Synopsis: In this first episode I introduce myself, the podcast and the fascinating journey we’re about to take. We’ll start by asking, “What is France?” It’s a much more complicated question than you’d think as the borders of the French nation and the definition of ‘Frenchness’ have constantly changed.
Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of the French History Podcast, where I’ll be introducing myself, the show’s format, and my grandiose plans for what I hope will become an incredible podcast and platform for French history and culture. But let me introduce myself: My name is Gary and I’ll be your host. Now, I have to start with the name, which is commonly pronounced Girod by family which has long since been Americanized. But I figured go with French version for podcast. And while I said my family has been Americanized, we have been researching our increasingly researched our French roots. In fact, we suspect that we’re related to the famous Nicolas Girod, Mayor of New Orleans in 1812-1815. For those of you who don’t know, Mayor Girod was part of a conspiracy to secrete Napoleon from his second exile in
Saint Helena and bring him to New Orleans, but Napoleon’s untimely death, possibly by British poison, put an end to those epic plans, and with that, the Girod family has since been a respectable if boring American family, suburbs, white-collar jobs bla-bla-bla. Since we all would like to be related to famous people I like to think I am a distant relative of Olivier Giroud, one of France’s top football players, who was part of France’s world cup winning team in 2018. When I lived in Southern France in 2010-211 I tried to buy a jersey with the name ‘Giroud’ on the back but it was 80 euros. I should have got it then; now that he has a world cup 80 euros is probably a steal.
Next, I want to talk about my experience as a historian and what brought me to make this podcast. I double-majored in French and European history at Chapman University in Orange, California. I took a year off after studies and worked as an English teacher in the Southern French village of Béziers, one of the oldest cities in Europe, and yes, little French children are adorable when they aren’t causing complete chaos like their revolutionary ancestors. After that I worked for two years as a researcher for America’s leading demographer Joel Kotkin, publishing
articles and reports for Newsweek, Reuters and a host of other news agencies. After wandering for a bit I applied to graduate schools and was accepted into the Ph.D program at the University of Houston where I am currently pursuing a Ph.D in modern French and British history. All the while I have written short stories and have published a dozen of them in literary magazines. I do have two novels which I’m trying to get published because short stories don’t bring home the money like they used to back in the days of Faulkner and Hemingway. Oh to be able to make a living writing a pages a day. I might have been born at the wrong time. Either way, fingers
crossed I can find an agent for my strange tales.
So that’s me. Now let’s talk about you. Why are you here? I’m guessing you stumbled upon this podcast because you wanted to learn something about French history. I certainly intend for this podcast to be informative, but this podcast isn’t a lecture: it’s an adventure. The reason why I fell in love with history is because I loved all the stories. I grew up reading Greek and Norse mythology. Those epic tales of heroes, quests, conflict, fulfillment, growth, transformation and mystery opened the door to history, and I take that same child-like wonder into my readings of the past. Unfortunately many historians have forgotten why they chose history in the first place, and they pass that ambivalence onto their students. As someone who currently teaches history at the University of Houston and who is aiming for a professorship sometime in the not-too-distant future, I can confirm that just the word ‘history’ can act as a spell that puts many students to sleep. It shouldn’t. History is the most interesting topic there is, and I’m here to prove it. I’m
inviting you to come on a grand adventure with me across a land of endless wonder. From one million years ago, when France was a freezing tundra, to the days of early humans, where some of the oldest, most beautiful and intricate cave paintings in the world were painted by Stone Age hunters. This land was then settled by warrior Celts, who conquered Rome, and then centuries later were subjugated by it. This vast land was then conquered by ‘barbarians’ fleeing from the Hunnic invasions. For centuries an early French kingdom struggled to survive as it was attacked by Muslim invaders to the South, Germans to the East and Vikings to the North. After struggling to survive it reached a golden age, becoming for two centuries the greatest power in Europe and perhaps the world. Even as it declined in power it blossomed into a culture of
untold beauty, unparalleled in art, music, literature, fashion, cuisine, and all of the beautiful arts.
Today, France is the most visited country in the world, with 87 million tourists in 2017; that’s 20 million more tourists than there are French citizens. The French playwright Henri de Bornier once said, “Every man has two countries – his own and France.” Given the fascination the world has with France, there is certainly some truth to that, and I’m guessing that’s what brought you here.
So, we’ve talked about me, how a life of wandering from one thing to the next led me to make this podcast, and we’ve talked about you and how, for whatever reason, you’ve wandered into my home, pulled up a chair by the fire and let me tell you a tale. So let’s talk about the podcast. What makes this podcast so special? Well, from what I can tell, this will be the only podcast in English that tries to cover French history from one million BCE to present. I’ve seen a few podcasts on French culture, cuisine and the language, but very few on French history and none with this grand a scope. There are long-standing podcasts that cover other countries, such Britain, the Roman Empire, Ireland and China. This is the first that aims to cover all of French history. Another thing that makes this podcast special is that I am a professional historian. As a frequent podcast junkie myself, I have noticed that history podcasts are usually done by history enthusiasts. If actual historians do a podcast it’s usually just a single lecture or short series of lectures commissioned by the BBC or some historical agency. There is a clear gap between historians and an audience that is hungry for knowledge, one that is currently being filled by
non-historians, some amazingly-well, others…well, let’s just say not. I want to break down this barrier between the ivory tower of academia and the greater public. If there’s one thing the age of podcasting how shown is that the “masses” are much smarter than a lot of snide elites thought they were, and there are millions of people who listen to podcasts on philosophy, astrophysics and, who knows, maybe even history, as long as the story is interesting. As a budding history professor I want to make history fun again. Along the way, I have invited a half dozen of my
colleagues, each experts in their own fields, to work with me on this project, covering all of the most fascinating aspects of French history that are beyond my own specialty.
Which brings me to the project itself. This isn’t just a podcast, or an adventure, but a project. If you go to The French History Podcast website, or the French history podcast pages on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, I am literally going to post content every single day about French history, culture, art, fries, you name it. I am committed to continually posting original content and linking sometimes obscure art pieces, music and other goodies every day, while putting out a new, roughly 30 minute episode of this podcast every single week until we hit the present day, whenever that may be. Finally, if you would like to support this podcast there is a donation button at the French History Podcast.com, or even better if you would like to become a patron you can follow the link to my patreon page. For those of you who have never used Patreon.com, Patreon is a website where you can set up automated donations to a content producer. Let’s say you signed up and set up an account pledging $1 per episode. The good folks at Patreon would check to see when my next episode comes out and only charge you if I deliver, which gives me a pretty great incentive to deliver regular content. I have overflowing passion for this project and
can’t wait to produce more episodes and if you’d like to help make that a reality please consider becoming a patron or donating.
So now we know a little about each other, and what we’re doing, but there’s still one last thing we need to talk about in this episode. If this is a French history podcast, then what are we going to talk about? The easy answer would be France…but what exactly is France? The country that we know of as France didn’t come about until the 5th century under the early Franks or the 10th century under the Capetians. What about the countries that existed before France? Does the northwestern Roman Empire count as France? Does pre-Roman Gaul count as France? Do the early Celtic tribes count as France? Do the pre-Celtic cultures and Stone Age peoples count as French? In my view the legacy of all these people’s affects French history, with many artistic
styles, linguistic forms, cuisine, religious ideas and more interwoven into modern France. While pre-Frankish peoples might not have been ‘French’ they are certainly a part of French history and will be covered.
But, What about non-French peoples that have interacted with France? What about Jews in France? What about the Roma people, who are known in America as gypsies? What about Germans in eastern France? The easy answer would be to say ‘yes,’ but French history shows that non-ethnic French living in France have had a strained, sometimes bizarre relationship with France. To better explain the problem of labelling minority groups in France as ‘French’ let me bring up three separate examples: Bretons, Africans and Algerians.
The Bretons are an ethno-linguistic group of people descended from the Celts living in the northwestern peninsula of France known as Brittany. While the majority speak French and have been a part of France for centuries they have their own culture, and native language. Many Bretons view themselves as Bretons first and ‘French’ second, and seek cultural and political autonomy from France. Depending on the government, the French state has either allowed Bretons to exercise their uniqueness or tried to impose French culture on them. But many Bretons view their French identity as secondary, or at least one of many.
In contrast are the African colonial subjects. During the 19th and 20th centuries black Africans were given French nationality but not citizenship, meaning that the French state had the power to treat Africans as legal inferiors in their own country. During the 1920s when many blacks immigrated to France as part of the post-WWI reconstruction they sought French citizenship and by all accounts tried to be French, but racist policies kept them from acquiring citizenship. So, whereas Bretons have historically said “we’re not French,” while the French government replied, “yes you are,” many black Africans have said, “we are French,” only for
France to reply, “no you are not.”
And all this doesn’t even begin to approach the quagmire that is Algeria. After WWII much of the French Empire was devolving into independent countries, but France could not let go of Algeria. In fact, Algeria was legally considered to be part of France during the Fourth Republic. Not a colony of France, or a territory, Algeria was legally just as much of France as Paris was. Yet, even while France claimed Algeria was just another region of France they refused to allow the indigenous Algerians French citizenship or identity. The government claimed that the land
Algerians and their ancestors lived on for thousands of years, was actually as French as a baguette, while the people who lived there were incapable of becoming French. Which raises an interesting question: how can a place be France if all the people there aren’t French?
These complex dilemmas regarding who is French have been essential to French history, as Bretons, ethnic and religious Jews, Germans, Roma, Muslims, Africans, Vietnamese, Arabs and others have fought for or against the label ‘French.’ But, because this is an ambitious podcast and I am an ambitious man, I will detail all of these groups as their stories are interwoven with France. Whether or not these groups are ‘French’ they all played a part in the creation of France.
So, this podcast will cover all peoples who have lived in the country of France, but that leads us to another question: what is France? The simplest answer is that France is that hexagon-shaped country in Western Europe. Yet, France’s boundaries have extended far beyond that. Is Belgium France? Is Western Germany France? What about Haiti? What about Pondicherry in India, can that be considered ‘France’ at least when it was part of the First French Empire? What about Haiti? What about Quebec, which still speaks a French dialect today? Or Louisiana? What about French West Africa? What about Lebanon and Jordan, which were part of the Second French Empire? What counts as France? Well…like I said…I’m an ambitious man, and thankfully I know some scholars who are experts in most of those areas. This podcast will focus on the area of land that is analogous to what we call ‘France’ today, but as France expands and contracts we will examine France’s influence on foreign territories and their reciprocal influence on France.
Another question we need to ask is: what about French culture outside the borders of France? What about the French language, and its use among scholars and the educated across Europe in the 17th century? What about the influence of French art abroad? What about French philosophy and its influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States and the Eastern European Revolutionaries of 1848? To all that I say, bring it on. As long as there’s an interesting story to tell, then tell it we shall.
Finally, what about the French land itself? To that I say, yes. One of the most exciting new fields of history is environmental history. For the first time, science allows historians to recreate the past, going back millions of years. And that is exactly where we’re going to start our grand journey in the next episode. In our next episode I’m going to take you back in time, millions of years, when France was a snow-covered tundra, colder than modern-day Siberia, with a land mass connected with the British Isles. We’ll uncover long-extinct species. When the glaciers finally melt we’ll see early humans venture across the land. In prophetic fashion, these Stone
Age ancestors of ours will leave behind the earliest known figure paintings in in the Chauvet Caves, around 30,000 BCE. Even 32,000 years ago France was a land of breathtaking art. Thus begins our journey across time.