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Aurélien Lignereux , Sciences Po Grenoble, CERDAP2
No doubt a Dictionary of Received Ideas for 2019 would contain an entry on “Expat” with entertaining clichés on socializing around swimming pools, schooling strategies and the eating habits of expatriates today. In a world that is ever more open to mobility and, as a corollary, caught up in the standardization of ways of life, the massification and multiplication of the forms and actors of expatriation have not done away either with ingrained national habits – which on the contrary stand out more starkly for being away from home – or with stereotypes of these expatriates.
This may be in part because social representations are so old-established. They date back to Napoleonic times when several thousands of French-born government servants were assigned to the furthest corners of a Europe that was conflated in part with the Grand Empire. Were not the cities of Rome and Hamburg two of the 130 prefectures France counted in 1811? Did not sovereigns in Naples or Kassel maintain around them French dignitaries, government servants and military personnel? Did not young recruits to the State Council administer Catalonia and the Illyrian Provinces?
The imposition of the French model on territories that were conquered or reunited, annexed or made vassals has long been at the heart of Napoleonic studies. New Napoleonic History has recently broached the subject no longer from just an institutional perspective but from a cultural one too. This new approach has focused on the relations between the centre and the peripheries, which prove less unequivocal and unilateral than was once believed, and on the intercultural contacts and conflicts within an empire of the kind. Extending that work by what is both a social and family approach concerning the agents of the imperial state means that all dimensions of this novel experience of administrative expatriation can be reconsidered.
Although apparently anecdotal, these can shed light on cultural shocks, the construction of social identities or the emergence of the expatriate as a social type. It is even the entire Napoleonic gamble that elites and even peoples could be merged and amalgamated that was jeopardized by the behaviour of these Frenchmen, who were reluctant to settle for any length of time and make ties with the inhabitants – who anyway gave as good as they got. These missionary government servants of France were ready, then, in their inner selves to relinquish the imperial undertaking. Napoleon observed as much in a letter of June 1805 to his stepson, viceroy Eugène, about Méjan, a former secretary general of the prefecture of the Seine, who was promoted head of the administration of the new Kingdom of Italy, built on the French model: “You will have to quell in him, as in the other Frenchmen, that disposition which prompts them to fail to appreciate the country, not least because it shall be compounded by melancholy; for the French are at home nowhere but in France.”
Were these just words for the occasion of the sort the Emperor often took avail? Far from it. Be it an application for time-off for health reasons and because of the unbearable local climate, a letter of gripes and groans from a husband to his wife, or an official report about how unsociable the natives (indigènes) were – the term was then in common use then – or how awful their theatres, the public records are teeming with striking illustrations of how dissatisfied these men were notwithstanding the senior positions they held. In May 1808, the member of parliament for the Isère, Dumolard, was irritated by the pretensions and impatience of Joseph Perrin, one of the many from the Dauphinois area who joined the Régie des Droits Réunis (office for indirect taxes), who was promoted chief tax inspector in Alba, a town in Piedmont, where he enjoyed a materially comfortable position while suffering from homesickness:
I hope that within a month I shall be able to go as far as Grenoble for a short stay. We shall then be there together and shall concert about how to speed your brother’s return and appointment within our old France. It is indeed a misfortune to have to wait when one is bored, but let us agree, however, that with 5,000 francs in stipend in Piedmont one can find some distraction and even if need be procure a French cook if the fare of the country seems ill-prepared.
The standard of living arising from the difference in the cost of commodities and services (especially domestic staff) supposedly made up for the disruption to tastes and habits. That, of course, is but one of many points revealed by a long-term inquiry into French expatriates in Europe under Napoleon. As an echo to the Coloniaux of the Third Republic, the inquiry follows step by step a group of 1500 Impériaux, French-born civil servants in office between 1800 and 1814 serving in territories beyond the borders of 1792. It extends from the circumstances of their departure for a formerly foreign constituency to the memories of an episode that combined the personal trial of living abroad with the gratifying feeling of having written History.
It is therefore the cross-cutting experience of expatriation that underpins this cohort, in preference to the usual subdivisions into corps or hierarchies. It thus includes prefects and lowly customs officials, civil engineers and tax collectors, the judiciary and the police. The careers and even sometimes the private lives of these 1500 government servants are reconstructed from the fine details of biographical sketches (the individual records collated in the File MakerPro database break down into close to 100 headings ranging from birth to retirement pension by way of the tribulations experienced during the Revolution).
This reconstruction gives substance to a category that was in the course of formation until the events of 1813–1814 set it all asunder. Napoleon’s fall did not, though, wipe out all of the relations forged and the knowledge acquired in the course of expatriation – in short, that imperial social capital that these men sought to draw on upon returning to France. Indeed, having been instrumental in constructing an empire-state of European scope, the same government servants were employed in completing the nation-state in a France reduced to the borders imposed by the 1814–1815 Treaties of Paris.
The book sets out the findings and is divided into three parts (Aurélien Lignereux, Les Impériaux. Administrer et habiter l’Europe de Napoléon, Paris, Fayard, 2019, 432 p.). The first part attempts to zero in on what became an empire-wide market in public employment, highlighting the opportunities and strains that arose from the interplay of state supply and social demand. These include the misunderstandings engendered because, in the absence of recruitment channels other than patronage, there was such a wide divide between the abilities of the candidates and the actual skills required for the job and between their previous knowledge of the places and the local realities they encountered there.
Next what is proposed is an anthropology of expatriates by delving into their family correspondence, being attentive to daily life, language problems, or the place of women in this context; by weighing up all aspects of living abroad in this way we are not misled by the imperialism that the Impériaux reported back to the government. The third part illuminates the return home of these government servants – with some being reincorporated in government service, others changing careers and yet others retiring – and their appraisal of the experience. Politically, for example, some Impériaux became Patriotes, and these practitioners of the right of one people to govern others became the defenders of the right of peoples to self-determination, while pressing for French expansionism to bounce back worldwide. On the strength of the knowledge they had gained, some Impériaux set themselves up as experts on the neighbouring countries. All, in any event, harboured a memory of the empire, kept alive by their practices in terms of sociability and passed on to those close to them. This was something that stood apart from the Napoleonic adventure and that contributed in spite of everything to making Europe more familiar to the French.