It has become common place, almost thirty years after the publication of its final volume, to signal with varying degrees of vehemence the ‘nothing short of fantastic’1 absence of references to colonization, colonial legacy, or (post)colonial topography in Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire.2 Nora’s seminal collection is without a doubt emblematic of a certain unwillingness to engage with the imbrication of the colonial in the construction of modern and contemporary France, and the following analysis by no means intends to rehabilitate the project and its methodological nationalism that implies a narrow perception of the French past. As a co-editor of Postcolonial Realms of Memory,3 whose contrapuntal repertoire is a direct response to Les Lieux de mémoire, I have in fact sought to participate in the ongoing efforts to foster a pluralist and inclusive vision of the French nation by both building on Nora’s groundbreaking paradigm and addressing the collection’s significant gaps.
Yet, following the work accomplished in this collective intervention, I realized that Les Lieux de mémoire is also preceded by its reputation, with many scholars being very quick to recycle received wisdom and present Charles-Robert Ageron’s discussion of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition as the only entry dealing with the empire.4 Indeed, if one takes the time to sift through the seven volumes’ 5,000+ pages, it becomes obvious that the colonial is not at all absent, with at least 38 of the 132 entries broaching the topic. By drawing from nineteen of them, I will demonstrate that these traces of empire appear in three different ways. First, some essays instill geographical breath and historical depth in the memory practices they describe through allusions to colonial-related facts; others posit the colonial as an integral part of the realm unpacked, making the claims of the project’s a-coloniality all the more surprising; finally, in some the empire is excluded from the text but fortuitously emerges through the images used to illustrate a reflection that is otherwise oblivious to the site’s colonial dimension. With the highlighting of long-overlooked colonial traces contained in Les Lieux de mémoire, it is ultimately the attitude of scholars in postcolonial studies towards the roman national that I wish to interrogate, while proposing to rethink the ways in which a wider postcolonial sensibility may be reinforced in the challenging, reactionary context of the contemporary moment.
The multiplicity of entries referring to legacies of empire amounts to the formation of a latent colonial network that the following intends to sketch out. Amongst the different threads that the reader may pull to reveal a series of connections, the theme of borders runs through Les Lieux de mémoire’s seven volumes. This topic underpins several essays that revisit the configuration of France’s geographical contours, as they relate more specifically to war or the homeland’s (symbolic) representations and their importance in the construction of Frenchness. A potential starting point is Antoine Prost’s ‘Verdun’, which acknowledges the sacrifice of many North African soldiers during WWI by highlighting the religious nature of the Douaumont Ossuary: the monument was to be ‘ouvert d’ailleurs à toutes les religions, puisque le programme technique soumis aux architectes spécifiait la nécessité de prévoir, à côté d’un sanctuaire catholique, trois édifices pour les cultes protestant, israélite et musulman’.5 To focus on an earlier conflict, the Eastern regions defined as colonial loci through the role played by Algerian soldiers in French conflicts also appear in Jean-Marie Mayeur’s essay ‘Une mémoire-frontière: l’Alsace’. There the Battle of Wissembourg is presented as ‘inséparable des souvenirs des guerres de la Révolution et des défaites de 1870’, including ‘les turcos [Algerian tirailleurs] en déroute le 4 août’.6
Eugen Weber, in ‘L’Hexagone’, harks back in more detail to the Franco-German border and its two disputed provinces. As Weber explains here, France was not associated with this geometrical figure until the middle of the twentieth century. Until then, ‘[l]a carte du nouvel Empire français, ou d’un monde sur lequel l’Empire s’étale, vaste et rassurant, accompagne désormais, et parfois éclipse, celle de la France diminuée’ following the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 by the newly created German Empire, and also during the interwar period which sees the development of a colonial propaganda resting on the idea of Greater France.7 Weber demonstrates how the consecration and acceptance of the spatial metaphor that now stands for France is linked to both its progressive integration into Europe that encouraged the adoption of a distinctive symbolism, and to the disintegration of the colonial empire that led to a refocus on the métropole. The Hexagon is therefore not presented as the mythic cradle of an eternal France, but the product of negotiated boundaries and shifting representations shaping a collective imaginary informed by colonial politics.8 Weber’s discussion of the relationship between decolonization and the French people’s spatial understanding of their patrie is to be read together with ‘Le centre et la périphérie’ by Maurice Agulhon. Here, Agulhon links the rise of regional sentiment in France with, on the one hand, the decline of imperial patriotism and, on the other, tensions around the notion of ‘identité française’: ‘Viendront d’autres coups […] La décolonisation, et ce que l’on apprit à travers elle, c’est-à-dire le fait que les conquêtes coloniales n’avaient pas été aussi justes et humanistes qu’on le prétendait’.9 Furthermore, the significant overall impact of colonial expansionism on French thought and the mapping of the territory is stressed by Marcel Roncayolo in ‘Le paysage du savant’, where he insists on the role played by the colonial enterprise in affording geography its ‘valeur d’universalité’: ‘Les géographies nationales ne sont souvent qu’un retour sur soi, affiné, enrichi, distancié […] l’aventure coloniale est à cet égard décisive et nourrit le débat épistémologique’.10
The references highlighted above reveal many cracks in the French national narrative that Nora intended to fabricate.11 Diluted but far from being insignificant - with Weber’s essay already relying substantially on the colonial to articulate his argument -, these traces acquire greater magnitude when approached as part of a larger network that is also comprised of texts in which the empire occupies a central place. For instance, in his essay on ‘Le soldat Chauvin’,12 Gérard de Puymège locates the origin of the ‘Soldat-laboureur’ myth in discourses surrounding the elusive Nicolas Chauvin, peasant-turned-soldier whose last name is now commonly used in most Western European languages as a noun or adjective to designate a person displaying excessive patriotism. Chauvin’s name became popular in the early nineteenth century when two vaudevilles caricatured him, including the successful La Cocarde tricolore staged in 1831 just one year after the beginning of the conquest of Algeria. In this play, the presumed former soldier of Napoleon’s Great Army is turned into one of the Restauration’s troops and captures the dey of Algiers. Along with subsequent representations of the now mythical Chauvin produced in the 1830s,13 La Cocarde tricolore paved the way for the construction of the modern figure of the ‘Soldat-laboureur’ as indissociable from the empire and in particular from Algeria, itself imagined as a ‘military-agrarian’ colony by its ‘pacifier’ and then Gouverneur général, maréchal Bugeaud.14 De Puymège’s entry is thus anchored in a Franco-Algerian shared history whose interconnectedness is constantly revived throughout the text, including in the section dedicated to another maréchal, Pétain. As the author explains, ‘la littérature pétainiste célèbre Bugeaud, le Soldat-laboureur par excellence, le maréchal unissant l’épée à la charrue’,15 drawing attention to the significance of the symbolic but also political relationship between Vichy and an empire that will be deeply affected by the regime’s politics.16 In other words, ‘Le soldat Chauvin’ constitutes a remarkable entry inasmuch as the colonial occupies a prominent place in the unearthing of a founding myth whose diverse contemporary declinations, from its political instrumentalization in nationalist agendas to the ubiquity of the (beloved) figure of the ‘beauf’ in popular culture,17 are omnipresent in the French everyday.
Exposing how the colonial is mobilized in Les Lieux de mémoire can also allow for a better understanding of the ways in which Nora’s collection attempts to reproduce a nationalist interpretation of the past that was, according to the editor, abandoned ‘aux lendemains […] de la guerre d’Algérie’ with the ‘déprise de la version nationaliste de la nation, gallo-centrique, impériale et universaliste’.18 As the discussion usually revolves around Nora, I have focused on his contributors’ work in order to dive deeper into the volumes.19 It is still worth stressing that a form of colonial nostalgia transpires from the numerous allusions to the French withdrawal from Algeria that Nora sees as a defining moment in the nation’s decline.20 Not only does he imbue the notion of Gaullism, inevitably so given the intertwined relationship between De Gaulle’s regime and colonial politics, with a certain postcolonial inflexion in ‘Gaullistes et communistes’,21 but he also introduces a colonial layer in ‘La génération’. The unifying experience behind May 68 is presented as lying in the frustration produced by traumatic moments, ‘[r]ésistance ou guerre d’Algérie’, thus hinting towards the French patrimoine mémoriel’s porosity through the association between the ‘sacro-sainte’ generation and the colonial fact.22
Lingering colonial nostalgia can also be found in several other entries. In ‘La fille aînée de l’Église’, René Rémond celebrates France’s status as the ‘nation missionnaire par excellence’, and pays tribute to the Pères blancs for their ability to ‘mener de front l’évangélisation des Noirs et la lutte contre l’esclavage, la maladie, l’ignorance, l’assujettissement des femmes’, and thus for having asserted in Africa ‘[l]’universalité de la vocation chrétienne de la fille aînée de l’Église’.23 In his discussion on the drapeau tricolore, the very first essay in Les Lieux de mémoire, Raoul Girardet refers very little to the travels of the flag and to the symbolic value it acquired in numerous colonial contexts during the so-called ‘civilizing mission’ to which Rémond alludes. Yet the author does hint at the importance of colonial conquests by stressing the instrumental role played by ‘les récits légendifiés de nos campagnes militaires, l’Algérie, la Crimée, la guerre prussienne’, in which ‘le drapeau que l’on plante sur la position arrachée à l’ennemi, que l’on défend, que l’on sauve, que l’on serre dans ses bras, au pied duquel on meurt’ is frequently placed at the centre of the narrative.24 Girardet’s brief take on colonial expansion finds its continuity in Jérôme Hélie’s ‘Les armes’, which occupies a special place in Les Lieux de mémoire: the essay is essentially articulated from a postcolonial perspective, making it the contribution on colonial memory rather than Charles-Robert Ageron’s discussion of the 1931 exhibition.25 Hélie details how military memory is indissociable from ‘L’Empire, lieu privilégié du mode de vie militaire’, in which ‘se gagnait la gloire’ when France was (temporarily) at peace with its European neighbors.26 The evolution of the model, image, and purpose of the French military is unpacked through constant references to colonial campaigns in which the history of the légion étrangère, maréchal Gallieni and maréchal Lyautey’s expeditions in Tonkin, Madagascar, and Morocco occupy a central place, as does the guerre d’Algérie. Needless to say, Hélie’s contribution does not engage in a critical assessment of the military deployment and its actions overseas.27 It thereby instills the text with a strong impression of nostalgia for the last golden age of the French armed forces and its multiple, successful colonial campaigns or heroic defeats, and its legendary soldiers, either buried at the Invalides in the centre of Paris or at rest in the most remote parts of Greater France. Reading the essay’s conclusion, following the publication of the special issue of Valeurs Actuelles, ‘La vraie histoire des colonies’ (March 2018), or of Spécial Histoire, ‘Les Colonies. Une incroyable épopée’ (February 2020), allows us to gain perspective on current debates as they relate to attitudes towards the colonial, including the notion of repentance that has become a focal point in recent years:
l’histoire, qui tend à devenir globalement la mémoire des armes, est sans cesse au travail. Elle a recomposé la Seconde Guerre mondiale, en extrayant une Résistance incorporable au service éternel des armes de la France, et elle commence à modeler la période des guerres coloniales, toujours sous le signe d’une servitude militaire exemplaire. […] Comme il y avait eu un retour sur le sacrifice de la Grande Guerre, les guerres coloniales sont sans doute sur le point d’être entièrement réévaluées.28
I would now like to turn to another way in which the persistent presence of the colonial impregnates Nora’s collection. Let us first underscore the very visible absence of any reference to the Haitian Revolution in Mona Ozouf’s essay ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’,29 where the analysis of the slogan is confined to a hexagonal context, hampering any reflection on the limitations of the French revolutionary project and the question of universal emancipation in particular. Postcolonial scholars, rightly so, would expect references to the empire to be present in such entries. One can assume that Les Lieux de mémoire’s reputation as being devoid of references to colonial legacy arises from such deceived expectations. In the second part of this essay, I will show that the colonial actually materializes in entries where it is less expected. For instance, while Haiti does not find its appropriate place either in Ozouf’s text or in Les Lieux de mémoire as a whole, it is important to note that other entries gesture towards the type of dialectical relationship between France and its (former) Caribbean territories that any discussion of the Age of Revolution requires. Ozouf herself ends up extending the geographical reach of her study to the Antilles and their importance with regards to France’s revolutionary tradition. In her essay dedicated to the Panthéon, she indeed highlights François Mitterrand’s decision to introduce Victor Schœlcher next to Jean Jaurès and Jean Moulin, the former French President having thereby ‘puisé dans le même répertoire: celui de la tradition révolutionnaire, des élans obscurs et des luttes anonymes’.30 Written a few years before the transfer of Abbé Grégoire’s remains to the Panthéon, and well before the unveiling of plaques dedicated to Toussaint Louverture and Louis Delgrès (1998), this entry draws attention to the postcolonial potential of this key realm of memory.31
In what the reader can only assume to be an involuntary fashion, Haiti is also ‘re-centred’ in Benoît Lecoq’s discussion of ‘Le café’. The author examines the various symbolic connotations of this site, including its function as a privileged location of political emancipation dating back to the eighteenth century and the development of a new tradition: the café littéraire. For the author, it is in the Parisian coffee houses such as the Procope, one of the first establishments to serve coffee, and its famous patrons - Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, or d’Alembert - that the figure of the intellectual was born. To support his argument, Lecoq chooses a strikingly equivocal sentence taken from Michelet’s elegy of the café and its associated drink: ‘le café fort de Saint-Domingue bu par Buffon, par Diderot, par Rousseau, ajouta sa chaleur aux âmes chaleureuses, à la vue perçante des prophètes assemblés dans l’antre de Procope, qui virent, au fond du noir breuvage, le futur rayon de 89’.32 The point of the quote is to underscore the role played by coffee houses and the beverage in fostering intellectual activity during the Enlightenment period. But for any reader susceptible to (post)colonial matters, the image of French philosophers mulling questions of liberty and equality while drinking coffee produced in France’s most profitable colony will assuredly evoke the Haitian revolution and its attempt to mend the broken promises of 1789.33
Much has been said on the question of colonial memory and the repressed, and Les Lieux de mémoire is often presented as the most telling illustration of the French attitude towards its imperial past. I hereby propose that Nora’s collection is riddled, as exemplified by Benoît Lecoq’s entry, with examples of the return of the repressed. This spectral presence manifests itself above all else visually, through details of images illustrating essays that otherwise circumvent the colonial dimension of the site explored. In these images, the colonial detail amounts to a form of dettaglio, that is, as Daniel Arasse explains in his influential history of painting, ‘un moment qui fait événement dans le tableau, qui tend irrésistiblement à arrêter le regard, à troubler l’économie de son parcours’.34 In other words, while the visual supports seem to both perfectly illustrate the entries containing them and reflect their a-coloniality, a detail ‘disloque aussi le tableau, non seulement en ce qu’il isole un élément où se noie le tout, mais surtout qu’il défait le dispositif spatial réglé’ and presents an ‘opacité réflexive’.35 The question then becomes ‘[d]e quelle surprise ces moments sont-ils porteurs’ within the scope of the present enquiry?36 I argue that the colonial traces appearing under the form of pictorial details in Nora’s collection undo its myth of hexagonal unity, and initiate a shift towards another latent storia: they remind us that it is in fact not possible to fully escape the empire when constructing a national narrative of France. As such, not only do the following entries draw attention to the overlooked importance of the detail as an operative concept in the visual narrative of colonial memory, but they also, as they engage with some quintessential symbols of French culture, constitute remarkable examples that inadvertently reaffirm France’s intrinsic postcoloniality.37
In ‘La Coupole’, Marc Fumaroli - himself an académicien from 1995 to his death in 2020 - concludes his consideration on the Académie française, presented as a necessary ‘préalable à toute histoire de la culture littéraire française moderne et contemporaine’,38 by pondering the role of the institution in the future. Fumaroli’s account of the various controversies that have marked and shaped it, and his insistence on the fact that the ‘Académie ne se contente pas d’être un sénat de vieillards, une assemblée de notables et le siège d’une orthodoxie littéraire’ could have led to a reflection upon the question of gender, race, and transnational opening. The first African immortel, Léopold Sédar Senghor, had actually just been inducted two years before the publication of the volume containing Fumaroli’s entry.39 But according to the author, the ‘idée implicite’ that characterizes this institution is above all ‘une idée française’ emanating from a pluri-secular national tradition:40 Fumaroli acclaims the French exception and its universal vocation at the expense of any critical take on the question of race in relation to mechanisms of literary consecration.
And yet, as the election of Senghor followed the manufacture of ‘African classics’ and the emergence of ‘Beur literature’ from within the Hexagon, the French Republic of Letters had already started to bank on ethnic diversity. This tendency would then become one of the literary field’s defining characteristics at the turn of the century: acute racialization of editorial practices (creation of collections, marketing strategies focusing on authors’ origins); nominations to the most prestigious institutions (François Cheng in 2002, Assia Djebar in 2005, Amin Maalouf in 2011, Dany Laferrière in 2012 to the Académie française; Alain Mabanckou in 2015 and Yannick Lahens in 2018 to the Collège de France); multiplication of literary prizes awarded to representatives of ‘littératures mineures ou périphériques’.41 Dany Laferrière’s election and induction at the Académie is most interesting given the scope of our investigation. Indeed, the consecration of Laferrière, who ironically occupies seat number two, a seat once held by another writer of Haitian origins, Alexandre Dumas fils, sends us back to Les Lieux de mémoire as it is also via the Dumas family that Haiti emerges through Nora’s collection. With his election to the Académie, Dumas fils succeeded where his father and other famous writers did not.42 For instance, Balzac’s disappointments are notorious and his struggles to access academic preeminence, along with the novel as a genre, is a focal point of Fumaroli’s essay. The text is supplemented with a 1839 caricature by Benjamin Roubaud (see
Benjamin Roubaud, Les Candidats à l’Académie, 1839, lithograph, Musée de la ville de Paris, Paris >https://www.parismuseescollections.paris.fr/fr/maison-de-victor-hugo/oeuvres/vous-etes-jeunes-et-forts-et-vous-demandez-les-invalides-vous-voulez#infos-principales> [accessed 10 October 2019].
Absent from Fumaroli’s essay on the Académie française, Léopold Sédar Senghor does appear in Jean-François Sirinelli’s ‘La Khâgne’. Sirinelli’s account of this classe préparatoire deemed ‘à la fois la matrice, le concentré et le miroir d’une certaine forme de culture’ offers the type of hexagonal approach that defends,44 like Fumaroli’s entry, une certaine idée of French culture. Yet one of the three images chosen to illustrate the text shows the 1929-30 class of the prestigious Louis-le-Grand’s khâgne. On this photograph, standing on the same row as George Pompidou in a ‘sea of whiteness’, is Senghor whose name appears in the caption alongside other alumni including Pham Duy Khiem, Vietnam’s first ambassador in France.45 With Senghor, who will be followed at Louis-le-Grand a few years later by Aimé Césaire, it is the centrality of Paris to the transnational and transcultural history of colonization, and in particular to Black intellectual history, that appears in Les Lieux de mémoire. The two poets were frequent visitors to the Nardals’ literary salon, held with their cousin Louis-Thomas Achille who attended Louis-le-Grand’s khâgne one year before Senghor, before famously contributing to the development of the notion of Négritude that was taking shape in the Martinican sisters’ Clamart apartment.46 With this image, the reader is accidentally reminded of this supposedly ‘Franco-French’ realm of memory’s colonial layer, and by extension of the Parisian khâgne’s status as a haut-lieu of the yet to be fully-mapped francophone Black Atlantic.47
The question of the colonies’ political representation is never discussed in Les Lieux de mémoire, although Mona Ozouf, as we saw above, does refer to Victor Schœlcher in her entry on the Panthéon.48 Schœlcher’s instrumental role in the second and definitive abolition of slavery (27 April 1848) is well documented and occupies a significant place in the state-sanctioned, officially instituted French narrative. Following this successful campaign, Schœlcher became one of the leading figures of the political group ‘La Montagne’ under the Second Republic (1848-51), along with François Arago (who also contributed to the debate leading to the abolition of slavery),49 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (who, to the contrary, supported slavery) or Agricol Perdiguier. The embodiment of ‘l’ouvrier de métier, compétent, hostile à la violence, républicain et patriote’, Perdiguier’s story is central to Michelle Perrot’s ‘Les vies ouvrières’.50 In her reconstitution of the mémoire ouvrière, Perrot dedicates more than ten pages to his trajectory, from his days as a carpenter to his exile in Brussels, passing via his election as député in 1848. On the image illustrating Perdiguier’s political journey (see
Léonard Peyrat, untitled, c. 1848, foulard, Musée Labenche, Brive-la-Gaillarde.
It is high time to question why an influential study such as Les Lieux de mémoire that has elicited so much interest and commentary for more than thirty-five years continues to be presented as a work deprived of any reference to colonial heritage apart from Charles-Robert Ageron’s entry on the 1931 exhibition. Naturally, there is no doubt that the absence of realms located in the wider francosphère from the collection’s repertoire is distressing: Les Lieux de mémoire attempts to restore the conventional national narrative, and displays ‘duty toward heritage’ despite its distinct form.56 Yet, a closer reading of Les Lieux de mémoire does reveal how the colonial ends up resurfacing and pervading the collection, at times testing and at times reinforcing the methodological nationalism of the undertaking, but always highlighting - despite some of the contributors’ best efforts - the multi-layered nature of France’s realms of memory around which the colonial and its afterlives so often cohere. Without a question, these realms would have benefited from much more scrutiny from a transnational perspective. Engagement with the colonial throughout the collection, as Charles Forsdick points out with a rare perceptiveness on the subject, remains ‘policed and contained by the deliberately French national framing of Nora’s project and the ideological assumptions with which this is associated’.57 But given the fact that these traces constitute a powerful testimony to France’s inherent postcoloniality, their long neglect by a field striving to assert a postcolonial understanding of the Republic amounts to more than a mere missed opportunity: it merits an undoubtedly uncomfortable self-examination. Could this systematic oversight exemplify a facet of the ‘scholarly dispositions’ which have also contributed to rendering the coordinates of empire ‘so faintly legible to French histories of the present’?58 What role has been played in this process by the reticence of scholars in postcolonial studies to see in the national framework and its dominant set of referents a potentially efficient means of divulging the thread that links the colonial to French culture? Bridging the gap between discrepant memories by focusing on colonial pasts and legacies in order to elaborate alternative narratives continues to be an urgent necessity. It is my hope that a collection such as Postcolonial Realms of Memory, that my colleagues and I envisioned as ‘a disruptive challenge to current nationally focused understandings of sites of memory and a call to integrate colonialism and its afterlives more actively into the practices and study of collective memory’, 59 has contributed to unearthing and articulating these indispensable ‘histories from below’. But a few months after its publication and as I reflect upon its possible impact on the debate, one question keeps coming back to my mind: to what extent might this intervention, along with those challenging the roman national by focusing on the colonial, inadvertently contribute to the compartmentalization of French history it is supposed to address? This is a context where resistance to the emergence of any postcolonial prism is largely due to its perceived irrelevance and/or alienating nature with regards to the traditional markers that constitute the bedrock of the French collective imaginary. As such, there is an urgent need to (re)assess the potential of a gradual and palimpsestic rewriting of the roman national for making colonial histories accessible: from recognizing the value of details mainly legible to those possessing a certain postcolonial susceptibility at first - as is the case at times in Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire in which some entries gesture towards France’s multidirectional pasts and their postcolonial afterlives in a productive way -, to a more visible and sustained engagement with the empire and its legacy over time.60 All in all, the construction of a much-needed wider postcolonial sensibility cannot be carried out without the progressive reclaiming of the shared narrative of remembrance, that is without finding ways to naturalize the French colonial heritage into the framework provided by the still highly popular roman national.