Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Discreet Charm of the Little Sister: France and Romania

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Discreet Charm of the Little Sister: France and Romania

Article excerpt

After the 1989 overthrow of the Ceausescu regime, the French newspapers and TV stations reporting from location in Bucharest, never failed to note in wonder how many of the Romanians spoke French, as if it were their second language. The new prime minister was able to state his reformist policies on Antenne 2's most popular news show, and to angrily discard, a la bolshevique, but in fluent French, clear evidence of wrong doing. Even the neocommunist president of Romania managed to mumble some French vocables to greet Roland Dumas, the first Western foreign minister to visit the Ceausescu-free country. But the greatest wonder of all were the Romanian writers, all of whom could entertain reporters, politicians, and any other interested public in French. The response from France came in the form of books for the badly damaged university library, and cases of champagne for the Romanian writers to drink on the 1990 New Year's Eve.

This simili-ubiquity of French makes it hard now to remember how recent this `love affair' is. Two hundred years ago, few people living in the Romanian Principalities (Romania itself did not exist as an entity until 1861, and did not gain independence until 1877) bad ever heard of France, and if they had, they did not imagine having anything in common with it. The Romanian Principalities, i.e., Wallachia and Moldavia (Transylvania did not belong to Romania until 1919) were, geographically and not only, much closer to Greece, Russia and Turkey, than they were to "Europe", from which they felt cultural outsiders. Europe responded in kind, ignoring the very name of these remote East European provinces. The rare instances when Romanian scholars were summoned to Europe occurred in connection with their capacity of experts in Turkish affairs. Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723), an erudite from Moldavia, and shortly Prince of that country, mostly known for his History of the Ottoman Empire, was elected to the Berlin

Academy in 1714 and commissioned by the same academy to write Descriptio Moldaviae, which is the first country study on one of the Romanian principalities and remained of interest only to a handful of academics. Cantemir's work on the Ottoman Empire had a far larger audience, and caught Abbe Prevost's attention: he published fragments in his magazine Le Pour et le contre, but he did worry about the accessibility of so unusual and un-European an author.(1)

It was only during the second half of the eighteenth century that this mutual indifference began to change. The Romanian principalities were then governed by a string of Greek princes from the Phanar district of Istanbul, appointed by the Sultan. The cultural development they promoted was of Byzantine and Greek influence--Greek schools, Greek books, even a Greek Academy; integration in Europe was the last thing on their mind. Romanians did not go to France; France came to them through Greek translations, as Greek intellectuals were growing ever more admiring of France's culture and of her political and military exploits.(2) One can imagine a Romanian boyar, lying on his sofa, dressed in his oriental pantaloons and caftan, drawing puffs of cool smoke from a hookah, while reading Voltaire and Condillac in Greek! (It may be added that the very act of reading was quite a change for these boyars.) But the trend slowly gained momentum; the Phanariots, and a selected number of boyars employed French secretaries and had their children learn French, thus offering shelter to various adventurers and rescapes from the guillotine, with lives and personalities, that seemed to be taken straight from the novels they brought along. Bizarrerie apart, they were the first to write in France about this terra incognita.(3) French books began to appear in the homes of the most respectable boyars: around 1800 the bishop of Ramnic (Wallachia) even made the unusual gesture of ordering the Encyclopedie for his private library. In addition, the Russian officers who, during the numerous military occupations of the Principalities, mingled with the local high-society, encouraged the adoption of French-like customs and manners. …

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