My parents arranged a holiday around historical sites, so I visited Versailles, the châteaux of the Loire, and Paris obviously. That was in 1954-55 and that holiday had a determining influence on me. From then on I was sure I wanted to become a historian of France.
I went back ten years later. I had got my BA in 1964, and I was doing research on 18th century French history for a DPhil at Oxford. I managed to get a State Studentship to do two years of research in France, so in 1965 I moved to Paris and lived there for two years . I think that period was important for me, because it is very unusual these days for research students to be allowed two years stay in France at a stretch. I think there is a tendency now only to provide enough funding for them to go over for a couple of weeks or months at a time. I rented a flat, I learned what it was to live in Paris, on a slender budget, and at a time when there were no credit cards and plenty of currency restrictions and fluctuations. However, one made lasting friendships, one perfected the language and got the feel of living in France. I still feel at home there whenever I go over, chiefly now for meetings of the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, to which I was elected in 2003.
Can you tell us about cross-Channel academic cooperation in your field?
There is much more now than there was back in 1965. One met a few scholars, and they were very kind and invited one back to their houses, but there was not much intellectual collaboration with them. Over the past forty-five years, however, the whole business of academic exchanges, of conferences, of joint collaboration on various projects, all brought us closer together. There has also been on the part of the French a greater willingness to recognise the contribution which British scholars can bring to the understanding of the history of their country. That did not exist so much when I was first there as a research student: the French thought that it was flattering that foreigners come to work on their history, but they did not really pay much attention to what we were doing or, more importantly, to our ideas. They certainly do so now, and you can see this not only in the growing number of British works that are translated into French, but also in the references being made to them by historians in France, a phenomenon which is also on the increase.
The benefits of researchers bringing their perspectives to the other country?
I think it certainly led to an enrichment of historical knowledge, certainly in my field, which is the eighteenth century. I think the work of British and American historians is now much more respected in France, and conversely, I think we have helped to make the work of French scholars of Britrish history better known over here. We have different approaches. The British have made an unique contribution by their study of political history generally, whereas that has been less important in France over the last fifty years, but it is becoming more important and account is being taken at last of our contribution in this field. The French are masters in social history, in discerning social patterns, in producing models. So I think the exchange between us has in fact been very fruitful. Of course, university exchanges between academics have helped, but there have also been greater interconnections between historians of different countries than when I first began to do research. The Franco-British dimension, if I may so call it, has had a great impact on my own career and activities. I worked in France, in all for about six years, and I held eight Visiting Chairs there, at institutions which were well spread out geographically. I began working in 1982 at Paris X Nanterre, a big university in a western suburb of Paris. The events of 1968 had started there and were still very much looming over us when I went. It was a challenging experience to lecture to very large numbers of students at all levels. From Nanterre I went to the École Pratique des Hautes Études in the Sorbonne and from lecturing to undergraduates (in those days the tutorial work was done by assistants) to teaching at a research institute. There, I gave advanced seminars once a week to research students who were interested in my field. I had plenty of time to pursue my own research. Then I went back to teaching undergraduates, as well as research students at Montpellier, where I spent one year from 1989 to 1990.Afterwards, I kept going back to lovely Montpellier for a month for several years . I went to Lyons in 2000 for three months. And in between all this, I had three one-month stints at the College de France, which is the most prestigious French research institute. I have therefore had an extensive and varied experience of the French university system: teaching undergraduates, working in research institutes, and also teaching in the provinces, which were rather strikingly different. Montpellier was very much the warm, white south, and Lyons was very much the second city, but, of course, my chief posts were in Paris. I believe more French academics are doing stints in British universities nowadays, and that is a helpful development.
My various postings in France led to my getting involved in organising the Erasmus exchange program at my base university in Durham when I got back there. I was put in charge of arranging the exchanges between the history department and French universities. I naturally established links with the universities with which I had the best contacts: Paris-X Nanterre, Montpellier-III and Lyons-2. They worked extremely well while they lasted, but I believe that there is no longer any money for Erasmus, so the exchanges do not work any longer on the same basis. But they broadened the outlook of most students. Some of my students loved being in Montpellier for one year, and and a few decided they wanted to settle there – one became an estate agent, another a teacher of English.
Ever since my first visits in 1954-1955 I found the the French lifestyle considerably appealing it’s something that hits you from the word Go and is also part of the equation. At the same time, one has to be prepared for living abroad, and not all people can do it. If you have a certain spirit of adventure, are resilient, and are willing to cope with the language, I think you will do well. I am heartened by the fact that my own students, when I sent them to France, whatever their background, and whatever their attainment in French, they all, by and large, enjoyed their stay, and they got something out of it.
I think that it is a problem that Erasmus is financially limited nowadays. Other programs and studentships might be able to take over its significant role and scope. Moreover, these programs should not be done exclusively through university French language departments because they require linguistic skills. One can approach France through other academic disciplines.
Interviewed on 13 December 2010 by telephone.
Franco-British Portrait Gallery
© 2010-2012 Jonatan Thompson & Jean-Pascal Sibiet