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II/ After the transnational turn: national and global perspectives

National history and migrant history after the transnational turn: the French in Australia and the articulation of Frenchness



Cet article considère les avancées réalisées dans l’histoire australienne depuis le tournant transnational et la manière dont celles-ci peuvent être appliquées dans l’écriture d’une histoire nationale. En considérant le cas de la ‘présence française’ en Australie, cet article explore comment le transnational peut être utilisé pour combler le gouffre historiographique qui existe entre l’histoire nationale et celle dite ‘ethnique’ par l’application de la théorie de la culture.

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1For more than a solid decade now, transnational history has been one of the new buzzwords of historical scholarship. Another “turn” that has reshaped and invigorated debates and multiplied our objects of study (C. A. Bayly et al.). Alongside and as part of other developments in imperial, international and world history, the “transnational” has often been heralded as the natural offspring of national history, seen as supplanting and bettering its elder. Writing from Australia in 2003, in the middle of what would be the 11 year-long Howard conservative Liberal-National Coalition Government (1996-2007), historian Ann Curthoys argued convincingly that “the prevalent focus on the nation as a discrete entity, whether positive or negative, leads to a very limited sense of history” (Curthoys 22). Those years in particular were marked – for historians and the public – by a series of “culture wars” set to determine the overall balance sheet of Australian history (MacIntyre and Clark). For many, breaking free of the shackles of a teleological and glorifying national mythology was to go beyond the nation altogether. Of course Curthoys was right: how could we understand the horrors of frontier violence and settlement in Australia singularly within the bounds of a national framework without reference to and understanding of similar developments elsewhere and the ideologies that underpinned dispossession? Embracing the transnational was also a political act; it was just as much about writing better histories as it was about writing histories that could serve emancipatory goals for those that have been and continue to be oppressed by the nation.

2Australian historians in particular have taken up the transnational challenge with gusto, producing intricate histories of the global interconnectedness of people and ideas (Lake and Curthoys; Deacon, Russell, and Woollacott, Transnational Ties; Deacon, Russell, and Woollacott, Transnational Lives). Perhaps because it lends itself so well to the study of individuals and collectives, transnational history does however run the risk of becoming descriptive rather than analytical, stating the fact of transnationality instead of explaining its modalities and meanings, as Carolyn Strange has warned (Strange); it is also a truism to say that without the nation there is nothing for transnational history to transcend, in sum “the nation will continue to matter” (Strange 40).

3Within this Australian context, this article considers how a transnational approach – understood as a “shift of emphasis” rather than as a formal turn (Deacon, Russell, and Woollacott, “Introduction” xiv) – can invigorate the national story by connecting it to the world but also by revisiting familiar historical tropes that themselves have become marginalised within national historiography. Here, I consider the case of so-called “ethnic” or “contribution” history through an examination of the “French presence” in Australia. I start by making a case for the importance of the French-Australian connection for the study of Australian cultural history by replacing it within a broader historical and spatial context. In thinking about this interconnectedness, I then explore further why the history of French migration and of Australian national history have never entered into a convincing dialogue, and examine how cultural theory and a transnational approach can start that dialogue in a way that is illuminating of the processes constitutive of the national story and of the lives that shaped it and were shaped by it.

1. Great Britain, Australia and France

4Scholarship on Franco-British history is extensive (Guiffan; Dornel; Hancock; Fournier-Finocchiaro and Habicht). And whether through collected volumes or monumental synthetic works like Robert Tombs’ That Sweet Enemy, it continues to grow yearly (Kelly and Cornick; Tombs and Tombs). More significantly for the study of the construction of nations and nationalism, many scholars have shown the significance of the Franco-British relationship in shaping the rise of British nationalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Historian Linda Colley has argued that it was during the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries that ‘Britons’ came to define their common sense of ‘Britishness’, mercantile and Protestant, largely in opposition to the Other, not only the non-white other in the newly acquired overseas possessions, but the perennial white and Catholic Other on the other side of the English Channel: the French. Not as they were necessarily, but as the British ‘imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree’ (Colley 2). Reacting in part against Colley’s influential thesis, Robin Eagles contended in his Francophilia in English Society, 1748–1815 that Colley’s focus on religion and mercantilism as the basis of an emerging national consciousness in Britain did not sufficiently acknowledge the cosmopolitan (read French), to an extent even Catholic, love of arts and fashion of the ruling Whig elite who wielded considerable influence both in matters of taste and of politics (Eagles). Indeed, writing some years earlier, Gerald Newman had made somewhat similar claims that before the 1789 Revolution the French, and ideas attached to French luxury and notions of taste, were crucial in facilitating the establishment of marked class differences in Britain between the cultural elite and the lower orders (Newman). The contingent definition of Britishness was played out in relation to shifting ideals about conduct and behaviours. Historian Michèle Cohen changed the focus from the building of a cohesive British national identity in war to the relational construction of masculinity. She examined in particular how the image of the masculine ideal of the English gentleman was constructed in direct opposition to the foppish Frenchman, the paradoxically effeminate yet passion-consumed lover of women (Cohen). More recently still, Fabrice Bensimon and others have shown the on-going political impact and legacy of the 1789 and 1848 French Revolutions in British literary and political thought (Bensimon, “Britain during the 1848 Revolutions and the Changing Features of ‘Britishness’”). But whether different parts of the British Isles looked to France for political and social inspiration or with suspicion, France remained indeed a significant and constant barometer throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through which ideas about taste and refinement could be framed, and against which British class differences could be articulated (Crossley and Small 7).

5With such a long and deeply entangled history of relations between France and Britain – and word length forbids me to go back to William the Conqueror – it comes as no surprise that many of the images and ideas about France that were prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain were transported to the antipodean colonies as part of the mental furniture, first of shiploads of convicts and then of successive migrants. Yet cultural transfers never represent a carbon copy of their model, and already-contested images and thoughts find themselves selected, adapted and redefined to suit local environments by new and different actors (Waterhouse). The island-continent might have been gradually peopled by “exiled Britons”, but these were fast becoming Australians, and the way they looked to France changed, and in turn changed them (McKenna 6; Atkinson). But in what ways were these contested images similar or different? And more significantly, why and what does this tell us?

6In his seminal work Inventing Australia, Richard White examined precisely how, at the level of ideas, the generation associated with the Sydney Bulletin, in the 1890s, looked to France as a ready alternative to the Victorian moral order (White 96–101); they did not look to Paris solely for aesthetics, but indeed turned to France – and Bohemia – to position themselves against the values of their forebears. Though it can and has been argued that such radical and generational revolt was taking place elsewhere (White 96), including in Great Britain, the distinctiveness and modalities of this radical and generational Australian embrace of France are still relatively under studied. My own work, French Connection: The culture and politics of Frenchness in Australia, 1890-1914 (Bergantz) dealt with this question within the bounds of its own research framework. My analysis sought to utilise the insights of recent scholarship on transnational history and international cultural history to bridge the historiographical divide between a still overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic mainstream Australian history, and a niche and closed off type of “ethnic” or “contribution” history. By intentionally shifting the gaze away from “the French” as migrants and focusing instead on the idea of “Frenchness” – as a process, as a doing - its uses and modalities, I created an analytical framework capable of incorporating elements of both historiographies to ask questions at the heart of cultural history: about identity formation, processes of identification and critically assessing the variety of social strategies actors put in place and why. I flesh out this theoretical approach further in the last sections of this paper.

7Richard White’s work, alongside others published in and after the 1980s-1990s (Grimshaw et al.; Walker), clearly falls within a now easily identifiable genre of national histories that applied the insights of postcolonial theory to deconstruct the idea of the homogenous and isolated nation, understand its shape and form and its distinctiveness, not in a celebratory or teleological manner, but in a critical and analytical way. The impetus behind such pioneering works that departed from traditional political and economic national histories echoed concerns elsewhere about the constructed nature of these imagined communities and how we, as historians, narrated them into existence (B. Anderson; Bhabha). Yet, as Curthoys points out, these richer and more discrete histories had a down side as well, as they made Australian history “more isolated and inward looking” (Curthoys 28). As highlighted above, the New Imperial history – to cite one example – made tremendous progress in breaking free of the glorious isolation Australian history found itself in. Seeking to unsettle the established national narrative, historians across the globe first replaced Australia within the broader context of the British Empire and the concomitant concept of Britishness. These studies have successfully displaced older assumptions about the relationship between metropole and colonies, between centre and periphery, by fleshing out the complex webs of connection between the different constituents of the Empire through a particular attention to the circulation of ideas and individuals and the postcolonial concepts of class, race and gender (Hall, Cultures of Empire; Woollacott; Hall, Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867; Lambert and Lester). This has resituated Australian historiography within a more global framework through the study of the interconnectedness of the different constituents of the British Empire. Yet, as Marilyn Lake has noted, “the challenge of locating ‘Australia’ in ‘one vast interconnected world’ must include, but also take us beyond, the relationship between metropole and colony” (Lake 350). A particularly good and early example was David Walker’s Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939, which replaced Australian representations and discourses about Asia in a much broader international framework of English-speaking countries (Walker). To understand the cultural links between Australia and Great Britain we must take that relationship not only beyond the centre and periphery dichotomy, but outside the British Empire altogether. In this, the important role played by France and French culture in the shaping of Britishness should be taken into account, whether in examining Australia’s links to the British Empire or in exploring the creation of distinct Australian ways of being from within the geographical bounds of the nation. Foreshadowing Lake, Curthoys herself made the case:

For modern Australians, the desire to look outward, to connect, cannot be confined to the British world and its former manifestations as Empire and Commonwealth. It must, of necessity, go much further, to continental Europe, to Asia, the Pacific, the United States, to the other former dominions, and indeed to the world as a whole. A wide variety of migration and diasporic histories mean that Australian histories must include the histories of all those who have migrated there, from China, India, Germany, Hungary, Vietnam, Italy, Greece and so forth. (Curthoys 31)

8This ambitious research agenda has however been unequally successful when dealing with the history of migration and migrants. Migration history in Australia has remained largely isolated from mainstream national history. One of the most notable exceptions remains Gerhard Fischer’s Enemy Aliens: Internment and the Homefront Conflict in Australia 1914-1920, which took the internment of Germans and German-Australians during the First World War as a window to examine the cultural and political dynamics of the creation of an Australian identity in these formative years after Federation (Fischer, Enemy Aliens; Helmi and Fischer). In both Fischer and Walker, a transnational approach avant la lettre was used not to move away from the nation but rather to write national history that is more critical and more engaging. Focusing on the French case, in what follows I first discuss the political, cultural, and intellectual reasons why French migration history and studies of the French ‘presence’ in Australia have remained relatively impermeable to each other before fleshing out in more detail how a transnational approach and cultural theory might help bridge that divide.

2. Bridging a historiographical chasm

9For several decades now, the history of “the French” in Australia and written from Australia has been uncomfortably wedged between French migration history on one side, and Australian “ethnic” or contribution history on the other. In France, since Gérard Noiriel’s seminal book Le Creuset Français, significant work has been done in and out of academia in the field of French immigration history (Noiriel). Although the field has grown at a noticeable rate in recent decades, French scholarship remains overwhelmingly concerned with immigration rather than emigration. This is well exemplified by the French journal Migrance. Out of 36 issues published between 1992 and 2010, issue 26 (2005) alone is dedicated to French emigration (to the Americas). Most of the other issues focus on France as a receiving country, while some others are devoted to other European countries (primarily Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Britain and Germany), and a few others offer thematic studies on literature, sexuality and archival research. But if it is true that the French have been very reluctant to migrate, and this was especially true in the nineteenth century, some nonetheless did (Chevalier; Verquin).

10The lack of attention to French emigrants within France can be partly explained by contemporary societal factors. Indeed, François Weil has suggested that the noticeable lack of studies of French emigration reflects, foremost, a short-sightedness inflicted by the primacy of ‘Hexagonal’ national history. Readings of French migration history, more often than not, tend to see France as the receiving country par excellence and so the migrants who elected to leave France, for whatever reason, are perceived as breaking the French national social contract. By doing so they have been excluded from a place within national historiography (Weil, Les migrations de France aux Amériques 5). There are, of course, notable exceptions (Fouché, L’émigration Française; Fouché, Emigration Alsacienne aux Etats-Unis, 1815-1870; Foucrier; Weil, Citoyenneté et émigration). But few of these studies aim at understanding the history of migrants beyond a social history of migration, or understand individual lives outside of an assimilationist or contribution paradigm. They tend to conceptualise ‘the French’ solely as immigrants or emigrants.

11In Australia, moving from one nation to another sees migrants generally escaping the bounds of one national historiography only to be trapped by another. The scholarship emanating from Australia reveals similar problems to those of French migration history. Since the development of the “ethnic history” genre in the 1970s, migrants’ lives in Australia have been often sealed off from mainstream historiography. Reflecting the new multicultural mould in which Australia sought to recast itself under the Whitlam Labor Government and its successor the Fraser Conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition Government, the first laudable impulse behind the development of ethnic history (or contribution history) was to carve out a space in the history of the nation for the multiple newly-acknowledged ethnic groups composing the fabric of Australian society (Teo 142–143; Z. Anderson). Most of these studies, boosted by various government funding initiatives, followed a similar structure: they are first concerned with the reasons behind migrants’ decisions to leave their home country, they expand on the period of settlement and integration, and finally take stock of the contribution migrants have made to national culture. As Gerhard Fischer has pointed out this genre continues to find a ready niche market, sometimes supported by prestigious university presses as was the case for Jürgen Tampke’s The Germans in Australia, published by Cambridge University Press in 2006 (Fischer, “Debating the ‘German Presence’ in Australia” 147–148; Tampke). It is within this tradition that the only book-length study of the French in Australia has been published. Anny Stuer’s book The French in Australia, initially a demographic study completed as an ANU PhD thesis, opened up the field of Franco-Australian research, and all works in the field have since acknowledged their debt to her (Stuer; Nettlebeck). But ethnic histories did not simply parallel new multicultural policies. As Hsu Ming-Teo has pointed out, they also internalised their limitations: neither multiculturalism as it stood in the 1970s and 80s, nor the “ethnic studies” monographs challenged the idea of a “core” “Anglo-Celtic” and monolithic national culture. In fact, they posited ethnic cultures composing the Australian national cosmogony as simply gravitating around it (Teo 145–146).

12In the wake of Anny Stuer’s seminal publication, a steady number of conferences and exhibitions followed throughout the 1980s in Australia and the theme has continued to generate interest. A number of honours, masters and doctoral theses have also dealt with various aspects of the French presence or French influence in Australia, exploring topics such as the teaching of French at Australian universities (Kerr), the trade in French books in the antipodes (Gray), and studies of particular individuals (Middleton; Bong; Dwyer). Space constraints again prevent me from expanding on these but an exhaustive list of exhibitions and studies on the French presence in Australia can be compiled from Colin Nettlebeck’s recent historiographical essay and from my own recent work (Nettlebeck; Bergantz 1–15). The peer-reviewed journal The French Australian Review (formerly Explorations), a bi-yearly publication produced by the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations (ISFAR), has also provided a salutary platform since 1985 for researchers interested in all aspects of Franco-Australian relations and many of its authors have recently contributed entries to Ivan Barko and Eric Berty’s recent French Lives in Australia (Barko and Berti). Taken together, these studies have highlighted many aspects of the diverse history of the French and French culture in Australia but have lacked an engagement with the formation of collective and individual identities and ways of being in Australia. Migrants were generally an added flavour, a part of but never completely part of the story. Taking a much broader, synthetic approach, Robert Aldrich’s The French Presence in the South Pacific, 1842–1940 stands apart in the historiography of the French in the region. It still remains the most important work in the field in book form, covering a vast period both thematically and chronologically. Chapter 7 of Aldrich’s work deals more particularly with the economic and political relationship between France, Australia and New Zealand (Aldrich). But where Aldrich is concerned with examining how myths and images of the Pacific have informed French political and economic strategies locally and in the metropole, a transnational Australian history asks rather how representations of France and the French have informed personal identities and social strategies in Australia and how these, in turn, have informed the broader national story.

13Because “the French”, as migrants or as an economic or political force, have largely remained at the centre of previous studies, they have tended to marginalise broader questions, of importance to cultural history, concerning the ways in which France, and the French, were understood in the Pacific world. Indeed, studies of the French in Australia or of the French presence in Australia have tended to conceive of “the French” as a monolithic and homogenous migrant group possessing a uniform imported national identity and culture. As a result of this, little attempt has been made to examine “the French” who came to the Australian colonies in relation to the dynamics of Australian cultural history. One limitation of such an approach is that it encases the people under scrutiny in a framework that reifies them as archetypes of a nationality, leaving little room to ask questions about the formation and significance of individual or group identity, about the contingent relations of power that have given them meaning.

3. Cultural theory and transnational history

14Much of the scholarship on Franco-British relations I mentioned earlier has tended to remain confined to the history of representations. As Fabrice Bensimon recently noted, these studies focus in particular on either moments of Francophobia or moments of Francophilia, often underscoring a class divide between a cultivated francophone elite and a popular dislike of the French, gauged through the press, particularly during moments of international tension. Such moments have included the Fashoda Incident, the Dreyfus Affair or, specific to Australia, the issue of the transportation of French convicts to New Caledonia (Bensimon, “British Workers in France, 1815–1848” 149). Certainly, a similar class divide can also sometimes be observed in the Australian context, and so reproducing this type of history can be done from an antipodean perspective, but not only would this circumscribe the history to a narrow bi-lateral form of comparative history that would eschew the broader global context in which it took place, it would also run the risk of reproducing the celebratory nature of earlier forms of national histories – two for the price of one. The benefit of a transnational approach to national history is precisely the ability to go beyond these moments of Francophobia or Francophilia, as they might be registered through a reading of Australian newspapers. It becomes a matter of going beyond the times, often linked to international conflicts, when the British, or Australians, looked to France with more love than hate, hate than love, or an “inextricable” mixture of both – a juste milieu proposed by Robert Tombs (Tombs 21). It becomes a matter of finding analytical ways to ask not just how one seemingly homogenous form of identity came to be perceived by others, but rather how historical actors used such images in social life, why and how.

15In the French case, for example, and owing a huge debt to postcolonial theory still (cue Bhabba, Said and Anderson), rather than asking only who the French were, where they settled, what they did and what they contributed, it is about asking what Frenchness meant, to whom, and why. Why did being French, or perceived as French, or as exhibiting qualities that were deemed French, matter for French migrants and non-French actors alike, and how did these relations of power operate in daily life? It becomes about understanding identity as a process of identification which was not bounded by the national (restricted by a nationality given on a passport, for instance). I was thus concerned with exploring some of the images and ideas at play in relation to social life, and analysing what they may have meant to people during this era of Australian history. In this respect, my approach was also informed by the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu which has encouraged me to consider specific moments of conflict or times when the articulation of cultural difference was most potent, in relation to different understandings of Frenchness mobilised by different sets of people within a cultural field. These different understandings could become a source of conflict, or a mode of communication between Australians and the French, between factions within the local French émigré community, or among other Francophones, thus expanding the analytical framework from one putative group to encompass many more within an always shifting and contingent social landscape.

  • 1 Michel de Certeau proposed “tactics”, a view from below, in opposition to Bourdieu’s “strategy” whi (...)

16Present in all aspects of social life, cultural and symbolic capital is present in the ways we express our taste. What does reading French books say about a person? What does it say if they read them in the original French? Not everyone would recognise that a new gown was imported from Paris and was the apex of fashion, but for those who did, it would be decoded as a symbol representing financial affluence and bon goût. As a result, the woman wearing that dress could be perceived as belonging to a certain stratum of society, such as the petite bourgeoisie or the leisured class. It is through sometimes seemingly anodyne choices that people establish social hierarchies. Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the relation between culture, social structure and action is a fruitful way to think about combining the study of representations with an analysis of social life. Bourdieu’s sociology seeks to overcome the false dichotomy between the determinist dimensions of social life proposed by structuralism and the rational-actor theory that gives prominence to human agency. His triptych of culture, social structure and action, along with his key concepts of habitus and cultural and symbolic capital, allow for a theory of practice in which actors become cultural agents who are not constrained by cultural systems in a deterministic way, but can invoke different possible meanings within those systems of thought to establish social differences (Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice; Distinction; The Field of Cultural Production; Swartz). In Distinction, in particular, Bourdieu argues that systems of domination permeate all cultural practices and interpersonal exchanges. Thus “Frenchness” is not a reified identity for a migrant group but becomes a tool for the study of the social processes at play in the mobilisation of culture, for migrants, first-generation Australians, self-styled Australian bohemians, and many more. Frenchness, for historical actors, is not something that French people inherently possess (though they might think they do); rather, it is a strategy, or a “tactic” (Certeau), which allows its practitioners to draw from a variety of meanings available to them in order to be perceived as exhibiting certain qualities, through a variety of signs such as language, cultural references, behaviours, manner of dress, or membership of a social club.1 Thus in helping us move our gaze slightly outward from the nation and its seemingly static populations, cultural theory and a transnational approach can allow historians to consider the nation not just as constructed but as created in the flow and movement of people and ideas on a global scale.


17Certainly, French migrants were not as visible or conspicuous as others, and a major caveat is that they were white (but then again not all of them, and this remained largely contingent). And it also remains to be seen whether the idea of “Frenchness” as deployed here – as a performance – could be developed to be applied to other migrant groups, in Australia or elsewhere. Such a transnational approach decentres migrants and focuses rather on the articulation and perception of difference. It can help us write histories that bind migrants to the nation not as an after-thought but as constitutive of it. This approach suggests however that historians studying migrants and migration pay attention not solely to individual or collective lives, whether national or understood on a global scale, but pay close attention to the strategies that our subjects put in place to navigate their world: how they themselves used their transnationality, what forms it took, and why.

18In turn, migrants can then themselves become conduits through which to understand broader processes of national formation by linking the nation to the world. If we consider them also as representatives of a real or imagined culture (in this case through their “Frenchness”) they open a door for an analysis of how a cultural connection to a foreign place can inform people’s lives. For the French, Frenchness could come to signify many things at once: it could be a strong facet of national identity moored in the core ideals of the Republic, or more subtly denote ideas about social refinement. Whichever it was, shifting the gaze away from the French as migrants and onto Frenchness opens up more space for contextual analysis that can help us think of migrants, the nation, and the transnational within the same framework.

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1 Michel de Certeau proposed “tactics”, a view from below, in opposition to Bourdieu’s “strategy” which he perceived as a condescending view from above.

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Alexis BERGANTZ, « National history and migrant history after the transnational turn: the French in Australia and the articulation of Frenchness »e-Rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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RMIT University
Alexis Bergantz is a Lecturer in French Studies at RMIT University in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies. He received his PhD from the School of History at the Australian National University in 2016. In 2012, he was awarded the Alison Patrick Memorial Scholarship and his work has been published in French History and Civilisation, The French Australian Review and The New Zealand Journal of French Studies.

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