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A France that never was
I mostly get my news of France second-hand, from South Pacific sources (and in Polynesian languages instead of French), but as you may have heard, there was some sort of election over there, and the results have some people (mostly the ones who didn’t get as many votes) talking of “full-frontal shock” and an “earthquake”: Le Front National‘s far-right platform (some call it extremist) won an important victory, mostly with votes from the parts of France that aren’t Paris (which is a dichotomy some French people are very quick to point out, it seems).
Well, I’m not in a position to evaluate Le Front National‘s policies or goals, but when their detractors call them racist and fascist, it sends me on a pleasant mental side-track where I’m no longer bound by recent history or the current states of affairs: I think about alternate history, about a France that never was.
Alternate history, if you weren’t aware, frequently begins with an event on our timeline and asks, “What if this had happened differently?” It can be a huge event, like a natural disaster, or a tiny one, like Winston Churchill running too low on booze right before an important speech and just not quite nailing the flow of it. Sometimes, changes like these can ripple out very far in a hypothetical timeline.
So let’s take France, for instance. I’ll include a set of footnotes linking you to sites and forums where nerds are arguing about this stuff with a great deal more historical knowledge than I have, but I’ll provide only the sketchiest outlines of some of the hypothetical timelines I’ve read about:
OK, so imagine we’re in the late 1860s. The Second Empire is pretty awesome, people are psyched to have an emperor and stuff, and unlike in our original timeline (we’ll abbreviate that as OT), the Bonaparte family doesn’t irritate its more republic-minded citizens too badly, there’s much less moaning and groaning, and when Otto VanWhat’sHisStache in Prussia starts rattling pots and pans to freak everyone out, France doesn’t totally freak out, at least not right away. They wait to declare war until they’re good and ready, meanwhile temporarily losing a little territory in the north but then pulling a third-quarter comeback to kick Prussian troops back out and send them home to do whatever Prussians do at home. The Empire doesn’t fall, and there’s no third republic.
Well, what then? Some have called Bonapartist ideas “proto-fascist”, and I could maybe see a fascist France ending the nineteenth century with an even greater emphasis on military might, colonialism, and trains running on time than the OT third republic did. Education might involve a little more training on loyalty to the State, but you better believe it’ll be compulsory and compulsorily public. The artistic achievements of the OT France could still flourish, though again, perhaps with a little more patronage from the State and a reflected focus on state-approved messages.
As for what happens when the imperialist tensions, network of loyalties and pent-up aspirations explode in the Balkans in June of 1914, I’m not at all qualified to say. Does an Imperial France side with the central powers, form a triple entente, or try to sit this one out?
One of the challenges of alternate history is trying to predict beyond the immediate results of a historical timeline deviation, what with all the butterflies flapping their wings all over the place and changing everything up. Could a fascist France have arisen in a later branching off of the OT, for example after a hypothetical Austro-Hungarian-German-Ottoman victory in WWI? Or a Vichy regime that beats Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces and continues to chill with a hypothetically victorious Third Reich next door?
At any rate, no matter how much some may be upset at recent elections, we probably won’t see a fascist France anytime soon.
If you could change French history at one point on our timeline, what would you change and why? Your reasons don’t have to be charitable; you could just want to poke at the anthill.
- A three-forum collection of alternate history discussions: http://www.reddit.com/r/HistoricalWhatIf+althistory+ahwupdate
- A set of articles on possible Frances on an althistory wiki: http://althistory.wikia.com/wiki/Category:France
- Wikipedia on alternate history in general: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_history
- A pretty massive thread from an althistory forum with a detailed timeline for France, diverging at 1805: http://www.alternatehistory.com/discussion/showthread.php?t=60607 (has some pretty massive credulity-straining moments, but whatever)