In 1873, the heroine of the Paris Commune Louise Michel (1830–1905) was deported to the French colony of New Caledonia. There, she met the leaders of the 1870–1871 revolt against French rule in Algeria, who had been exiled to New Caledonia as well. Michel became a teacher of the indigenous Kanak people and, some years later (1878), she supported a rebellion by the Kanaks. This is just one example of the entangled histories presented in this monumental study by Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, not only of metropolitan France, but also of its colonies. She begins her story in 1685, a “terrible year”, well-known because of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which, until then, had protected Protestants, and much less well-known, however, because of the Code Noir, which regulated the slave regime in the French colonies.
The book was originally conceived as a French counterpart to Howard Zinn’s bestseller A People’s History of the United States (1980), but in my view Zancarini manages to improve the concept of “people’s history” in several ways. Firstly, by offering a more precise conceptual approach to what constitutes “the people”; secondly, by systematically including the people from “overseas” French territories; and, thirdly, by a special focus on women. Women figure on almost every page of the book – unsurprisingly perhaps for an author who had earlier published a book on the history of women in France and is a cofounder of a French journal on women’s history.Footnote 1 Zancarini stresses the important and independent role of women in social movements, and highlights individual spokeswomen and struggles for women’s rights.
To define “the people”, she refers to the Gramscian idea of “subaltern classes”, to the “subaltern studies” initiated by Indian historians, and to the “history from below” as practised by E.P. Thompson.Footnote 2 Gramsci opposed the “subaltern classes” to “dominant groups” in politics and civil society,Footnote 3 and in Indian “subaltern studies” the “people” and “subaltern classes” were used synonymously, to be differentiated from “all those described as the elite”.Footnote 4 As a class analysis this is not very precise; therefore, Gramsci deemed it necessary to study “the objective formation of the subaltern social groups, by the developments and transformations occurring in the sphere of economic production; their quantitative diffusion and their origins in pre-existing social groups […]”.Footnote 5 This is not, however, how Zancarini proceeds. A class analysis, as required by Gramsci, is absent. For Zancarini, “the subaltern” and, consequently, “the people” are defined by their capacity to resist social and political domination. It allows her to include very different social groups and categories of people in her stories and to concentrate on oppositional social and political movements of various kinds, starting with the Protestants after 1685, who are obviously not a “class”.
Political resistance is present from the start in chapters titled “Les subalterns face à l’autorité royale (1685–1789)” and “Le peuple politique entre revolutions et restaurations (1789–1830)”. The book is organized around the great political upheavals in French history, but the story is told from a social perspective and mixed with histories of slaves and colonized peoples, workers, and peasants, with a wealth of illustrative testimonies by those involved. Throughout the book, some 200 pages are devoted to social movements and developments in “overseas” France in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slavery, slave rebellions, and marronage in the French Antillean islands, Guyana, and Martinique figure in these pages, as do the bloody conquest of Algeria in the 1830s and 1840s, the revolts of indigenous people there and in other French African and Asian colonies in the nineteenth century, and the struggle for national liberation in the twentieth century. “Overseas” histories are interwoven with those of “the people” in metropolitan France, and this works very well: now we can see that the defining moments in the history of the French (metropolitan) “subaltern classes” we are familiar with – the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Paris Commune, the Popular Front, and the Liberation, May 1968 – were all accompanied by rebellions and movements in France’s colonies.
Using a variety of sources and detailed information at both an individual and a collective level, Zancarini succeeds in writing a history of the agency of the “subaltern classes” in the broadest sense “from below”. Her approach is predetermined, however, by the example set by Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and by a political interpretation of Gramsci’s concept of “subaltern classes”, summarized in the binary opposition of “dominance” and “resistance”.Footnote 6 Zancarini is well aware that “one does not strike all the time, demonstrate all the time, or revolt all the time”. She asserts that she tried to show the continuity of the daily life of the people, but also admits that she is not certain “if she succeeded in doing so in every chapter”.Footnote 7 Indeed, a “people’s history” that would address daily life in social relations at work, earning a living, family life, social and geographical mobility, and the life course would have resulted in a more complete, but also a completely different book.