Burgundian regionalism and French republican commercial culture at the 1937 Paris International Exposition.

Author:Whalen, Philip


This article discusses how early twentieth-century France developed rustic modernization projects anchored in traditional regional practices. This entailed overcoming political and cultural fears associated with regional allegiances as well as developing regional cultural agendas susceptible to economic exploitation. The case study of how Burgundians marketed artisan workmanship, gastronomical traditions, vernacular architecture, and folkloric traditions at the 1937 Paris International Exposition illustrates how a commercial paradigm of French national identity was rooted in provincial productivity.


Introduction: The Problem with Rural France

One must visit its provinces to truly understand France. Only there ... are the nation's particularities unveiled. --Stefan Zweig, Voyages [1931]

Moralists, pundits and scholars have anchored their interpretations of French history in the putative virtues and alleged deficiencies of France's agrarian traditions and agricultural structures (Duby and Wallon 1976; Pitte 1983; Agulhon 1988; Antoine 1999; Le Roy Ladurie 1974; Le Roy Ladurie 2001; Moriceau 2002). Herman Lebovics characterizes conventional discourses about the nature or identity of "true France" as inherently reactionary insofar as they generally employ "political-theological nonsense" to maintain "that there can be only one way to participate in the culture of a country and only one natural political organization that fits society" (1992, xiv and xiii). Stephane Gerson's argues that the concept of "local France" has "long evoked a story of neglect, coercion, nostalgia, and reaction" (2003, 539). Many still imagine rural France as the source of reactionary political and social agendas. The problem with such interpretations, anchored in depictions of the French Revolution's counter-revolutionary enemies to the Revolution Nationale's crypto-fascist supporters, is that they frequently either dismiss or undervalue the diversity and modernity of cultural formations originating in the French provinces.

This view has been challenged recently. Thiebaut Floryi characterizes early twentieth-century French regionalism as a "rich and multi-faceted ideology that seem[ed] to reconcile the most contradictory doctrines and still offered a certain unity of thought" (1992, 42). Patrick Young adds that "regionalism lent itself to a range of inflections, many informed by the desire to consciously avoid the charged polarities of French Politics" (2002, 171). Shanny Peer shows how folk representations of "rural France" were endorsed and exploited by France's leftist Popular Front government at the 1937 Paris International Exposition (1998). Supporting these interpretations, this article examines the Burgundian presence at the 1937 Paris International Exposition in order to better understand the nature and significance of regional contributions to the French modernization project during the Interwar years.

Consistent with interpretations that emphasize the importance of regional and rural agendas from France's Third Republic through Vichy's National Revolution and into the late twentieth century, my analysis of Burgundian regionalism examines how resuscitated or newly created "traditions" served to link regional interests to a French national political identity (Faure 1989). Although some scholars might argue that the resurgence of French regionalism "was only and gradually reintroduced under the condition that it became presentable in republican eyes" (den Boer, 47), I maintain that regionalism resulted from the regionalists' own ability to influence the terms and conditions under which regional cultural and economic practices were politically recognized, especially during the interwar years.

French Modernization and Burgundian Regionalism

The point is that politics is social, not textual, and if the text is made political, its politicization is effected at its point of entry into the social.... If the political potential of a text is to be mobilized, the text must reproduce among the discourses that comprise it a struggle equivalent to that experienced socially by its readers. --John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (1989, 168).

Eric Hobsbawm has described modern Europe as period of rapid change resulting in a search for "new social devices to ensure or express social cohesion and identity and to structure social relationships" (1983; 1990). This analysis has a particular salience for Interwar Burgundy. Interwar Burgundians consciously exploited folk images and rural idioms to articulate an idealized, mystifying, and reassuring regional model of French modernity (Poirrier 1995; Bazin 1996 and 1997; Whalen 1999; Laferte 2002; Whalen 2007b). This strategy of ideological implication (White, 1987) used rustic referents of a "collective dream-world" (Buck-Morse 1989, 71) or imagined community (Hobsbawm 1983; Anderson 1991; Jameson 1992; Moentmann 2003) to animate residual social values, palliate cultural anxieties, mobilize political interests, and market regional products into what became a dominant model for French commercial regionalism. Burgundians staged elaborately choreographed gastronomical fairs, wine festivals, and the Burgundian Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition to privilege localizing practices that presented regional folkways as culturally and economically valuable. These events presented authentic regional folkways and traditional artisan practices as models through which contemporaries could acquire self-understanding, frame collective identities, script their own heritage, and define a federal role for their own regions within French national culture.

The Burgundian project developed a highly successful form of French regionalism capable of sustaining local cultural interests by linking traditional social practices and modern marketing practices. The social and cultural spaces of an idealized Burgundian community (both real and imagined) were inhabited through carefully orchestrated spectacles that (re)classified notions of timeless traditions and rustic modernity into recognizable phenomena. By participating in these fairs and festivals, consumers performatively renegotiated political, cultural, and ideological preferences through market choices. Indeed, the benefits that French regions brought to the nation were central in the minds of the organizers of the 1937 Paris International Exposition:

[w]e understand that alongside the national interest exist particular interests that are not opposed to it.... It would not insult the most ardent regionalists to say that their agenda may be summarized as follows: to establish a structure supple enough to allow, instead of centralization to the extreme, for the legitimate efflorescence of local particularisms and respect for their origins ("Le Centre Rural," Livre d'Or, 186). As the result of these activities, marketing and consumption of regional products culturally invoked, symbolically reified, and socially inscribed Burgundian identity. Marketers harnessed popular, mass and folk practices to structure a French identity that lasted well beyond the Interwar period and into the twentieth century. This is how the cultural determinants of French identity became selectively available through the mechanisms of cultural commodification, product identification, and ritual consumption.

French Folklore Studies circa 1937

Thus, from pavilion to pavilion, cellar to cellar, garden to garden, restaurant to restaurant, the visitor may, in several hours time, conduct a happy and easy tour, which instructs and distracts alternatively. --Raymon Lecuyer, "Le Centre regional," Illustration (1937, n. p.).

Discussions concerning the importance of regional practices were central to over 300 meetings, congresses, and conferences scheduled during the six months that coincided with the 1937 Paris Exposition International (Pernikoff, 162 and listed individually in Labbe 1938, vol. 11, 365-387). The First International Congress of Folklore, held at l'Ecole du Louvre in Paris during the last week of August 1937, culminated a quartercentury's fruitful collaboration between French geographers, historians, sociologists, and folklorists.1 Organizers coordinated the Congress to coincide with the International Exposition's folklore festival on August 28. "A great folkloric festival," to be held at the regional center to close the folklore congress, announced the Exposition's general commissioner, would "celebrate the provinces with singing, dancing, and fireworks" (Labbe 1938, vol. 11, 421). L'Humanite reported that the folklore festival was the "most magnificent" offered at the Exposition. "An immense crowd, in which it was difficult to move" witnessed all variety of folkloric expressions designed to "[resuscitate] the past and [link] it to the present by giving folklore its true signification." The event also provided an educational display. Citing the example of a particularly impressive 100-year-old Normandy headdress, Le Jour noted that participating provincials gladly explained the origins and nature of their customs and traditions to inquiring visitors (digested in l'Action Regionaliste 37. 8 (1937), 10).

Catherine Vallantin notes that the ideological beliefs of folklore producers and consumers were neither monolithic nor fixed (Vallantin 1999). Participants of the 1937 folklore conference embraced a variety of militant nationalist, neo-Romantic, and empirical interests that were neither logically linked nor reducible to one another. These further informed different racialist, geographical, idealist, regionalist, etc., methodological approaches and commitments (482, 485 and passim). While informed French folklorists (readers of Riviere's Race et racisme journal, for example,) were certainly aware of the overtly racist Volkskunde literature and theories of a unified national volk, many remained committed to agendas more directly concerned...

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