The making of France

13 Apr 2022

Today, French people speak French, Italians speak Italian, and Germans speak German. In fact, there are more than 7,000 languages in the world but only 94 account for more than 80 percent of world population, when spoken as a first language.

On taking a closer look at French history, the idea that “French people speak French” is a recent development. New research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, casts new light on nation-building and the making of the French.

“France is diversity”, “the dazzling triumph of the heterogeneous” are some of the phrases used by the historian Fernand Braudel to describe France. Why? Only 10 percent of the population of France spoke French in 1794, at the time of the French Revolution. More than forty different languages or dialects were spoken, in particular the langues d’oc (Occitan and its dialects) in the south, and the langues d’oïl, including French, in the north.

How did France tear down the Tower of Babel? What makes some countries successfully come together? To understand this, the researchers study the role of state-sponsored education, following the Loi Guizot du 28 juin 1833, in the adoption of a common language and formation of a national identity in France.

The law, named after the Minister of Public Instruction François Guizot, laid the foundations of mass public primary schooling in France. The law mandated major changes in the curriculum and in the training of schoolteachers. The changes spanned the teaching of the national language and of a national history, the creation and distribution of textbooks approved by the state, and the creation of a national system of teacher training colleges.

The researchers show that the policy pursued by Guizot fostered the adoption of the French language. To demonstrate this, they rely on a detailed survey of the languages spoken at the turn of the nineteenth century, showing the pronunciation of different words or expressions in 577 municipalities at the time. They measure the linguistic similarity with the French language using these data and show that municipalities with state-sponsored education spoke a language closer to French as a result.

Not only did the French start speaking French, they also started identifying themselves as French: the research suggests that the policy had a major impact on the adoption of the French identity, as well as on migration and trade. In particular, the researchers document the role of state-sponsored education in the unification of identity and political ideology, using municipality-level data on the places of birth of World War II Resistance heroes, and on votes against the regionalization of political authority in a 1969 referendum.

Why was the policy successful? There have been numerous examples of state initiatives to influence ideology and identity that were met with backlashes. The researchers argue that the answer lies in a number of factors.

Where the returns to education were sufficiently high and schools were very much needed, the policy was successful. Another important factor, the researchers believe, is that the population had a long shared history within stable and long-established national borders. Last, but not least, the researchers show that elites played a significant role in the implementation and enforcement of the policy, and that the policy was more successful where state-building went hand-in-hand with nation-building.

Authors and Contact:

Guillaume Blanc

Department of Economics at Brown University

email: guillaume_blanc@brown.edu

twitter: @gguillaumeblanc

Masahiro Kubo

Department of Economics at Brown University

email: masahiro_kubo@brown.edu

Reference:

Braudel, Fernand. 1986. The identity of France: History and environment. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Vol. 1. 1990 ed., London: Collins.

Notes to Editors:

The press release is highlighting research papers presented at the RES Annual Conference 2022 (#RES20220) for further information, please contact j.randalledwards@res.org.uk on 07970 201456 if you want the link to the full paper.

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