Jeremy Black’s ‘France: A Short History’ explores the legacy of this extraordinary country, whose dramatic history is populated by artists, martyrs and revolutionaries, and whose chateaux and cathedrals, boulevards and vineyards continue to enthral the world. In the extracts below, embark on a tour of some key touchstones of French history and culture.
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the great historical artefacts of the medieval period and provides an unparalleled visual reference for historians. Despite its name, it is technically not a tapestry (it is an embroidery) and almost certainly not from Bayeux (it is now believed to have been made in Canterbury, England). The 70-metre (231-foot) cloth is an artistic treasure. It tells the story, in great and gory detail, of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy, better known now as ‘the Conqueror’, against a backdrop of political turmoil in Europe.
Believed to have been made within a few years of the invasion, it culminates in a bloody recreation of the Battle of Hastings at which Harold Godwinson, then king of England, is shown being killed by an arrow through the eye. The survival of the tapestry is one of its greatest feats having been very nearly cut up during the French Revolution, removed to Paris by Napoleon and taken once more by the Nazis during their occupation of France. In 2018 President Emmanuel Macron, against a backdrop of political turmoil in Europe, surprised many by promising that the tapestry would go on loan to the UK, the first time it left France.
Officially adopted as the French national anthem in 1795, ‘La Marseillaise’ is known throughout the world as a call to arms and a hymn to freedom. Originally titled ‘Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin’ (War Song for the Army of the Rhine), it was written in 1792 as a march following the declaration of war against Austria. It gained its more popular name after being chanted by volunteers from Marseille and inspired a sculpture on the Arc de Triomphe. Banned under both Napoleon and Louis XVIII, it was only permanently reinstated in 1879 but is now one of the most recognizable and stirring anthems, often sung before major national events. Famously it was used as a counterpoint to the German anthem in the film Casablanca (1942), and it was sung widely in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks.
Of all of the technical and cultural developments that have emerged from France, the one perfected by the Lumière brothers in Lyon is one of the greatest. While the date of the first filming is shrouded in debate, on 22 March 1895 the Lumières presented their invention with a screening in Paris at the Society for the Development of the National Industry. There, an audience of two hundred people watched the appropriately titled Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Ever since, France has been at the vanguard of developments in the medium of film. From the early works of Georges Méliès and Abel Gance’s six-hour Napoléon (1927) to the New Wave cinema of the 1960s and a vibrant domestic realism of the 1980s and 1990s, French cinema has often been seen as a counterpoint to the more mainstream Hollywood. The Cannes Film Festival, held every year in the south, gives the Palme d’Or to the best film of the year.
The Tour de France is one of the world’s great annual sporting events with a TV audience of many millions. The most prestigious cycling race in the sporting calendar each year, it follows a similar yet always different route around France (although sometimes starting in another country) for a month in the summer. Le Tour holds a special place in the hearts of the French nation, among whom cycling remains a hugely popular sport and pastime, and is an important projection of France abroad.
The race was conceived by the editor and businessman Henri Desgrange as a means of filling the pages of his magazine L’Auto and the famous maillot jaune (yellow jersey) worn by the race leader is yellow to match the colour of the magazine’s pages. The first race took place in 1903 and followed the coast and borders of France as much as possible, starting in Paris and navigating the country in a clockwise fashion. Today, it ends in a sprint finish up the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées.
The football World Cup of 1998 was held in France, with the final played at the newly commissioned Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north Paris. The location of the new national stadium in that multicultural suburb was no accident. The team reflected a very modern, diverse France, drawing on an ethnically diverse group of players with backgrounds from West and North Africa, the Caribbean, Pacific islands, Armenia, the Basque Country and elsewhere. France had never won the World Cup before, so the team’s victory in the final became a watershed moment for the nation and a strong unifying force both domestically and internationally. The final cemented a period of French domination of football, as they went on to win the following European Championship, and it launched the international careers of a generation of great footballers.
Extracted from France: A Short History by Jeremy Black.