Non, the Gauls are the not real ancestors of the French

Nicolas Sarkozy reckons the real ancestors of France were the Gauls, but historians have lined up to put him in his place.

Non, the Gauls are the not real ancestors of the French
Photo: AFP

Immigrants granted citizenship in France must accept that their “ancestors are Gauls”, who inhabited the territory now known as France during the Iron Age and Roman period.

At least that’s what ex-president and possible future president Nicolas Sarkozy believes.

The man vying for France’s top job once again did not explain how exactly immigrants would be forced to accept their “Gaulois” ancestry. Possibly by swearing on a copy of an Asterix comic book?

But while his words were clearly part of his ongoing to campaign to convince voters, especially those on the far right, that he represents the real France, the comments prompted ire and ridicule among many.

Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian aristocrat, was dubbed Sarkozix, in reference to the Asterix comic books that feature the village of Gauls fighting against the Romans. 

Pictures were mocked up to transform the ex-president into a Gaul warrior and politicians happily jumped on the bandwagon.

“I also love Asterix but fortunately, France is a much broader concept than that particularly narrow vision,” said labour minister Myriam El-Khomri.

It was left to historians, politicians and newspaper editors to put Sarkozy right.

Laurent Joffrin, the editor of left wing Liberation newspaper said Sarkozy's comments were comic because: “Every serious historian knows that the Gauls are not 'our ancestors', but only our distant predecessors in the present territory of France”.

One of those serious historians Benjamin Stora said: “Yes the Gauls are ancestors, but they are not the only ancestors of the French.”

“The word Gaul is a Roman invention which was used to designate certain areas,” he said. “Republican historians have shaped the representation of the Gauls as those resisting an invader, and it has been magnified.

“So it’s a fabrication, but then again what isn’t?” the historian added.

Another historian Mathilde Larrére was furious and gave Sarkozy a history lesson in around 30 tweets.

“At the beginning Gaul was a Roman invention to designate a certain people who actually had little in common,” she told BFM TV.

“The Gauls did not exist as such by themselves. It was Caesar who called them that. It was a group of people who occasionally united, who would believe in the same gods, who had druids, but they didn’t represent a homogenous group,” she added.

Larrere added that the Germanic origins of the people of Alsace-Lorraine in the east, which was part of Germany from 1871 to the end of WW1, and the interbreeding during French colonization were just two reasons to complicate Sarkozy’s view of the past.

Another historian Dimitri Casali said the Gauls were the “base of the French population because there were around eight to nine million around the time of Vercingetorix”, the king and chieftain who united the Gauls in revolt against Roman forces.

Casali said it would be more accurate to talk of “Gallo-Romans” because there were “successive waves of invasions and migrations”.

France’s own minister of education Najat- Vallaud-Belkacem weighed into the row and suggested Sarkozy was in need of a history lesson.

She pointed out the reality of the origins of the French population today.

“Yes, among our ancestors there are the Gauls, but there are also Romans, Normans, Celts, Burgundians,” she said.

“And in case he had forgotten, with time France has annexed other territories. The Niçois have joined us, the Corsicans, those in Franche-Comté, Guadeloupe, Martinique and then there’s the Arabs, the Italians and the Spanish.

“That’s what France is.”

Then there’s the Bretons, who mostly heralded from Celts who migrated from Great Britain, the Normans who came from the Vikings and the indigenous Basques in the south west of France.

And the Franks, the Germanic tribes that conquered much of French territory and gave the country it's name. 

“And those from the Antilles and Guyana are French through ten generations but their ancestors are not really the Gauls,” tweeted historian and writer Claude Ribbe.

One historian Suzanne Citron was not surprised that Sarkozy might have uttered such a statement given that in one of the most important school history textbooks used in the past are the words: “In the past, our country was called Gaul and its inhabitants, the Gauls”.

Citron says the “fantastical” idea of a pure ethnic Gallic race being the founders of the true French is damaging as it “denies the racial and cultural diversity that constantly accompanied the historical creation of France.”

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.