'Bandit', aged 1,500, gives France a headache

August 2, 1996

Some of France's most potent demons, extreme-right nationalism and the unhealed rift between Catholics and secular Republicans, have been awakened, if not yet fully unleashed, by the anniversary of a figure many reference books describe as a bandit and assassin.

French state, church and academia are in the final stages of preparations for what is hoped will be a historically, politically and religiously correct 1,500th anniversary celebration of the baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks.

Their problems start with the now general agreement that 1996 is actually the wrong year (Clovis is believed to have been baptised circa 498) yet 1996 was chosen to comply with tradition. According to Michel Rouche, medievalist and leading French specialist on Clovis, the 1896 commemoration is the cause of most of today's historical headaches.

"Many people are still influenced by the 1,400th anniversary perspective, when everything was seen in a nationalist framework Since 1896, Clovis has been perceived as a nationalist - he was the opposite," he said.

France's extreme-right National Front party and its leader Jean- Marie Le Pen have claimed Clovis as their own, as the founder of a Catholic France for the French, and plan to drive that message home.

Mr Rouche refutes the widely held notion that Clovis founded the French nation. "It's not true. The term 'French kingdom' was first used in 1204. Clovis reigned over several peoples, encouraging mixed marriages," he noted.

Some French academics have warned against holding a national celebration, with its inevitable nationalist, and historically incorrect, overtones, when Germany, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland should also be involved.

But the plea from Mr Rouche and others for September's activities to be set in a broader European framework have not been taken up by the organising committee of archbishops, government officials and historians, who were chosen for their fame rather than for any specialist knowledge.

The committee argues that its role is to coordinate, and it cannot control keynote events, such as the Church-organised commemoration of the Rheims baptism, where guests are a matter of church policy. It also points out that the main exhibition to tie in with the celebrations, "The Franks and Europe", will come to the Petit Palais in Paris from Mainz in Germany.

Certainly the two main academic events, a meeting at the Sorbonne in May and a conference in Rheims from September 19-25, are international: French universities have just 12 specialists in the Clovis period. Yet no foreign specialist is on the commemoration committee.

"They could have asked Janet Nelson of London University or the German specialist Karl Ferdinand Werner," said Mr Rouche, whose own offer to sit on the committee was turned down. Mr Werner, acknowledged to be the world specialist on Clovis, was the main speaker at the Sorbonne debate.

Clovis, noted Mr Werner: "tends to be seen as 'French' before the notion existed and as a sort of national property. He, like Charlemagne, belongs to a Europe which was in place before the major nations were born."

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