By Kevin O’Sullivan
It’s the 14th of July and as the Tour de France trundles on with today’s stage from Limoges to Issoudun and the French indulge their new national pastime of burning cars (317 so far, up 6.73% on last year), what better time to take a sideways glance at French history. Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (2007) is not a bad place to start, an interesting travelogue/history of the country’s diverse regions that reminds us that the unified concept of France as we know it today only really came to fruition long after the revolution. If you are in Paris in the near future, you could do worse than head to the National Museum for the History of Immigration in Vincennes, housed in the only remaining building constructed for the 1931 Paris colonial exposition. For an alternative film history, check out Indigènes (2006), the story of four North African troops fighting to liberate France at the end of the second world war, and two excellent takes on contemporary France, both set in the Parisian banlieues: the classic La Haine (1995) and 2008 Palme d’Or winner La Classe: Entre Les Murs, one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Finally, as if any excuse was needed, why not use the 14th of July as an opportunity to dig out those old Asterix books you read years ago, or try reading them again en français and discover a whole world of humour and cultural reference missing from the English translations. If you’ve never heard of them (really?), think Roman Empire, Gaullish resistance, an allegory of France in the second world war and plenty of humour, all topped off with a dose of druidic ‘magic potion’. Great history. Start with the opening book in the series, Asterix the Gaul (1961).