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Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, Les luttes et les rêves. Une histoire populaire de la France de 1685 à nos jours

Laurent Dartigues
Traduction de Élise Antonetti et Ghita Belghiti
Cet article est une traduction de :
Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, Les luttes et les rêves. Une histoire populaire de la France de 1685 à nos jours
Les luttes et les rêves
Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, Les luttes et les rêves. Une histoire populaire de la France de 1685 à nos jours, Paris, Zones, 2016, 995 p., ISBN : 9782355220883.

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1It is surprising that this work did not spark controversy. Perhaps if the author had been a professor at the Collège de France, she would have attracted the same wrath that was manifested by Pierre Nora towards Patrick Boucheron and his Histoire mondiale de la France. In that case, she might have had the honor of being called the “Bourdieu historian of the Collège de France”. Or perhaps she may have been condemned the same way Patrice Gueniffey attacked the Histoire mondiale de la France by referring to it as a “guilt-inducing and shameful” history, all the while affirming the merit of a national narrative allowing for the definition of a “collective identity structured around the idea of liberty”. Nonetheless, the Histoire populaire de la France begins with the establishment of the Code Noir and the history of slavery in the Antilles, whose fate is present throughout the entire book. This “idea of liberty”, so dear to Gueniffey, is therefore not shared by all; it is an ideal for some, a horror to others who cannot claim it as their exclusive property. As for those who wish to teleologically center France's history around a few great principles or great men, let it be noted that the book presents a history of France. This is a choice, carved out of the endless possible narratives; through it, the author shows both a modest and resolute stance.

2The first chapter lays out the political tour de force of adopting a perspective of academic writing by the socially dominated. It is introduced by a kind of personal and familial history which enlightens not so such much the author's motivations, but rather is the affirmation of her ethical choices. It is not a question of concealing her choices, but rather, I believe, explaining them to ensure a fair treatment of the data. This objective is realized in this work, whose content leads us into the world of the daily struggles and dreams of a very diverse group of “common people” who have the resources to think and act.

3With this introduction, the setting is almost literally laid out: it takes us on a journey to unknown or somewhat forgotten places to discover the history of subalterns reappropriated “from underneath” and reinscribed in specific social situations. Well aware of the complicated task, notably for the most distant periods, as “it is difficult, except in rare cases, to know the true thoughts and feelings of peasants and workers of the Ancient Regime, most often perceived through the outlook of others” (p. 56), the author uses secondary sources, as well as the archives that she has previously written on, as well as literature, poetry, cinema and song lyrics. This extensive research was used to reach the depths of history, on both the individual and group levels. This story, which occurred at a specific time and place, is embodied by the protagonists, who are systematically named and thus removed from the anonymity that comes from being part of a class.

4It would be futile to provide a critical summary of this imposing, 995 page work. It is divided into six parts, with 18 chapters of unequal length; thus around twenty pages are allocated to “Ordinary Lives” under the Ancien Regime, seventy pages to the French Revolution and almost ninety to May 1968. Rather, it will be a question here of capturing the multiple political and methodological issues that are scattered throughout the text.

5The book begins with the history of slavery in the Antilles, in Guinea, and later in the French territories of the Indian Ocean. This first chapter, whose political dimension I underlined, distills all the major analytical lines that run through the entire book. From the issue of slavery and its abolition in 1848 that put an end neither to slavery itself, nor to the colonial domination based on slavery, to the issue of “the foreigner”, the book proposes a discreet way to insert the history of France into a history that is perhaps not “global”, but is nonetheless a history nourished by “external” sources. We are thus offered an astonishing paragraph about the consumption of Indian fabrics, which became popular during the first half of the 18th century despite the fact that they were prohibited. The use of those fabrics is related to the transatlantic slave trade. There is also a common theme, although not treated as such, about what all capitalism implies, from the sugar capitalism of the 17th century up to today's financial capitalism, in terms of brutalization and physical harassment, and the use of servile bodies reduced to “vile bodies”. Another line of force is its counterpart, which are the different forms of resistance to domination, from violence to the tricks of reason and of language. The first chapter also demonstrates sensitivity to women's roles, especially those of women from small communities in the countryside or in cities. The attention given to their “capacity to think and act”, which makes them full-blown protagonists of the great history, is constant throughout the entire book through the singular figures described. This is illustrated, for example, in the chapters concerning the workers' strikes in the 1970s, or the tumultuous course of the 1789 Revolution. Among the numerous portraits of this incarnated history, let us indicate one that serves as the condensation of the author's concerns: the portrait of Solitude, a Métis slave born out of a rape who became a runaway slave (Maroon). She distinguished herself during the combats that occurred in 1802 in Guadeloupe, and was hanged the day after she gave birth.

6The colonial issue is at the heart of this work, through the choice of describing a part of its reality by focusing on the meetings of bodies through punishment, repression, forced labor, paid sex and prison. Thus, the dark pages written by the different political regimes are described, from the Antilles to Algeria, via Madagascar or Indochina. More broadly, the author focuses a great deal on the ferocity that characterizes repression by the army or the police of the numerous shapes that the revolt of underlings assumed throughout the four centuries of this popular history.

7Far from a unified image of the common people, the author is determined to hide nothing about conflicts, divisions, and social layering that plague it. She refuses to conceal issues related to minorities, geography or the xenophobia of the working class. The “colored freeman” Jules Raimond became a wealthy planter and owned four hundred slaves. He happened to be an abolitionist, but so also were some white planters: in the dust of history and in the events that happened, the subordinates' stories become more and more complex. Race and social class are not always rigid boundaries for identities. Far from the image of an eternal folk, the author shows it to be the agent of social change, be it by its experiments in social innovation, noticeable for example during the 19th century and especially during the French revolution, during which workers set up labor unions favoring fraternity and solidarity – these were massive practices of cooperation that were “long underestimated” she notes – or its ability to grasp the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and natural law in order to preserve and share them.

8However, this people of subalterns is by no means dissolved into a mass of singular figures. The author does not dodge the question of its nature. She simply does not make it an issue. Her narrative simply settles for noting from time to time some long-lasting characteristics of a popular ethos that appear in some situations such as food riots asking for a fair price and fighting against the values of property and power.

9Reference must be made to the chapter on the “underside of the ‘Glorious Thirty’” that focuses on the Algerian War and the transformations of the rural world. Also notable are the pages dedicated to the housing of the popular classes, which is so often forgotten. We should also mention the imposing chapter on the May 1968 “moment”, which is a way of rehabilitating the event and maybe of underlining its importance within its context, even though so many intellectuals suggest dismissing it. Inevitably, this chapter has a “checklist” quality, describing how the movement brought together struggles that were seemingly disparate in terms of their objectives, their aims, and their international dimensions within the context of the Cold War. I conclude with the ultimate chapter on postcolonial France as it opens a discussion point that I wish to bring up. The “postcolonial” concept that the chapter describes in an unvarnished manner has the merit of bringing to light the social and political effects of the colonial legacy that shaped a highly divided society that was conflicted along racial and religious lines. However, it does not seem that the postcolonial state (or the far right) are the only forces at work in choosing the issue of religion over that of social concerns. Favret-Saada’s study proposes a hypothesis concerning the impact of international geopolitics on French events in the 1970-1980's which might be worth investigating.

10Finally, this huge collective work of collecting and synthesizing is based on a work that is woven of multiple collaborations, as evidenced by the long and affectionate acknowledgments at the end of the book. It is now my turn to praise the boldness and the necessity of this long-term project which required precision and erudition. It marks the return of a notion of “global history” into the French scope, a notion that had provoked such reluctance since Braudel.

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Laurent Dartigues, « Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, Les luttes et les rêves. Une histoire populaire de la France de 1685 à nos jours », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 13 janvier 2021, consulté le 28 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Dartigues

Researcher, CNRS, Triangle Laboratory

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