of the two nations. Geography, as much as history, though hand in hand, is what creates a nation. Over the centuries, while England lay protected from the invader (often, indeed, from outside influence) by the Channel, the North Sea and the Atlantic, France had nothing to guard her from the “barbarian at the gates.” As Guderian and Rommel proved in May 1940, not even her great but sleepy rivers like the Meuse, the Oise, the Somme and the Marne could prevent an invader from sweeping across the boundless flat plains of northern France to threaten her capital city, Paris—any more than the Vistula and the Niemen could preserve Poland, with a geography that was so similar. (And see what a deal history dealt to the Poles!) West of the Rhine, all through her history, France had no topographical boundaries on which she could rely.
Thus much of her first two millennia encompasses an eternal hunt for security, on the one hand through strengthening herself at home; on the other, by aggressively pursuing expansionism abroad—often under the slogan of la gloire. In the pursuit of security, opposing instincts of the libertarian versus the authoritarian would repeatedly vie against each other.
In the beginning, France consisted of little more than an embattled island in the middle of the River Seine, surrounded by bristling palisades, in what is now Paris’s Île de la Cité. The Romans founded
“Lutetia,” as they called it, at a time when, as readers of Asterix know, Gaul was divided into three parts under Julius Caesar. (The word “Lutetia,” romantic as it sounds, in fact derived from the Latin for “mud”
—appropriately enough, as its long-suffering denizens would discover over many successive centuries.)
Fortunately, Emperor Julian (ad 358) found Lutetia, with its vineyards, figs and gentle climate, so thoroughly agreeable that he refused a summons to lead legions to the Middle East. Surprisingly, he even found the Seine “pleasant to drink, for it is very pure and agreeable to the eye.” Already in Roman times Lutetia became prosperous and alluring enough for it to be worth assault, and burning, by marauders from across the Rhine. About the same time as Nero watched Rome burn, the whole of the wooden settlements on the left bank were razed by fire. The city contracted, the Parisians withdrawing, once again, into the highly defensible fastness of the Île de la Cité. One of the first of many Germanic invasions was seen off by Emperor Julian, after the Alamanni had come to within only twenty-five leagues away—roughly the same spot as their grey-clad kinsmen reached under the Kaiser in 1914. The prayers of Sainte Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, reputedly caused Attila the Hun to swing away from the city in 451, and over the ages intercessions to her were to be made to save Paris from latter-day Huns—with varying degrees of success.
Rome gave Paris her first revolutionary martyr, Saint Denis, decapitated at what became the “Mons Martyrum”—or Montmartre. The fields around his place of execution were said to have “displayed a wonderful fertility.” Ever after, the Roman tradition would run like a vital chord all through French history, summoned up and referred back to at crucial moments. In his godlike splendour, the “Roi Soleil” tapped into it, content to see himself portrayed as Hercules on the Porte Saint-Martin. The Great Revolution and its heirs reinvented such artefacts as consuls and senators, tribunes and togas. Napoleon I had himself crowned Emperor, then emulated Trajan’s Column to vaunt his victories over his foes at Austerlitz in the Place Vendôme; Napoleon III, also assuming the title of Emperor, reverently clad the statue of his great uncle atop it in a toga, and when things were going badly for him in 1869, went to seek inspiration at the Roman ruins of Lutetia.
Equally, the Seine was, and is, and always will be, Paris. From earliest days the navigable river and the north-south axis that intersected it at the Île de la Cité formed one of Europe’s most important crossroads. The island itself constituted a natural fortress, all but unassailable. In marked contrast to the estuarial, shallow and narrow Thames, the Seine’s waters were not too swift and were capable of carrying heavy loads, ideal for commerce in wine, wheat and timber. It enabled Paris to dominate trade in the north as Lyons on the Rhône did in the centre, and Bordeaux on the Garonne and Nantes on the Loire in the west—thus making Paris a natural commercial capital early in the Middle Ages; never to lose this primacy. Resting on the river like a great ship, Paris appropriately adopted the motto of Fluctuat Nec Mergitur (“She Floats But Does Not Sink”), retaining it as city burst far beyond its island bounds.
A dynasty of Frankish rulers, mostly yobbish louts whose name appropriately derived from the Latin word for “ferocious,” now pushed in from the east and devastated the Gaul lands as they went. Once established in France, having moved to Paris from the temporary capital of Rheims they came to be known as the Merovingians.* Over two-and-a-half dark centuries they wrangled and split among themselves, beginning with the first Merovingian king, Clovis, who killed off most of his family; “after each murder,” writes Maurice Druon, with some acidity: “Clovis built a church.” They were not gentle, or nice people, these Frankish forebears of the modern-day Parisian—especially the women, who were strong, dominating, often ferocious, and who lived to great ages. There was Queen Fredegonda (545–97), described as glowing “like the eye of a nocturnal carnivore,” who had women burned alive on flimsy allegations of being responsible for the deaths of her children, and for whose fierce pleasures her lover, King Chilperic, had his first two wives murdered within the same week. Even after Fredegonda’s death, her bitter rival, Brunhilda (543–613), now a venerable septuagenarian, was brutally put to death. Tortured for three days, her last descendants slain before her eyes, chroniclers have it that she was then hoisted onto a camel (possibly a somewhat rare spectacle in contemporary France) and paraded in front of her deriding army. Finally she was “tied, by one arm, one leg and her white hair, to the tail of an unbroken horse,” allegedly along what is now the Rue des Petits-Champs, stronghold of bankers in the 2nd arrondissement.
During the ascendancy of these formidable early Frenchwomen, precursors of Reine Margot and Madame Defarge, convents were burned to the ground with their inmates inside, leaders assassinated in conjugal beds, children abducted and murdered, hands severed, eyes gouged, lovers defenestrated, and cunning poisons developed in the name of statecraft. Byzantium had nothing more deplorable to show than the Merovingians. But at least, under Clovis, the notion of Paris as a capital city first became accepted, from which—in the brief three last years of his grisly life—Clovis administered a kingdom even larger than modern France. His descendant, Dagobert, died of dysentery, aged only thirty-six, but his interment at Saint-Denis established the principle for the burial of subsequent kings of France. In a curiously progressive fashion, none of the Merovingian rulers was ever crowned, they were all elected.
The throne of France would have fallen into Muslim hands if, a hundred years later, the usurping strong-man and bastard, Charles Martel, had not halted the Saracens at Poitiers. As it was, the closing years of the century saw the last of the Merovingians and the arrival of Charlemagne, a rather less attractive character than his portraits and subsequent canonisation would suggest. He was more German than French (and looked it), and an absentee ruler who did little for France, or Paris; it has mystified many that a statue was erected to him in front of Notre-Dame. It was more for his greatness than his goodness: crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne fought forty-seven campaigns in as many years; he married four times (he divorced his first wife, and then three died—to be replaced by four concubines). He forbade his daughters to marry, preferring them to live at home and populate the court with bastards. Charlemagne’s Carolingian dynasty would last another 200 years. His empire extended from the Pyrenees to the Elbe—but he ran it all from Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), rather than Paris.
The great empire was short-lived. Under Charlemagne’s son, the first of eighteen named Louis (nicknamed “the Pious”), it was dismembered into seven parts. As the Carolingians wrangled, and all Europe sank into a kind of lethargy, in the ninth century a new and unknown warrior race emerged to the north—Norsemen, surging out of Scandinavia to invade the British Isles and Russia as far as Kiev, and even reaching Constantinople. In 843, Nantes was sacked, the bishop killed on the steps of his altar. Only two years later, 120 long-boats, terrifyingly decorated and with thirty pairs of oars, attacked Paris unexpectedly from up-stream. Once again the population fled; the Norsemen departed, carrying off tons of boo...
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