Modèle français et experiences de la modernization. Roumanie, 19e-20e siècles

TitleModèle français et experiences de la modernization. Roumanie, 19e-20e siècles
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHariton, Silviu
Author(s) of reviewed material(ed.), Florin Ţurcanu

book; title translated:
The French Model and Experiences of Modernization. Romania in the 19th-20th centuries

PublisherBucharest: Institutul Cultural Român
Pagesxviii + 265
ISSNISBN 973-577-516-6
Review year


Full Text

Modèle français et experiences de la modernization. Roumanie, 19e-20e siècles is a fine collection of contributions to the exploration of French-Romanian cultural relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether discussed in terms of influence and reception or cultural transfers and entangled histories, the acculturation of the French political, institutional, social and cultural models in Romania represents one of the most exciting and complex examples of histoires croisée of the many that francophonie represents.[1]    The book includes eight contributions, mostly authored by former and current Romanian students of either the Ecole Doctorale en Sciences Sociales in Bucharest or the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
The first essay, “Sur la diffusion de la culture européenne en Roumanie (XIXe siècle et de début du XXe siècle),” originally written two decades ago, authored by Lucian Boia deals with the influence of the West on Romanian culture. Boia surveys several indicators to illustrate the impact of westernization through French impact in 19th century Romania: the enrichment of the Romanian language through the adoption of a modern vocabulary due to which one out of five commonly used words would be of French origin; the preference for French culture to the extent that the majority of university professors actually studied in France while in high schools French received eight years of study compared to only four for German; the role of translations and the dissemination of the “popular novel” dominated, again, by French authors and models – only in the case of poetry translations did the significance of German equal that of French. This is a concise, imaginative and equally intuitive essay, though it is not developed into a systematic analysis of the specific Romanian contexts that were receptive to European ideas.
The next two contributions present case studies on the diffusion of political ideas among Romanian political and cultural elites. Raluca Alexandrescu, in her “Les fondements des temps présent et les ruines mélancoliques du passé,” reveals the various layers and sources of inspiration that were relevant for members of the first generation of the Romanian political elite when they decided to send their children to study in Western high schools, mainly in France. She surveys some of the political ideas of Ionică Tăutu and Mihail Sturdza and concludes that even though they were not able to dissociate ideas belonging to different paradigms, they nevertheless managed to select them according to their local needs for affirming their dominance in the Danubian Principalities. The author at times seems to be at odds to synchronize the sophisticated language and nuanced labels of political analysis with the at times glaring simplicity of authors under analysis. Ligia Livadă-Cadeschi, in her “Filantropie şi asistenţă socială,” presents the ideas of Mihail Kogălniceanu, Dr. Severeanu and Dr. Iacob Felix on the role of philanthropy, social assistance and public hygiene in 19th century Romania. Following French writers, they admired the principle of teaching the poorer segments of society how to develop skills and thereby help themselves. At the same time, the rhetoric accompanying their desired measures emphasized the role of social assistance in creating “good citizens” and preventing the spread of delinquency.
Since most of the members of the Romanian political elite were graduates of law, especially in the second half of the 19th century, the transfers in the juridical and administrative fields represent two extremely relevant indicators of French influence as well as some of the most efficient instruments of nation-building drawing from the same source of inspiration. While in the case of the Romanian Constitution the Belgian model was of greater importance, attempts were made to adopt and adapt the Napoleonic Code and its military/hierarchical system of administration to the Romanian realities, mainly in the 1860s. Radu Carp’s essay “Influenţa Codului Civil francez: sistemul de drept românesc în context comparat” underlines the vitality of 1804 French civil code even in the second half of the century. He argues that the Romanian civil code was not a mere copy of the French model as there were notable Italian influences too. The principle of local customs was also introduced in the Romanian version. Moreover, the impact of the English system could be similarly detected in legal practices. These qualifications notwithstanding and in spite of revisions in the inter-war period and radical challenges during the communist period, the Romanian code of nowadays as well as the curricula of the Romanian law faculties reflect the leading impact French sources continue to exert.
Reflecting a mainly French interest of studying the role of the public functionaries and continuing previous contributions on other components of the state bureaucracy,[2] Andrei-Florin Sora discusses in his “L’institution préféctorale roumaine: un modèle français?” the formation, guiding principles and role of the prefects in implementing the will of government at the local level, that of départements. In a country where the government was first appointed and then charged with organizing elections whose primary purpose was to legitimize the system of rule in place, the Napoleonic model can be detected in the fact that these prefects represented the main agents in assuring favorable results for the government.
Other types of French-Romanian entanglements are addressed by Laurenţiu Vlad and Liviu Bordaş. The former is a well known researcher of the Romanian participations in French and Belgian international and universal exhibitions who lately turned to study the representations of Romania in the famous L’Illustration, which next to Revue des Deux Mondesone was the most widely circulated révue among the French cultural and political elites.[3] His study “Regards français sur la société roumaine. Trois moments de l’histoire centenaire de l’Illustration” surveys several moments when special issues were dedicated to the Danubian Principalities (1848), to the anniversaries celebrating a decade of Greater Romania (1929) as well as the establishment of King Carol’s personal rule (1939). While the latter two owe a lot to the propaganda efforts of the Romanian state and they are largely representing official Romanian perspectives, the former presents the Principalities as a mixture of Occident and Orient, of Latinity and Orthodoxy, of civilization and barbarism, anti-Russian feelings and the simultaneous desire to avoid being associated with the unfavorable Polish example.
Liviu Bordaş’s contribution “Romania qua Oriens, subiect şi agent în orientalismul francez din secolul XIX” represents almost one third of the entire volume and it concerns the Romanian contributions to French journals and societies devoted to “oriental studies.” Interested mainly in rendering the history of this field in Romania and combining methodologies used in approaching symbolic geographies with a more traditional style, Bordaş takes the case of “oriental studies” to analyze the image of the Romanians in the French society as well as among the Romanian elites. When an intellectual interest in Romanians emerged in 19th century French society, this took place mainly in connection with the Near East and the “Eastern Question” that was supposed to be solved through the intervention of the Western/Great Powers in particular. Therefore, the Romanian orientalists were invited to contribute to French journals and be active in their respective societies mainly in order to offer an “authentic perspective” on themselves, which was considered necessary for the more comprehensive understanding of the “complicated Eastern Question.” For the Romanian elites, this interest corresponded to their program of political emancipation and they were basically interested in the affirmation of their Latinity. Therefore contributions emphasizing a more complex Oriental context and a plethora of influences got rejected (e.g. the works of Lazăr Şăineanu, Moses Gaster, etc.). The last contribution to the volume belongs to Ştefan Borbély and it is the only one dealing with the postwar period, namely the Romanian perceptions of 1968 student movement in Western Europe, especially the one in France.
Overall, the diversity of approaches and the multitude of the subjects make Modèle français et experiences de la modernization. Roumanie, 19e-20e siècles an original contribution to the exploration of the history of French-Romanian entanglements. It approaches the French influence on Romanian culture in a serene and critical way, f.e. editor Florin Ţurcanu observes in his foreword the irony that the book appeared a hundred years after a famous March 1906 student meeting in front of the National Theatre organized to manifest against the use and abuse of the French language by the contemporary political and social elites of Romania. This collection may serve as a model for other contributions that shall hopefully put the Romanian case in a comparative perspective: the scope for this is large, as French cultural influences were strong in many other Eastern and South-Eastern countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

[1] For a thoughtful discussion in English of the cultural and political role of francophonie and Francophonia see Matthias Middell, “Francophonia as a world region?”, European Review of History, vol. 10, nr. 2, 2003, pp. 203-220.

[2] Andrei-Florin Sora. “Les fonctionnaires publics en Roumanie: les sous-préfects (1866-1916)”, Revue des études sud-est européennes, vol. 44, 2006, pp. 233-249.

[3] Laurenţiu Vlad, “Des échos roumains dans la presse française: L’Illustration, 1843-1944”, New Europe College Yearbook, 1995-1996 (Bucharest: Humanitas, 1999), pp. 404-442; Laurenţiu Vlad. Ecouri româneşti în presa franceză: L’Illustration, 1843-1944 (Bucharest: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2004). A second edition of this book, revised and expanded, has appeared in 2005.