Paris and its Province: Building a Nation and its Capital
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by Anne-Caroline Sieffert
PhD Candidate, French Studies, Brown University (2013)
In French, the term “Province” refers to both a geographical reality and an abstract concept. A province is an archaic way to designate an administrative unit known nowadays as the “région”, but it also refers to the entire country of France with the exclusion of its capital, Paris.
In common language, Province, the abstract concept, often carries a negative or derogatory connotation. The term provincial, derived from Province, can imply a lack of culture, education or manners, by opposition to the refined, worldly and urbane Paris. In Zola’s and Balzac’s novels, people from the Province frequently fall into misfortunes once they make it to Paris. Similarly, the literary lore frequently opposes the cynical Parisian to the naive provincial who travels to Paris in the hope of making it as portrayed in Balzac’s two novelistic characters of Lucien de Rubempré in la Comédie humaine and Eugène de Rastignac in le Père Goriot.
The three-part essay that follows describes several aspects of the conflicted relationship between Paris and its regional French immigration from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. The building of Paris as an international capital is the first major national project undertaken since the attempts to unify France in 1789. It is not necessarily a government-drawn initiative as much as it relies on the rapid growth of the city itself. It is, nonetheless, the real place where the French centralist identity was born, and where it would be defended, both in 1871 and 1914. The French Revolution tried to colonize the provinces — Paris would be colonized by the regions. It was not without resistance, and French literature of the time provides an interesting insight into what the relationship between a Parisian-born population and these migrants was.