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by Dominique BLANC

Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
LISST - Centre d’Anthropologie Sociale - Toulouse


Chapter: "Resources for Constructing Identities and their Political Usages", in Constructing Identity in Past and Present Societies: The Role of Archeology, Ethnology and History, Cambridge University Press, [Forthcoming]. Translated by Patricia Dumas [Version française: [lien] ]

Is it accurate to discuss ‘regional nationalisms,’ particularly in Western Europe? Is it not precisely in this part of the world that the nation-state model came into being? How is the affirmation of ‘regional identities‘ from the 20th century through today related to the concept of nationalism invented in the 19th century? Any regional movement, whatever the degree of its opposition to the existing unity of the state and nation, is a challenge to the legitimacy of the latter and therefore to the national history of which the nation-state is meant to be the outcome. To exist, the regional movement must therefore claim a relationship with another history, another national genealogy.

All political regionalisms can potentially be seen as expressions of nationalism that mirror the nationalism created by the very Nation-States they are challenging. Many researchers find it difficult to acknowledge this, for two reasons. First, regional nationalisms throughout the 20th century evolved in many different ways. Some saw their aspirations materialize in the creation of greatly autonomous political and territorial bodies, headed by local governments wielding significant powers. They saw regional languages that had been banned or scorned acquire the status of a national language, and so on. This is the case, for example, in the Basque Country (Euzkadi) and Catalonia (Catalunya) within the Spanish state. Conversely, some regional movements that began roughly contemporaneously became almost completely ‘diluted’ in the kind of cultural action capable of arousing adhesion among the population in the given region. This is the case with the Occitan movement in Southern France. Occitanian institutions exist only in support of language training (on a voluntary basis) and cultural activities (essentially associative).

The second reason for a general lack of acknowledgment that all political regionalisms are expressions of regional nationalism stems from the fact that, as observers, many of us unconsciously establish a system of values in which nationalism is pushed toward a negative pole and the demand for a simple ‘cultural identity’ – to which many European regional movements resigned themselves in the end – is pushed toward a positive pole. There is no lack of justification for the latter attitude: xenophobia, ‘cultural fundamentalism,’ even the racism that nationalism has often demonstrated is very much part of the rejection of the idea of regional nationalism. This is particularly the case given that many ‘modern’ political regionalisms in Western Europe, following the Second World War and the cruel experience of Nazism and fascism, sought to be resolutely progressive and condemned nationalism’s abuses.

The issue here is not to suspect regionalists of hiding the ‘real nature’ of their movements, nor to deny the very real differences that determine fundamental choices, particularly in the field of political alliances. My intention is to demonstrate through a few examples that, when it comes to asserting and claiming a collective identity fixed in time, linked to both a territory and characteristics that are peculiar to the population bearing this identity, the resources that can be mobilized are in fact finite. Political regionalism and nationalism have to draw from the same repertoire. From the perspective of the mobilized identity resources, the difference between them then appears quite small.

The first action an emerging regional movement takes will usually consist of challenging the artificial unity of the nation-state. This is done by asserting the existence of large geographical and cultural bodies whose diversity, and even incompatibility, seem to have been hidden in order to better ensure the domination of one group over another. Its most visible manifestation resides in the promotion of massive opposition, sometimes East-West, more often North-South. This was the case with Andalusian regionalism in Spain at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Occitan regionalism in France in the middle of the 19th century and again since the 1960s. Both emerging initially from a literary ‘renaissance’, these movements started by asserting that their main concern was not separatism but rather cultural ‘revival’ of the region involved and, through it, the revival of the entire nation (Spain and France) that would no longer be based on a historical misunderstanding.

Yet in both cases, the North-South opposition, at first geo-cultural, soon became more radical. Arguments concerning the economic exploitation of the South by the North were sporadically put forward by the Andalusian movement, and would become the central element of the modern Occitan movement. Relying mainly on the analyses by Robert Lafont (1967 and 1971) – the only Occitan to have developed a comprehensive doctrine – the entire movement developed a rationale based on the theme of ‘internal colonialism’ at a time when the ‘external’ colonialism of the French state was coming to an end with the independence of African nations. The term had been used in some Spanish regionalist texts at the end of the 19th century (this time in reference to the ‘Cuban War’ and the end of Spanish colonialism in Latin America). The earlier cultural rationale of these movements was by no means minimized, but quite the opposite. From the reversal of the stigma imposed on the Southern population by the ‘North’ to the assertion of radical ethnic differences, the two regionalisms considered here, though with different methods and in different ideological contexts, both resorted to identity resources typically associated with nationalism (Anderson 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Thiesse 1999).

Two Ethnic Types? Two National Types?

At the end of the 19th century when Andalusianism began, the racial ideology then current in Spain presented the Andalusian population as ‘impure,’ given successive invasions by North African populations and their presence on Andalusian soil for several centuries. To counter this ‘African stigma,’ the regionalist movement – through the actions of its main ideologue, the first Blas Infante – endeavoured to prove that more ancient links existed with Asian civilizations, creating a strong likelihood Andalusians were of Aryan origin. As new archeological discoveries were made, regionalists became more interested in promoting visions of a completely independent Andalusian civilization that owed nothing to Africa, Asia or Europe. This strategy espoused the idea that, since time immemorial, Andalusian soil had been populated by ‘indigenous races’ of which only traces had been found. Contrary to the previous stigmatization of the alleged weakness of a ‘mixed’ race, Blas Infante assumed the existence of a very ancient population, highly civilized, that would have put its seal on even the Greek and Phoenician cultures, and not the other way around.

Through a reversal that is also typical of nationalism, populations that had formerly been perceived as marginalized, even ‘impure,’ were pushed up alongside the first occupants and the original superior races of Spain. Nevertheless, the presence of Muslims (the ‘occupiers’ according to Spanish national ideology) in Andalusia was a long-standing historical fact. Confronted with this indisputable reality, Blas Infante’s Andalusianism evolved by going through what seems to be the full range of possible modalities of any relation to the Other. First, he strove to demonstrate that in ‘the alluvium of Semitic blood’ flowing from the Muslim presence, a distinction had to be made between Arab blood, Berber blood and Moor blood, the latter of which belonged to the emblematic figure of the ‘despised’ race for which both Andalusian and the Spanish felt only ‘loathing.’ From this point, the Andalusian ‘theory’ became lost in obscure twists and turns filled with arguments, often contradictory, demonstrating that the Andalusian spirit resided in its capacity to always distinguish between the various ‘alluviums’ and to “control Arab fanaticism in order to transform the Arabo-Muslim civilization into a model of tolerance” (Infante 1992, 66).

The biological (‘blood’) factor was later replaced by an ‘ethnic identity’ that stressed the primacy of the psychological and cultural characteristics that shaped ‘el genio andaluz’ [the Andalusian spirit]. Since it was incompatible with Germanism, this ethnic identity favoured connections with the Arabs over the Visigoths, therefore contributing to the transformation of the Islam of al-Andalus, the medieval Andalusia, into an example of tolerance. The logical result of this journey analyzed in depth by Stallaert (1998) was a total reversal of the initial values. Despite his initial eagerness to reaffirm the existence of a monolithic Spanish state with regional variants but not different ‘nationalities’, Blas Infante nonetheless pursued the rehabilitation of the stigmatized populations that were the victims of Castilian intolerance. His proclaimed regionalism ended up recasting the Reconquest as a simple conquest of the indigenous Andalusian population comprised essentially of Moriscos (Moors converted to Christianity), whose ethnic prototype endures among the contemporary farm labourers exploited by the latifundistas (a process which also explains the evolution of regionalism toward socialism).

The loop is therefore completed and the stigma fully reversed: this ‘mixture of Arabs and gypsies,’ this exotic ‘Flamenco’ population was really a population of ‘felah-mengu,’ of Moorish peasants expelled from their land. Shot by the fascists in 1936, the spiritual father of Andalusian regionalism had begun learning Arabic and, without converting to it, never missed an opportunity to praise the values of Islam. When Franco died in 1975, the Alliance of Andalusian Socialists explicitly used Blas Infante’s historical Andalusianism to develop an Autonomous Status project (following one that was initially proposed to the Republic in 1933). Once regional autonomy was achieved, thanks to a 1978 law, the movement slowly abandoned its socialist references while ‘forgetting’ its nationalist connotations, and became the Partido Andalucista, a party dedicated to the defence of regional interests and one that is well established in today’s political landscape. At the same time, a more marginal Islamic current continued, reviving Blas Infante’s most radical nationalist themes, recruiting Christians who had converted to Islam, and arguing for the independence of a new al-Andalus. Infante, for his part, had long imagined a Free Andalusian Republic within the Spanish state. In contrast, in its current form Andalusianism is inherited from the reconstitution of a regional past through the search for a singularity (sometimes ‘ethnic,’ sometimes ‘national,’ sometimes both) that now nourishes the assertion of an Andalusian ‘cultural identity’ rather than separatist claims.

North-south opposition is also at the root of the Occitan protests. It was not yet called that when a poets’ movement, the FĂ©librige, gathered around FrĂ©dĂ©ric Mistral, a charismatic figure who won a 1904 Nobel Prize in Literature for his works in Provençal. The movement undertook to defend a language that the French state was eliminating from every sector of public life. The movement, at first post-romantic, soon claimed to represent the ‘civilization of the South,’ inherited from the Middle Ages, against the ‘barbarism of the North.’ At one point, members of the FĂ©librige imagined a ‘FĂ©dĂ©ration des nations latines’ [Federation of Latin Nations] that would include Catalonia and Romania. These early members belonged to a literary association, however, and not a political movement, so they soon returned to the defence of their language, local folklore, and folk traditions. A less conservative group of writers then tried to define, in more radical terms, a body that progressively came to be thought of no longer simply as the ‘South’ or ‘Midi’, but as a country: Occitania. Building on the apparent infinite diversity of local dialects, this group assumed a ‘national’ unity of the language (mirroring French national unity) in a territory that was not precisely defined, except by the language itself. History, both that of the resistances, alliances and conquests and that of a literature that was at its zenith in the Middle Ages with the poetry of the troubadours, was then called upon to establish the legitimacy of this body.

Occitanism, despite its essentially ‘cultural’ features, did not hesitate to use the same identity resources as classic nationalism. I have already noted that Lafont’s notion of ‘internal colonialism’ (Lafont 1967 and 1971) is used to describe a situation of economic inequality in terms of domination and exploitation by a power external to the ‘under-developed’ region concerned. It involves a break with the ‘colonial nation.’ When he abandons the field of contemporary economics to address the past and attempts to reconstruct another identity genealogy, different from the one established by the nation-state, Lafont can only think in terms of ‘ethnic’ and/or ‘national’ differences. >From ‘deux France’ [two Frances], he moves to ‘France and Occitania’, and then to ‘Deux types nationaux’ [two national types], which are the titles of three chapters of his volume Sur la France (Lafont 1968). This is done, of course, to establish a distinction between a ‘primary’ nation that is shaped throughout history on an ‘ethnic’ basis, and a ‘secondary’ one, the nation of France, which is the result of a citizens’ contract. Lafont then immediately denounces the degeneration of the secondary French nation, whose aim seems to be denial of the diversity of the ‘ethnic’ nations within a single state imposed by force. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent Lafont from ultimately resorting to ‘two ethnic types,’ that of the North and South, from which is drawn the title of his contribution to the collective book entitled Le Sud et le Nord. Dialectique de la France (Lafont et al. 1971b). An obvious concern with avoiding the classic nationalist vocabulary and the reaffirmation (and resulting political impact) of a non-separatist regionalism cannot hide the fact that the ‘primary’ nation and the ‘secondary’ nation call upon the same identity resources.

A recurring issue is that of claiming historical precedence:
“The examination of the evolution that resulted in the negation of the feudal status and the creation of modern politics makes it possible to know if, in the 12th century, Occitania was a nation or simply an ethnic group incapable of forming a nation. According to our criteria, Occitania is an accelerated nation (my emphasis); it made considerable strides in its national construction over Italy, France and Spain ” (Lafont 1968, 92).

The theme of the ‘prevented’ nation (by the Crusade by the North against the South), the ‘dormant’ nation (reduced to the status of vassal; alienated by provincialism) dear to all nationalisms, can therefore be developed to justify the claim for a unity that apparently cannot be found today (among the various regional dialects; among the diverging destinies of the various ‘Occitan speaking’ provinces of the Ancien RĂ©gime), and despite the obvious non-existence of a common consciousness. Any recourse to a racial or biological reference is firmly ruled out; an ‘ethnic group’ from which a nation can emerge when it becomes self-aware is always created at the outset by a mixture of populations that end up unifying a language event that abolishes racial diversity. Then comes the civilization event that opposes the ethnic group to its neighbours (this is the birth of ‘nationality’) through a phenomenon of superior consciousness (the appearance of a regionalist elite) that reveals the nation to itself and guides its own history to its final outcome (Lafont 1968, 50).

The link between two events – regional economic inequalities interpreted in terms of internal colonialism on the one hand, and cultural inequalities leading to the deliberate extinction of the regional language on the other – is not necessarily established by the populations concerned. The regional bourgeoisie has always made its economic choices within a French framework, and ‘the people’ often scorn their own language when it has been reduced to the level of a ‘patois’ (rough dialect). Instead, the link between internal colonialism and language is established by a regionalist elite, the only ones to have become aware of the alienation. These economic and cultural phenomena can only be linked if we assume that there is a broken national destiny; that the regional bourgeoisie is in fact an alienated indigenous bourgeoisie and the people, forced to become French, are not yet aware of their ethnic unity, shaped over a long history through a common language and therefore a common culture. Two kinds of actions will thus coexist in a problematic way as regionalism gains strength. On the one hand, there will be an economic and institutional regionalism that will meet the decentralizing and self-management aspirations of part of the French left, and on the other hand there will be demands relating to the Occitan language and culture that form part of the chorus of ‘cultural identities’ in France. The ‘Occitanist’ discourse accompanying these two kinds of action can only provide them with coherence if, to repeat, it draws from the national ideology repertoire it is otherwise constantly denying.

The invention of Padania

The ascendancy of national ideology and the existence of a closed repertoire of identity resources from which various regionalist movements can draw is demonstrated by the absurdity of the recent creation of ‘Padania’ by the Northern League (Lega Nord) in Italy. Nobody in this country had ever defined themselves as ‘Padanian’ before this political party, was created to defend the specific interests of the northern regions (around the Po valley: the valle padana). The party declared that these regions formed a real national entity, which the inhabitants were either unaware of, or had lost as the region’s identity was rendered ‘dormant’ by ‘Italian colonialism’. Contrary to the Andalusian and Occitan regionalist movements (and situated at the other end of the political spectrum, near the far right), the tactics used here consist of denouncing the stranglehold the underdeveloped South – using the largesse of a welfare state to its advantage – has on the industrial North, curbing that region’s dynamism. Long negatively compared to the Romans and their sophisticated civilization, the northern ‘Barbarians’ began asserting the simplicity, toughness, dedication to work and generosity of the men from the ‘Deep North,’ in opposition to what they perceived as decadence rather than sophistication. An appeal to history soon followed. The Italian nation emphasizes descent from Ancient Romans, so Padania claims descent from the Celts. As the Italian culture stems from the Renaissance, the Padanian culture is the heir to the ‘federalist’ society and municipal freedoms of the Middle Ages. As one of the historians belonging to this movement wrote: “There is a long and strong red line (of blood and passion) linking the ancient Celtic tribes to the medieval cities, to insurgent populations and to all those who today fight for the freedom of the Padanian communities” (quoted in Avanza 2003, 97).

This identity is in reality a complete fabrication, and (contrary to the other regionalisms mentioned) cannot draw upon any previous movements, even very embryonic ones. The Padaian identity is presented through a set of symbolic events aimed at providing it with an existence in the eyes of a wide audience, based largely on media transmissions. In addition to a dedicated newspaper and a website, the Lombard and Celt resistance against the occupying Romans is presented whenever possible through costumed battle scenes and historical pageants. The party even invented a spectacular ritual that is meant to commemorate the loyalty oath the communes made to the Lombard League in 1167. Thousands of people cheer senior officials and elected representatives during a meeting in a ‘sacred field’ near the monastery of Pontida in an event widely covered by the media. Even the (re)discovery of the ‘Padanian language’ is part of this ‘renaissance,’ accompanying an attempt to codify the various dialects spoken in the northern regions.

In this case, the ‘invention of tradition’ has been largely accepted as is. There no longer seems to be a need to assert that the reconstructed historical past is based on scientific evidence similar to that used by academic historians. Populism is assumed: anyone, with a bit of enthusiasm and lots of devotion, can become the historian of his or her own long-buried past. The title of the book by the main historian of Padania is a proper reflection of the ambiguity of this invention that also asserts itself as a renaissance: L’invention de la Padanie. La renaissance de la communautĂ© la plus ancienne d’Europe [The Invention of Padania. The Renaissance of the Oldest Community in Europe] (Oneto 1997). This surprising situation is possible – as Martina Avanza [need a reference?] demonstrates so well – only because the history of Italian unity is the subject of both intellectual and political debate. Marxist historiography has long undertaken the ‘deconstruction’ of the Italian Unification process that led to the existence of an abortive nation-state. Historians from every school of thought followed suit, highlighting the failed nationalization process following Unification, the insufficient legitimacy of the state, the persistence of particularisms, and the lack of integration of the masses into the nation.

Is it not a fact that one of these historians called his book The Invention of a Unified Italy [need a reference]? In that case, why is it any different to also ‘invent’ Padania? The key difference is that a highly nuanced internal academic debate among historians was shifted in the Padanian case to the public arena, where there was no longer any control over information quality through peer review or similar processes. What followed was an indiscriminate gathering of references used to feed completely disparate arguments. The Lega Nord ideologues feel free to successively or concurrently borrow from a number of highly disparate traditions: ultra-Catholicism (despite the secularity of the first members of the League) that accuses the Fathers of the Nation of having sought to destroy the people’s religion; the legitimism of the Bourbons (even though they were from the ‘South’) who were victims of the ‘imperialism’ of the House of Savoie called upon to reign over Italy; and finally an ‘autonomous/federalist’ tradition. “Contrary to professional historians, these authors openly admit the political nature of their production: they create a history that is totally focused on the present and its issues, and adopt a resolutely controversial tone to do so ” (Avanza 1983, 98).

The League considers this to be more honest than the ‘so-called objectivity’ that it presents as the purview of academics. Moving from independentist separatism to a demand for simple regional autonomy – a change that made it possible for the League to become part of the right wing government of Italy – the Lega Nord nevertheless continues to endow the ‘Padanian nation’ with all the qualities it denies to others who seemingly threaten its identity: the terroni (‘clod-hoppers’) from the South and, increasingly, the immigrants now pouring in en masse in what has been labelled the ‘new invasion’. The spirit of the anti-Muslim crusade has been recaptured by the League, which denounces “the same intolerant, arrogant and bloodthirsty culture that wants to destroy the European Christian civilization” (Oneto, quoted by Avanza 1983, 95).

It is undeniable that there is a real political gap between the demagoguery of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord and the socialist-leaning regionalism of most of the French and Spanish regional nationalisms. Nevertheless, it is also clear that they share a similar identity reference repertoire from which their ideologues draw periodically, even if only to bestow these common themes with divergent meanings. Language, soil, and blood, for example, form an inescapable triptych. The regional nationalist discourse, like any nationalist discourse, is based primarily on either language, soil (the territory), or blood (the racial or biological specificity), but it seems unavoidable for any discourse at some point to identify itself with regard to all of these mandatory resources. For example, groups that do not have their own language will sooner or later refer to a ‘lost language,’ to the possible unity of a set of linguistically different dialects, or even to a unique way of speaking (this is the case with Andalusian, which the Partido Andalucista wanted recognized as ‘el habla peculiar’ of the region in the Statute of Autonomy).

References to ‘blood’ are the most problematic aspect of this triptych today, often arousing a sincere rejection, but such references are almost always accompanied by the development of an alternative resource. Basque national-regionalism, for example, was at first openly racist – the pure blood of the Basques was compared to the impure blood of the Spanish that has been ‘contaminated’ by Jews and Moors – but at the beginning of the 20th century the movement required ‘only’ that its militants produce a baptismal certificate including a sufficient number of ancestors with a Basque name. The present radical nationalism, which calls itself ‘revolutionary,’ transposes this ideology of ‘purity’ within the movement itself and draws a boundary between the ‘real’ Basques and ‘others,’ some of whom were physically eliminated by ETA as traitors to their country.
Most democratic movements using the term ‘ethnic group’ and the search for ‘ethnicity’ (Simon 1999) attempt to avoid biologism by specifying a set of features that refer to culturalist notions of ‘basic personality,’ or simply to a re-examined ethnic characterology, that is to say to a form of essentialism.

It is by resorting to history, or rather to a permanent reference to the past combining memory and history, that it is possible to establish the foundations of any given claim, even one as extreme but revealing as the invention of Padania. Autochtony, anteriority, cultural superiority for want of racial or ‘ethnic’ superiority – nothing is possible outside the long term. The invention of Padania also reminds us of the direct link between the actual construction (more or less successful) of the modern nation-states, the emergence of regional nationalisms, and their diverse destinies in different countries. A brief comparison of France and Spain provides a useful illustration of this perspective.

Construction and Deconstruction of the Nation-States

In France, the centralizing achievements of the revolutionary state were based on a radical language policy, a systematic mixing of young people through conscription, and the formation of a state-controlled educational system. Soon, the secular and mandatory school saw as its duty the prohibition of local languages, while disseminating a ‘History of France’ that had been reshaped within the framework of the Republic and a nation-state set in the hexagon of its ‘natural boundaries.’ All this is well known; the process of homogenizing French populations went very far and centralism was the subject of a very wide consensus at the political level and met with only minor resistance at the local level. Within the logic of the alternative Old Regime/Republic, homogenization and centralism became associated with the ideas of progress and democracy, while themes relating to roots became the purview of conservative political groups.

Heterogeneous peripheral communities, which had long remained on the fringes of the overall nation, also became integrated by the end of the 19th century. Among them were the agro-pastoral communities of mountain dwellers living in the Pyrenees (Sahlins 1989). How can we explain how such marginal populations with their own languages (these groups had overwhelmingly ignored French up until the 1870s), geographic conditions, and lifestyles (linked to mountain economics outside the commercial circuits) were able to integrate so smoothly? First, it is important take into account the ‘Republic in the village’ phenomenon, common throughout France but most intense in the South. The implementation of effective municipal power, including an electoral system open to debate and political fights, probably contributed early on to bringing the commune – the government level closest to local inhabitants – the most important level of power, arousing strong feelings of belonging. Familiar struggles between local powers (the village bourgeois against the lords, non-resident owners, or the state master of the forests) continued through ‘municipal’ debate. For a long time, the Department remained a distant administrative reality, while the ‘region,’ not formally defined anywhere, seemed completely unreal. Thus the nation-state penetrated the entire, essentially rural, social fabric from the bottom, through ‘the village’. From 1850 to 1914, everything was open to debate, with political confrontations articulating local and national decisions. Building a school, repairing a church roof, moving the cemetery, replacing a religious teacher without a diploma with a secular teacher who studied at the École normale – everything was an opportunity for discussions, conflicts, and endless trials that made the village look very much like a small Republic. Local councils were diminutive versions of ‘the’ Republic in which the nation-state was embodied, sometimes united against the outsiders, sometimes internally divided.

The second equally important key to this seeming cultural integration lies in the nature of the national institutions installed ‘in the village’, and in the characteristics of their representative officials. A primary example is the Republican school, which is both secular and compulsory. Its results – the spread of the French language, the overall decline of regional languages, the ‘fading’ of local cultures – has led to its being charged with a number of controversial wrongs. This school system is now often cited as the main instrument for forced integration and the denial of local distinctiveness. A prime example of this is schools’ systematic dismissal of local languages (the inner courts of many schools bore the slogan: “Spitting and speaking a dialect are prohibited”). Historical reality is more complex, however. First, the school system was introduced earlier than is generally recognized. Furthermore, though it was long reserved for the sons of landowners under the Old Regime, this system played a major role in the emergence of a municipal power ahead of its time: the AssemblĂ©e gĂ©nĂ©rale des habitants [General Assembly of inhabitants], chaired by the Premier Consul [First Consul]. This authority, quite common in the South throughout the 18th century, used the skills of the schoolmaster in the small villages to communicate in French with the provincial administration, keep the archives in order, speed up trials and, last but not least, to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to the few children who would need these skills.

The ‘missionary’ model of school is in fact a propaganda model – initially of the Church against the Protestant heresy, then of the state against ‘obscurantism’ and ‘ignorance’ – adopted by protest movements in the second part of the 20th century to and used denounce the ‘cultural genocide’ perpetrated by the national state. Despite its calls to militant action, this model neglected a fundamental point: the school was not a ‘foreign body’ imposed from the outside that settled in the heart of the communes in the 19th century. The school was also a result of local social demands, and the schoolmaster was not necessarily the bearer of a ‘foreign culture.’ The French recruitment system, at first strictly local and later Department-wide (after the establishment of the Écoles normales), placed teachers who were ‘born among the people’ and were often from neighbouring villages. Teachers shared the language and many of the values of their students’ families. They adhered to a French national identity strongly rooted in them through their training in the Republic’s Écoles normales and their organization into a hierarchical body of state officials. At the same time, they also adhered to a local identity enforced by their prominent ‘municipal’ roles (they were often in charge of the administrative secretariat of the commune).

The situation in Spain differs in several important respects. As Antonio Elorza noted: “France and Spain were both ‘monarchies of aggregation’ under the Old Regime and, consequently, they had similar problems to solve. They had to achieve homogenization in the economic, legal, social and cultural realms in order to eliminate the pluralisms and differences inherited from the Old Regime, and allow the formation of the symbolic link connecting the citizen to the political system to which he or she belongs. The term summarizing this process is ‘integration’. It is not national ‘essences’ that create one or more nationalisms, but the course that the process of integration takes within modern day nation-states, either opening or closing the door to the centrifugal demands of regions with distinctive features ” (Elorza, 2001, 42).

In the Spanish case, assimilation was not a matter of a belated national development, but of a failed development throughout the 19th century. The Spanish state tried to impose the national language by eliminating minority languages and dialects, but, unlike France, few children in Spain went to school. At the beginning of the 20th century, illiteracy rates were very high in Spain and very low in France. It is thus not surprising that the use of Galician, Basque and Catalan remained very widespread among the lower classes.

The two countries’ militaries also differed in their success at assimilation. Military service became compulsory in France after the war against Prussia in 1870, but was restricted to the lower classes in Spain, where the wealthy retained the option of paying for a substitute. Therefore the Spanish army was not able to play the role of ‘agent of nationalization,’ but instead fuelled divisions within the nation. The War of Independence against the French during the Napoleonic era was certainly an auspicious time for patriotic cohesion, but the 19th century saw a succession of internal wars that tore apart a country whose citizens were constantly fighting one another. This was especially true during the two wars of succession, the Carlist civil wars. Added to this was the general disillusionment that followed the Cuban war, the ‘Disaster of ‘98’. The crisis, characteristic of a nation-state, provided “a real launching pad for peripheral nationalisms whose ideologies had been gestating prior to it.” (Elorza, 2001, 48).

These fundamental differences in the construction (or deconstruction) process of the nation-state does not mean that minority identities, regionalist movements, and ‘peripheral’ nationalisms could not exist in France, but it does mean that French political and administrative translation differed radically from what was possible or achieved elsewhere, such as in Spain. Regional Autonomies in Spain have been in existence since 1978. This has led to the recognition of ‘historical’ regionalisms built on ancient rights, ancient kingdoms, and on previous regionalist liberation attempts (Catalonia is a typical example). The Regional Autonomy status also provides rights to the other, more nebulous bodies it defines and therefore helps to create. Regional autonomy prompts these regions to build a stronger identity for themselves, setting the processes described above in motion. For example, to differentiate itself at all costs from its Catalonian neighbour, the Valencian Country strove to raise the Catalan spoken within its territory to the status of independent language (el valenciĂ ) (PĂ©rez de GuzmĂĄn 1997).

This discussion has shown that anthropologists and historians cannot simply ‘unveil’ an ‘invention’ of tradition by claiming to adhere to some radical constructivism, while neglecting the fact that the social construction of reality is a complex process relying on multiple active, extant realities. On one hand is the historical form adopted for the construction, complete or not, of each nation-state in which a type of regionalism appears. On the other hand lies a specific type of identity repertoire I call ‘ethno-nationalism’, historically dated, but for better or worse seemingly destined for a long future. Once this framework is defined, it remains necessary to analyze the social foundations of each of the movements in question. It is also essential to undertake basic research into the way populations in these regions integrate into their own identity repertoire the resources proposed by the regional nationalisms that claim to belong to them.


Albert, J.-P., and Blanc, D (2000) Identidades del Sur. La construcciĂłn de la identidad regional en el sur de Francia, in M.A. Roques (ed.) Nueva antropologĂ­a de las sociedades mediterrĂĄneas. Barcelona, Icaria. 37-54.

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