France, the French & the Second World War

a historian blogs about research, teaching, motherhood and other stuff

Month: June, 2016

Witnessing History

The decision to leave the EU has been the second most important historical event I have witnessed. I have not felt so shaken since I watched 9/11 unfold on live television almost 15 years ago. I remember everything about that day ; I believe I’ll remember everything about last night, this morning and the rest of the day. Yesterday I posted a short piece about antisemitism in the Second World War and the anti-immigration, anti-Europe discourse of the Brexit campaign ; I never, ever, actually believed we might leave the EU. The sense of history in the making compels me to put pen to paper again this morning. Also it is really hard to do actual work when you are so upset.

I came to the UK in 2002 to study History. I felt that by staying in France, where I am originally from, studying history at university would have limited rather than expanded my options. The British university system, for all of its flaws, offers young people real promise and potential, not least in comparison to the French one.

I was able to study history at Royal Holloway because, as an EU citizen, I paid home fees. I fell in love with history thanks to RHUL’s thriving and passionate history department. After having gone to an International Lycée in Paris I already had a strong sense of the importance of international communities. By studying the history of the twentieth century, and the movement of people, ideas and materials before, during and after the Second World War, I became even more convinced that breaking down national(ist) borders was essential for the future of a peaceful and tolerant society.

I was able to continue my studies at postgraduate level at Oxford because I was an EU citizen. At Oxford, I met a boy. One of the first things we talked about was how he had gone to live and study in France for one year during his undergrad degree – a year he described as being the best time of his life. He is now my husband, and we have a son.

I obtained a doctorate from a UK university ; I was a postdoctoral fellow at various British universities as well as the European University Institute ; I now have a permanent job in a British university ; I own my home in North London ; I teach dozens of students each year about the history of Europe in the twentieth century. The opportunities to live, work and settle in the UK allowed me to build a life here. My home, husband and baby are the living proof, as are the many wonderful friends I have made here. These opportunities also allowed me to develop intellectually and politically, to live a life based on tolerance and exchange and openness. The idea that many of my colleagues, and my own son, will not be able to enjoy these opportunities breaks my heart.

The discourse on immigration is tragic, and the idea of British ‘independence’ reeks of insularity and a dated nationalism. I feel unwelcome ; I would not be surprised that many young Europeans planning to study in Britain feel unwelcome, too. The idea that they might not come to Britain as a result of Brexit makes me fear that the rich social diversity that makes the British university system so attractive to European and international students alike is at risk.

I try to make sense of a Leave win. (1) People feel disempowered, and a referendum gives them the illusion of taking back that power. The idea that people think that exiting the EU means pay rise and better healthcare makes me think that they feel isolated from the opportunities that I was able to benefit from. It is a tragedy they could not see that low salaries and an ineffective NHS have nothing to do with EU membership. It is a tragedy that they could not see that the exchange of languages, cultures and ideas is not only deeply enriching but also fundamental for our future. (2) We should have done more. There should have been hardened, dedicated campaigns across the country, and not just London. There should have been more emphasis on languages and European, transnational history in school. There should have been more efforts to show the fundamental benefits of the flow of goods and peoples and ideas.

I do not identify with the rhetoric that Britain can be ‘Great’ again. I find this a chilling and dangerous refrain. I only feel reassured by the fact that this decision is the tyranny of a small majority ; that so many of my friends and colleagues on social media share the sense of desperation and tragedy I feel today.

I’m going to sit on my couch for a while. Then I’m going to apply for British citizenship because I need to get a fucking vote in this country. And I’m going to finalise the paperwork for my son’s French passport so that he can hopefully have a future in the EU.

Sartre, Antisemitism and Brexit

In my attempt to read around the topic of race in Vichy France – one of the two main projects I am currently working on – I recently picked up my dad’s highschool copy of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive. Originally published in 1946, this edition was re-printed by Gallimard in their ‘Idées’ collection in 1954.

The first part of his essay explores the inner-workings of the antisemite. First, antisemitic sentiments are not opinions which merit the platform of free speech. The idea that the antisemite is allowed to his own antisemitic opinions, and that democracy protects his right to free speech, is false and dangerous. The antisemite manipulates democratic values in order to spew hatred. Antisemitism is not an opinion because it is a passion, grounded in neither reason nor experience. It covers suppressed sexual fantasies and criminal desires. But who is this antisemite ? According to Sartre, antisemites are part of a bourgeois economic background : ‘On ne trouve guère d’antisémitisme chez les ouvriers.’ – ‘We don’t find antisemitism amongst workers.’ The antisemite is also someone who is afraid to think. He wants order, not republican values. He accepts a certain idea of ‘Good’ without ever asking any questions, and spends his time identifying and reinforcing ‘Evil’. The antisemite is ‘l’élite des médiocres’ – ‘the elite of mediocracy’.

Not all of what Sartre says rings true or relevant. First, antisemitism is a lot more complicated than his Marxist interpretation suggests. Second, his definition of antisemitism – amongst other things – is limited. As David Feldman has written in his Sub-Report Commissioned to Assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, the definition of antisemitism is hugely complex and merits much careful consideration.

That being said, Sartre’s text has real resonance. Indeed, Réflexions sur la question juive is not just about antisemitism. The Jew, Sartre says, ‘n’est ici qu’un prétexte’. ‘is only a pretext’. He argues that ‘ailleurs on se servira du nègre, ailleurs du jaune.’ ‘elsewhere it is about a negro, elsewhere a yellow man.’ These few words immediately catapult his essay into a much bigger sphere. Exploring how notions of antisemitism and racism intersect is part of my bigger project, so I am very interested by the way in which Sartre juxtaposes these three words – Jew ; negro ; yellow. Beyond the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s text helps us to think about the persisting fear and hatred of the ‘other’.

To pick up Sartre’s own words, elsewhere, it is the immigrant, the refugee, the European, the European Union. Indeed, for months – and years, in fact – the debate of ‘in or out’ has been raging on. I have often belittled the reality of a potential Brexit, believing that the British people do not have it so bad that they would seek – and risk – radical change. And yet, over the past few weeks, my stomach has gotten tighter. First, because as a French person who cannot vote, the result of this Referendum could radically change my life. Second, it is because I am hearing more and more British people – being interviewed in a pub in Yorkshire, or in some (and I cringe here) academic settings – say that the European Union, Europeans and the immigrants who come with it, threaten their identity, their security, their society. The EU and its citizens become scapegoats for Britain’s problems. Of course not all Brexiters hate immigrants, and not all Bremainers like them ; yet the rhetoric around immigration is part of the Brexit campaign. And I find this terrifying.

Sartre’s text, read 70 years later, is a chilling reminder of how hatred based on religion, race and nationality continues to bubble along in the 21st century. (Although granted, you don’t need to read Sartre to be reminded of that. Sadly the evidence is everywhere.) I am not saying that Brexiters are dominated by passion, sexual frustration and criminal desires – these are arguments which I do not care to step into too deeply. But ignorance (which is not only to do with education) and fear seem to be driving factors behind the scapegoating of the ‘other’ which is laced throughout the Brexit campaign. When reading the following sentence I got chills up my spine: ‘…les mesures qu’ils proposent et qui, toutes, visent à son abaissement, à son humiliation, à son bannissement, sont des succédantes de cet assassinat qu’ils méditent en eux-mêmes : ce sont des meurtres symboliques.’ ‘…the measures they {the antisemites} propose, all of which aim towards his {the Jew’s} belittlement, his humiliation, his banishment, precede this assassination they are all thinking of within themselves : they are symbolic murders.’ Again, I do not want to discuss suppressed criminal and murderous desires ; but taken out of the context of the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s point that the belittling, humiliation and/or persecution of a minority group is not a democratic right, but a step in the wrong direction, is a very important one.

This blog post is off the cuff – it is spontaneous and lacks full reflection and I apologise for inconsistencies. But on the day of the Referendum vote, I cannot help but read my research through the eyes of today. And lets hope that the society which we started to build in 1945 will still be here tomorrow morning.

Strikes, Archives and Maternity Leave – rethinking relationships to academic work

One of the main arguments I make in my first book is that, far from being willing strikers, French railwaymen – cheminots – were hesitant to strike. Even in the late-nineteenth century when they endured terrible working conditions, they were reluctant to strike, down tools or sabotage their machines. The fact that the cheminots loved ‘their’ machines was a major reason behind this reluctance which endured for decades. Until the Second World War, they largely preferred to use alternative means to advance their professional situation. But even after the war, the ‘unanimous support’ for strikes within this professional milieu was anything but certain. Involvement or abstinence from strikes has been a deeply fractious topic throughout cheminots’ long history, showing the rifts and tensions within this community.

Cheminots’ historic attitudes to strikes reminds us of the complexity of the relationship between workers and their work. Jonathan Saha recently blogged about this, reminding us that the affection workers can feel for their work (which, in this case, involved elephants) can seriously effect their approach to and attitudes during strikes.

Academics experience a similar tension between them, their work and the politics of academia. There is a tension between the passion many of us feel for our research, and the conditions in which we work on a day to day basis. Indeed, the latter were the subject of strikes on 25-26 May. These strikes were about addressing fundamental problems within our profession, problems linked not only to salaries but more importantly attitudes to both work and workers. Pay gaps and the casualisation of academic work are serious and glaring issues. Pay gaps continue to affect women and minorities, whilst short-term, casual contracts exploit post-doctoral researchers who often have to forego a lot of personal, familial and/or financial stability for no promise of any job security.

I therefore fully supported the strike – but I did not go on strike. Why ? The short answer is : I was on maternity leave. So I couldn’t ‘strike’ as such. The long answer is more complicated, however, because I was actually working on 25-26 May. Indeed, after almost 10 months of taking care of my son, and on the verge of going back to work full time as of 1 June, I had found a few days where I was able to guarantee childcare and fit in time in the archives in Paris. On the Monday night I was giddy with excitement. On the 5h40am Eurostar the next morning, I was still too excited to sleep and worked all the way to Paris. The trip lived up to its expectations: already on the first day I found some amazing photographs and speeches linked to the Friendship and Merci Trains. I scrolled through boxes relating to Colonial Prisoners of War to keep gathering material on race in Vichy France. I enjoyed dinner with old friends in the evenings to wind down from intense work days.

But as I was having a grand old time in the archives, my thoughts kept wandering back to my colleagues, in the UK, on strike. The issues at stake were very important to me, but here I was, in the archives, doing research work. And then it really hit me: not only am I still working during a strike I support, but I am actually working WHILST STILL ON MATERNITY LEAVE.

Why I organised this research trip whilst on maternity leave is an important point to explain. (1) I was going back to work on 1 June and needed to spend my annual departmental research allowance by July 2016 (2) the week of 24 May was the only time where I could organise fulltime childcare for 3 days (3) I love research, so is it really ‘work’?

I wish this was the only time I had worked on maternity leave, but it wasn’t. Between 25 July 2015 and 1 June 2016,  I found myself working between my son’s nighttime feeds because my proofs and index needed to be done. I worked with my French editor who was managing the French translation. I accepted a job as reviews editor for a prestigious journal, which was a great opportunity to work with great colleagues and a great journal. I gave a lecture and supervised dissertation students as part of my Keeping In Touch Days. Anyone who has a baby will know these things were no small feat.

No one forced me to finish my proofs or write my index on maternity leave. No one forced me to do a research trip. The fact that I have a permanent job and am no longer on probation makes me one of the lucky ones. But the constant, intense pressure to produce as a doctoral and post-doctoral researcher hovers over you at all times. Whilst in the archives I realised just how much I had internalised – and normalised ­– this pressure. How it had led me to think it was OK to still do work whilst on maternity leave. How it had made me think that ‘doing what you love’ is not really ‘work’.

I want to underline that doing work-related activities whilst on maternity leave helped me to maintain a sense of normalcy in this crazy new life that is being a parent and a mother. It was a choice that I accept and often enjoyed. But the amount of effort I put in to work around my son, around my carpal tunnel syndrome, around our new family life, was also an extraordinarily difficult thing to do – and this part of my work will never, ever get recognised or valued.

As such, there is a huge risk of working on mat leave : by doing it, I was also silently accepting a system where our work repeatedly and regularly gets undervalued. As the strikes were going on in the UK, and I was having fun in the archives, I became painfully aware of this fact. Our work culture is deteriorating, and our work as individuals and as a community is de-valued. By working on mat leave, I was contributing to this.

So my first archive trip to start my new research projects was as much about the projects themselves as it was about re-discovering my relationship to my work. The complicated tensions between the personal, the professional and the political in academia became intimately entangled. Whilst I do not regret anything, I realised that, sometimes, downing the tools you love is important to show what needs to change.