Making French Connections: France in World History

By Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein; Vann, Michael G. | World History Bulletin, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Making French Connections: France in World History


Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein, Vann, Michael G., World History Bulletin


French history may not seem the most obvious focus for a special issue of the World History Bulletin, but traces of France's role in the world are all around us. Consider the traveler who crosses from northern Thailand into Laos and suddenly finds street vendors selling baguette sandwiches in a region dominated by rice noodles; or that French is the most useful language when moving from the lush rainforests of the Congo Basin across the dry savanna and deserts of West Africa, and through the chilly Atlas Mountains to the sunny southern shore of the Mediterranean. Consider too the Gallic flavor of seemingly all-American product and places names like Cadillac and Detroit; the French influences in pre-Lent festivities from New Orleans to the Caribbean; Napoleon's impact on legal codes from Louisiana to Senegal; and the Parisian style cafes of Papeete and Noumea in the Pacific Ocean and Pondicherry and St. Denis in the Indian Ocean. The outside world has also left its mark on France. Here we can point to Polynesian and West African influences on artists such as Gauguin and Picasso; the delicious couscous, merguez, and pho found throughout Paris; and, of course, the importance of tobacco, coffee, and sugar to French urban culture. France sinter-connections with the world are deep, complex, and omnipresent.

Despite these obvious linkages, the fields of French and World History have led parallel lives. World historians have long sought to move away from national narratives; for their part, French historians have often felt more comfortable with the paradigm of Western Civilization than within the parameters of world history. Conversely, World Historians have made no secret of their disdain for historiographies too closely tied to the nation. Adding to France's absence from World History narratives are the numerous examples that the more familiar British empire has to offer. For example, the well-known English slave trade and plantation complexes can overshadow the fact that Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti) produced an estimated 40% of the sugar and 60% of the coffee consumed in Europe. However, in the last two decades, a postcolonial turn in French history has pushed the field to look beyond the "Hexagon" (a nickname given to metropolitan France because of its shape). The rise of transnational and colonial topics in French history have moved the field much closer to World History, demonstrating that the French empire can reveal in microcosm many important world historical themes, from race and empire to cross-cultural trade and cultural syncretism.

The essays collected in this special issue draw upon this new scholarship, emphasizing its usage for world historians. They offer a rich set of ideas (both theoretical and practical) for integrating French history into the World History classroom and for encouraging research into France's interactions with the world. While recognizing France's special relationship with the concept of the nation, this issue offers models for thinking about French history beyond the traditional confines of the Hexagon. Moving across space and time, these essays provide a variety of historical examples for the connections between French and World historical narratives.

Julia Landweber's essay focuses on a commodity that has come to be strongly identified with French national identity; coffeehouses around the world often call themselves "cafes," using the French term. Landweber reveals how coffee was transformed in early modern France from an exotic Turkish product into one seen as quintessentially French. …

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