La République des signes: Myths of Frenchness since Le Petit Diouf

Reflecting on Roland Barthes’ Le Petit Diouf, Pr Michael Kelly explores the relationship between nationhood and myth-making in contemporary France. The Petit Diouf is the figure pictured on the front page of a 1955 issue of the French magazine Paris Match. It provides an example of the way daily myths operate in the making of French national identity and eventually reinforce the power of the state.

Michael Kelly is a Professor of French in Modern Languages at the University of Southampton. He is a specialist in modern French culture and society, especially the history of ideas and intellectuals, and on public policy in the area of languages and language education, in the UK and in Europe more broadly

This post is partly based on the Peter Morris Memorial Lecture that Michael Kelly delivered at the ASMCF Annual Conference last September.


Every country needs a myth of its nationhood. France has more of them than most countries, and the prevalent myths of Frenchness are contested. Barthes put his finger on it in Mythologies, where he showed that almost any story or image can be a myth. He describes sitting in the hairdresser’s and looking at a cover of Paris-Match, showing ‘un jeune nègre vêtu d’un uniforme français’ who ‘fait le salut militaire, les yeux levés, fixés sans doute sur un pli du drapeau tricolore’. At the first level of meaning, he understands what is depicted, though perhaps he imagines more than he sees, because there is no flag in the picture, and the caption reveals that little Diouf from Ouagadougou (Upper Volta) is only a pupil at an army school, visiting Paris to participate in a military tattoo.

At a second level also, Barthes understands clearly what the picture means in the context of July 1955: that France is a great Empire, loyally served by its sons of whatever colour, and never mind what the anticolonial critics might say. These second-level meanings cluster round the image, given life by the reader’s gaze. This is what is meant by myth in everyday life: a crowd of wider meanings is attached to every image we encounter, because we live in a world of connotations.

Some of the connotations may be personal, and Barthes may have been reminded of his own grandfather, Louis-Gustave Binger, who was governor of the Ivory Coast in the 1890s. But connotations are also social, and they draw the reader into a wider network of social relationships, in this case centring on what Barthes calls ‘Francité’ and ‘Militarité’, combining French national identity with military power.

The way the reader is drawn into the social world was analysed by Louis Althusser in his theory of ideology. He saw ideology as the way in which individuals experience and make sense of their relationship to the world they live in. Althusser argued that in ideology an individual is challenged to function as a subject, and at the same time to recognise that they are ‘subjected’ to a higher authority. Ultimately, the higher authority is the State, working through its ‘repressive apparatuses’, such as the army, the police and the law courts, or more subtly through its ‘ideological apparatuses’, such as the Church, schools, the family and the media. Barthes’s reading of the image in Paris-Match shows how he is challenged to make sense of what he sees, and in the process is connected to the apparatuses of the French state.

Pierre Bourdieu also contributes to understanding how the process of national myth-making works. The State operates as a very large social field, within which individuals and groups struggle for power and influence, which Bourdieu calls capital and distinction. In the process of struggling with each other, people actually reinforce the field and its power over those within it. Bourdieu calls this ‘symbolic violence’ because people frequently ‘misrecognise’ what is happening. In the French case, people express their aims in terms of supporting or defending the Nation, whereas the practical outcome is to reinforce the power of the State.

France may not have a single myth of nationhood, but this is amply compensated by the great forest of myths that surround French people in their daily life. From the softest tourist images to the sharpest depictions of conflict, the everyday processes of myth-making lead always to the Nation, shepherding the consumers of myth towards strengthening the French State. This has been a feature of France since the 1950s and perhaps for very much longer. The question now is how far the same processes are operating in other countries.

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