Nice, France? Nationalisms, a XIX Century Creation

The Rothschild, Nationalisms, Economic Liberalism and Popular Sovereignty. This is the history of why we identify with a nation. France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, England, Spain, the United States, Peru, Argentina and the whole world.

by Katia Novella Miller

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As the entire world knows, on July 14 the French-Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31 years old, killed 84 persons and wounded 308 with a 19-ton truck on the Promenade des Anglais, one of the most famous streets of Nice, on the day in which France was celebrating its most important national day: the Storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1798). Although today it is known in France as Federation Day (Fete de la Federation), the day in which the French celebrate the reconciliation and union of all French peoples, undoubtedly that date internationally commemorates the taking of the Bastille by Parisian revolutionaries. An historical time that marks the collapse of the monarchical absolutism and the rise of the bourgeoisie, of economic liberalism, of the first seeds of the concept of popular sovereignity that later would give birth to what we know as nationalism. A concept that from France was exported to the whole world. But – paradoxes of history – very few know than in those years of revolutionary upheavals in Paris, Nice was not part of France and that people from Nice did not feel French at all. In fact this famous city of the Cote d’Azur was annexed to France almost a century later, in 1860. And the French identity in the region was, and for a few still is, a struggle.

The Creation of Nationalism, but first a Brief History of Nice. Nice was probably founded or renamed ‘Nicaea’ by the Greeks of Marseille in the fourth century BCE, after a victory over the Ligures. It is common opinion that in ancient times the Ligures occupied northern Italy, southern France and the Iberian peninsula – today only people from Liguria, from few areas of Piedmont, another region in Northwest Italy, from small areas of southeastern France and the Principality of Monaco recognize themselves as Ligurians.

In Roman times the ‘Mare Ligusticum’ was the sea that bathed the lands of the Ligures, and ranged from the city of Livorno (today Tuscany, in Central Italy) to a part of the French Mediterranean coast. With the Latin Emperor (Roman) Augustus, in the year 7 CE, the Ligurian area was called ‘Regio IX’ and went from the border with Etruria (the territories of the Etruscans) to the river Var, west of Nice.

Later on, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was invaded by the Germanic Franks (who later created France) and successively occupied by the Germanic Ostrogoths, like the rest of the Italian peninsula. In 550 CE, Nice was reunified with the Eastern Roman Empire, but in 641 was again conquered by another Germanic people, the Longobards.

In the VII century, while facing Arab and Muslim attacks, Nice joined the Ligurian League (albeit during the Middle Ages Nice was often Genoa’s enemy and allied to Pisa, another maritime republic of the Italian peninsula by that time).

In 1108, under the attacks led by the aristocrats of Provence (with the dynasties of the Aragon from Barcelona and the Anjou, that promoted the migration of Occitan peoples towards the area), Nice rejoined the Republic Genoa, of which it was part of until 1388 CE.

Afterwards and due to the relentless incursions of the Occitans and other dynasties of ‘France,’ in 1388 Nice placed itself under protection of the County of Savoy – a county that was born from the ashes of the kingdom of the Germanic Burgundians, who conquered those lands from the Romans – and was part of this ‘dynastic territorial entity’ practically until 1860.

The Parisian French landed in Nice only in 1792, when troops of the first French Republic attacked the Savoy, who in 1720 increased their territory and created the Kingdom of Sardinia (whose capital was Turin, in the Italian region of Piedmont). The occupation lasted a short period of time. In 1814 the Congress of Vienna deliberated the return of Nice to the Savoyard dynasty. But in 1860, in gratitude for the French support in the second Italian war of independence (conquest?) against Austria – and in gratitude for the French recognition of the annexation of Lombardy, the duchies of Parma and Modena, the Papal legation of Romagna and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany – the Savoy definitely gave Nice, and the county of Savoy, to France.

French Nationalism and Nice. When that area of the Cote d’Azur was given to France, people of Nice did not feel French. The county of Nice had participated actively in the Savoy’s enterprises for the creation of Italy. Astonishingly the most famous hero of the Italian unification (conquest? – 1861), Giuseppe Garibaldi, was from Nice.

To give a democratic facade to the annexation, in 1860 a referendum on the cession to France was held in a city militarly occupied. The result was 25,743 votes in favor, 160 contrary and 5,000 abstentions, mainly sailors. Many claimed that it was a fraud election driven by the Savoy and the government of Paris. There were demonstrations, deaths and Italian speaking newspapers, like the ‘Voce di Nizza’, ‘Il Diritto di Nizza’, were closed.

The repression provoked the ‘Niçois Exodus’: between 11,000 and 12,000 – out of 44,000 inhabitants – left their homes and emigrated principally to Genoa and Turin, in current Italy.

”Ten years later, in 1871, in the elections for the Chamber of Deputies, 73% of the people of Nice voted for separatist candidates. The voting was canceled. One of the deputies – according to contemporary government sources – committed suicide and France sent 10,000 soldiers and sailors to Nice. They put guns on the streets and arrested and deported opponents, ” says Alan Roullier, president of the League for the restoration of freedom of Nice.

”With the annexation, began the looting. French banks settled in Nice, Pereire and Rothschild in particular. Even before the annexation, Napoleon III’s representative – sent to manipulate the plebiscite – organized the liquidation of the local branch of the Bank of Sardinia and installed the Bank of France to plunder the county. As soon as the Bank of France began operating, the director cataloged all resources that were not or not enough exploited by the people of Nice, indicating how to get the most benefit from them. People lost their lands, big estates were shattered and a large number of French businessmen started to invest in the county. They built everywhere, properties, hotels, on behalf of their own interests and those of France. But the people of Nice did not participate, did not win anything, to the contrary they were the victims of this development.”

”It is difficult to advise a good book for learning the history and culture of Nice. Many have been written, but all lie and hide everything that can give annoyance to France. Many facts have been hidden or manipulated,” says Alan Roullier.


Today 99.9% of the people of Nice feel French. How come Nice has changed so much in 170 years? How they could forget ? Undoubtedly the passing of the generations is one of the factors that contributes to oblivion, but it’s not the only one.

How to Build Nationalism. In the book ‘Brief Cultural History of European Nationalisms,’ the Spanish-Galician philologist Javier López Facal explains that politicians, artists, historians, clergy and philosophers are needed to create a nationalism. Also new national myths with which people identify, an homogenizing language, a flag, a national anthem, a traditional costume, the creation and imposition of a national holiday and especially good scholastic texts, are necessary. Then time and the forgetfulness of the following generations will do the rest.

As explained by the Swedish sociologist Orva Lofgren, these are a number of elements that allow different assemblies with the same elementary categories.

The Creation of National Myths: Scotland and Germany. ”In 1707 the parliaments of England and Scotland passed laws on the binding of their respective kingdoms, leading to the creation of Britain. Many Scots did not willingly accept the union. In the following decades a series of stories to differentiate themselves from their southern neighbors and strengthen their Scottishness were created,” explains Javier López Facal.

In the XVIII century, the Scottish writer, poet and politician James McPherson ”was responsible for translating into English a number of traditional ballads of the Highlands. But he did not just collect known poems by oral transmission, McPherson modified them and invented many new ones, mixing Homer and Milton with some Bible passages. He also invented the author of those ballads, Ossian, who, he said, lived in the second century (something impossible to believe for any historian). The success of the Ossianic poems was overwhelming. They were the literary and ideological product that Europe was waiting for – especially the Europe that had the power – tired as it was of worshiping Southern European literature and myths from the Greeks and the Romans. The Ossianic poems represented a ‘real’ folk poetry, which gave identity to remote peoples who lacked no such thing as was believed. Since then other European nations imitated the Ossianic poems, creating their own folk identity.”

‘Germany’ was the second nation to create a nationalist mythology. The Germans did not need to invent any Ossian, because they had a prestigious, old and real author: the Roman historian Tacitus (56-117 CE) who wrote a booklet about the customs and peoples of Germania.

”Since its publication in modern times, German humanists focused on Tacitus’ work and converted it in an accurate description of how the German peoples were in ancient times. Generation after generation, the Germans identified more and more with the heroic Arminio, whose name was changed to a more nationalistic Hermann. This hero defeated the Roman legions with his people, so genuine and different from their Southern neighbors, tall and vigorous, with blue eyes, blond hair, egalitarian and monogamous. Logically all negative qualities written by Tacitus were modestly contextualized or removed.”

Linguistic Homogenization. Today it seems natural and traditional that in France people speak French, in Italy Italian, in Germany German, but this is neither natural nor has always been so. For centuries in Europe, Latin – the language of the ancient Romans – was the erudite language. Later French became the language of the courts. But linguistic diversity was huge as most people spoke only in their historical languages, often called today dialects in many countries.

When nations were formed, the elites decided to impose a language that distinguished their nation from the neighbors and created a sense of collective identity. Undoubtedly literacy and the schooling efforts were the vehicle to achieve this goal. Therefore the schooling of people in an official language was a political decision.

According to Eric Hobsbawm, in 1789 50% of French people did not speak French at all, only 12 or 13% did.

The same happened in the rest of the world.

Public schools, administered by the states, have begun and developed in the last 150 years, not more than 200; in some countries 50 years ago. And undoubtedly through public schooling linguistic homogenization has been imposed and put into action worldwide.

The Case of Nice: Niçoise and French Languages. Today France catalogues the Niçoise language within the Occitan languages group, even if Ligurian languages characterize the Principality of Monaco and other areas of the former county of Nice. Even so experts consider it a bridge language between Occitan and Ligurian (what sounds logical for geographical reasons): Ligurian, Western Piedmontese and Oriental Occitan have 90% of linguistic affinities, remark some linguists. On this point we should not forget that we are talking about romance languages that derive from Latin or have been strongly influenced by it, in the case of the old Ligurian. We should not forget either that languages are non-material alive human goods that change over time: trade, migrations, invasions, trends, neighbors, local policies influence and modify them. Scholars such Francesco Barberis, Warner Former, Jean Philippe Dalbera and others have said that once the Niçoise was a 100% Ligurian language, until the eleventh century only few elements differing them. Successively, when the aristocratic family Anjou started pressing on Nice – promoting Provencal migration to the area – the Niçoise started to Occitanize (worth to notice: some areas of Italy today speak Occitan dialects).

The Italian language. In 1561 the Duke Emanuel Filiberto of Savoy abolished the use of Latin in the public administration and imposed the use of the Italian language throughout the duchy, of which Nice was part.

Francization policies arrived to Nice in the last decades of the XIX century. Local public administrators were replaced by French ones. Italian newspapers were closed. And even the names were modified: Bianchi turned to Le Blanc, Ponte to Dupont and Pastore to Pastor … In addition, between 1860 and 1950 the ‘Italian’ people of Nice went from being an absolute majority (about 70% of the population) to the minority (from 125,000 to the current 2,000) due to emigration to Genoa, Turin and other destinations, to deportations of people from Nice made by Paris and due to the immigration of people from other parts of France and former French colonial territories.

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Other Key Elements of Nationalism: a Flag, an Anthem and a National Costume. Also these national symbols were born from nothing, while national identities were constructed. For example, the world’s oldest anthem, La Marseillaise, was written in 1792, after the French revolution. Another example: the anthem, the flag and the emblem of the Republic of Peru which were imposed by decree and chosen after a competition announced by the Independence South American Leader José de San Martín between 1821 and 1822.

Typical dresses are not old. In Spain the typical flamenco dress that all Sevillians wear the day of the Seville Fair, was invented in the late nineteenth century and became popular from 1929, after the Barcelona Universal Exposition and the Ibero-American Exposition held in Seville. Another example is the Scottish kilt, invented, it seems, by an English steel entrepreneur in 1727.

Creation of a National Holiday. This is another foundational element of all nationalisms. One national day to remind, symbolize and stimulate peoples identification with their nationality.

The Most Important Tool of Nationalism: Good Textbooks. The school system has been the instrument par excellence to get people to identify with the idea of nation. Without doubt historians and archaeologists have played a very important role. Archaeologists were the great builders of the myths of the new nations which were created from the XVIII and XIX century worldwide. They aknowledged and demonstrated the great past, often lost, of a nation, an essential element of myth. True or false did not matter.

But historians had a greater role, more important, due to the power of spreading the words. They denied historical facts and created ex novo ‘other’ truths. Their theories and assumptions were simplified and then repeated at school and within the family. This is how they became part of the vision of reality, of history, in the minds of citizens.

What is Nationalism? We could say that nationalism is the creation of the political elites of a personal and collective (national) identity.

There are many definitions of nationalism. The British Encyclopaedia defines it as an ”ideology based on the premise that loyalty and devotion of the individual to the nation-state is more powerful than the identification with other human groups and interests.” Merriam -Webster Dictionary, ”the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national goals and not international, global objectives.”

The Chinese political scientist Benedict O’Gorman Anderson, one of the most influential scholars on this subject, said that nations are ”imaginary nations” in the sense that they are representations of cultural systems in which people begin to imagine common experiences that identify themselves with a community.

O’Gorman Anderson stressed that ”it is not simply a mental phantasmagoria, but rather institutional and historical practices in the framework of which are invented and recited social differentiations. Through these practices nationalism has become a constituent element of people’s identity.”

Nationalism was born in 1800. The rise of nationalisms marked a watershed moment between the past and our present. In this sense the Napoleonic age was that point of separation between pre-national Europe, in which the collective identity identified with religion or a dynastic continuity (being a common king’s subject), and national identity, in which the individual identifies with the state fortifying an imaginary concept of ethnicity.

The first seeds. Many historians assign paramount importance to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which established the principle that territorial integrity is the foundation of a state, getting over the feudal conception, in which territories and peoples constituted a hereditary patrimony. It seems the term ‘nation’ was first used by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Posteriorly also in the German area was developed the concept of ‘Volk,’ people as nation. Then these two notions were elaborated further by the French-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized the idea of ‘popular sovereignity.‘ But the concept of nation began to be commonly used later, in the nineteenth century, after the French Revolution.

”The Napoleonic period represents the historical moment in which the origins of nationalism are rooted, in direct connection – said the English historian John Stuart Woolf – with the construction of the modern bureaucratic state. After being purged of all its evident dictatorial aspects under Napoleon, all nineteenth-century liberals embraced it and presented nationalism as a symbol of progress and modernity. In fact there is a deep connection between nationalism and liberalism (1) and this is due, I believe, to the fact that nationalism was born in Western Europe, where bourgeois liberalism seemed to be a condition of modernity, material progress and wealth, mainly for two states: France and England.”

Nationalism, Liberalism and Literacy. Today most scholars accept the link between nationalism and industrial development, as they agree on the close connection between nationalism and literacy.

The Three Fundamental Elements of Nationalism : People (citizens), State and Territory. If the theoretical foundations of nationalism were created since the French Revolution, the general acceptance of these three precepts took place in Western Europe after World War I, with the embrace of the idea of national self-determination. In 1917, under pressure from the US President Thomas Woodrow Wilson – and for fear that the Russian Bolsheviks, who had recognized the right to self-determination of ‘ethnical nationalities,’ could become a pole of attraction – the concept of self-determination became universal in the Western world.

Nationalism and Ethnicity. Obviously no one state represents and encompasses only one nation or ethnic group. And this statement is valid worldwide. Germany is composed of many historical, pre-national communities. In addition it includes different ‘ethnic groups’ who have lived together for centuries, Germanics, Slavics, Latins, Celtic, etc. The same is true for a country like Italy, Spain, France, England, Iceland, Canada, Mexico, Congo, India and so on. This phenomenon is more evident and well-known outside Europe where nationalism has been exported, imposed or adopted.

The statement by the Frank-Bavarian philosopher Friedrich Hegel ”Nations may have a long history before reaching its destination, becoming a State” actually is false because in the course of history many old nations-communities have lost their independence and even their identity; and also because many nations are incorporated in states that do not recognize their request. One of these hundreds of cases is the self-proclaimed Lakota Republic in the United States, which has been demanding independence since 2007.

Some experts have asserted that the most critical areas for nationalisms are on the borders, where often old communities (old collective identities) have been divided and distributed among states.

Conclusion. Today more than 99% of the people of Nice seem to feel French, but in 1860 did not. Probably they did not feel Italian because the unification of Italy was reached in 1861. Perhaps they felt, deep inside, Ligurian, more likely Sabaudians (Savoy), but certainly Nicoise. Since then things have changed. Emigration and deportation of people of Nice. The imposition of the French language. The change of life imposed by the Parisian elites. The overwhelming immigration to the area. All these factors contributed.

”I think that for several reasons there is something very offensive in the concept of nationalism. It denies that human behavior is always the same,” said the English historian John Stuart Woolf in an interview. It denies also that a global human welfare should be the goal of our societies and instead puts emphasis on values like competition and selfishness through concepts such as national interest.

In addition, ”the principle that a nation has always existed throughout the centuries is a legend and this is why historians and intellectuals find it so difficult to deal with this issue, so irrational, so emotionally charged and so immensely powerful.”

”Nationalism claims that a nation exists even when it does not. And despite this, it is impossible to deny that after the creation of the nation-state, states have emerged on an idea that has created a strong sense of national identity. Nationalism has turned what was a myth and historical falsehoods, into reality. That is why nationalism is a difficult subject, because it is totally irrational and is very difficult to use rational methods to explain it.”

But surely nationalism creates some questions which could be the keys to overcome the enormous challenges Humanity is currently facing. Why has a sense of identification with a nation become so important? Is it because humans need to identify themselves with powerful people? Is it due to ignorance? To the individual’s need to be accepted and belong to a group, to an imaginary collective? And perhaps these are the most important questions: why people need to feel that they are different, better, more important and have more rights than others? What causes that need to identify? Do people need to identify themselves to feel they are something or someone?

Evidently these are questions that do not only concern nationalism. They concern the whole social structure in which we live in. The ideas, concepts and beliefs that we embrace through repetition, recitation and self-convinction since our childhood.



( 1) Liberalism. Political liberalism: a doctrine founded on the natural goodness of humans that protects the freedom of the individual. Economic liberalism: a doctrine that claims that governments should not control prices, rents, wages which instead must rely on competition and the free market.

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