"...THE CHILDREN WHO MARCHED across the school garden at Raffetot were growing up in a republic that used the military defeat of the preceding regime in 1870 as a means of inspiring its citizens with love of the fatherland. The 'lost provinces' and 'lost towns' of Alsace and Lorraine were the missing pieces that would give the new generation a yearning for national unity and, according to the teachers' manuals produced by Ernest Lavisse (Sorbonne professor and former tutor of the imperial prince), 'provide the Republic with good citizens, good workers and good soldiers'. In the new Republican catechism, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost were replaced by Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, Joan of Arc, Turgot, Vauban and other figures too old to be controversial. 'The fatherland is not your village or your province', wrote Lavisse. 'It is all of France. The fatherland is like a great family.' Compared to similar homilies in British and German schools, French pedagogical nationalism was remarkably untriumphalist, not to say rueful: 'The defeats at Poitiers, Agincourt, Waterloo and Sedan are painful memories for us all.'
education was not automatically associated with school. Literacy rates were already quite high among Protestants and Jews, who read the Bible, and in regions where boys were trained to become travelling salesmen. Many parents were reluctant to send their sons and daughters to school when they needed them for the harvest. Inspectors often found that girls were kept out of school to work as seamstresses in filthy sweatshops where they spent the day with relatives and neighbours, learning the local traditions and values that their mothers considered to be a proper education. Above all, many parents were afraid that once they had learned to speak and write French like Parisians, their children would leave for the city and never come home.
Some of these tales of infant tourists were self-righteously nationalistic, especially after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. In Marie de Grandmaison's Le Tour de France (1893), two young boys explore the entire country on bicycles (this is the first time that the apprentices' expression 'Tour de France' was associated with cycling). They end up in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, where they admire the children who are about to escape from 'the odious German yoke' by emigrating to France:
'Come, brother, let us follow their example. It is hard to breathe this air that smells of oppression.'
'Yes,' said Marcel, 'let us leave this beautiful Alsace, but with the hope of returning one day as victors!'
However, the two boys can be quite odious themselves about the French provinces:
'Ah, the Auvergne! Why are the people of this region so gullible?' asked Robert.
'Because of their volcanic terrain,' replied Marcel. 'When Nature herself looks so incredibly strange, the mind can easily accept the most miraculous things.'
Adult historians who are condescending about Bruno's luminous little book should try describing an entire country, along with its people, produce, geography and climate, in a tale that could hold the attention of child. Le Tour de France par deux enfants, which had its 386th edition in 1922, gave millions of people a vivid, factual image of France. Some of the experiences and observations of André and Julien Volden were more famous than major events of French history: the shipwreck in the English Channel, the mistreated carthorse, the amazingly sensitive steam-hammer at the foundry in Le Creusot which could tap a cork into a wine bottle, or the hostelry-farmhouse in the Dauphiné:
The people who entered the inn all spoke patois amongst themselves.
The two boys sat in a corner, unable to comprehend a single word of what was being said and feeling quite alone in that foreign farm. . . .
Finally, little Julien turned to his big brother and, with a look of affection mingled with sadness, said, 'Why do none of the people of this pays speak French?'
'Because not all of them have been able to go to school. But some years from now, things will be different, and people throughout France will be able to speak the language of the fatherland.'
Just then, the door opened again. It was the innkeeper's children, back from school.
'André!' cried Julien. 'Those children must know French since they go to a school! What joy! We shall be able to talk to one another.'
The remarketing of France was pioneered by local historians and politicians, provincial academies and geographical societies, railway companies and journalists. Parts of the country were unofficially renamed to make them sound more attractive: the coast of Provence became the Côte d'Azur in 1877. Then came the Côte É meraude (Emerald Coast) of Brittany, the Côte Sauvage of the Vendée, and the Côte d'Argent (Silver Coast) on the Atlantic between Royan and Bayonne. Little Switzerlands sprang up all over the place, beginning with the unfashionable Morvan and the Limousin. It has since become almost obligatory for any region with rolling pastures to call itself Switzerland. At the time of writing, there are ten French 'Switzerlands', from the 'Suisse Normande' (fifty miles north-west of the 'Alpes mancelles') to the 'Suisse Niçoise' and the 'Suisse d'Alsace'.
British and American mountaineers had conquered the highest peaks in France; Martel restored some national pride by conquering the deepest depths. He saw himself as a patriotic salesman 'conducting publicity campaigns for compatriots who possess an unexploited source of wealth in the natural beauties of their region'. These compatriots appear in his books as superstitious simpletons while Martel himself is the demystifying missionary, the magician from the Land of Technology who, with dazzling magnesium strips, lights the holes where the Devil used to lurk. An engraving in Les Abîmes shows him towering over his companions, standing in a niche like the Virgin of Lourdes, with a candle stuck to the brim of his hat. A belief in subterranean demons did not prevent farmers from using these holes as waste-disposal chutes. What Martel dreaded most was the repulsive, gluey crunchiness at the bottom of the pits which he called 'carcass soup' and which local people harvested for use as fertilizer and pigment."