November 26, 2014 by Andrew W M Smith
France’s recent reorganisation of the regions has been an important step in altering the framework of the nation. Despite its imminence and its broadly popular reception, it has predictably drawn howls of protest from some quarters.
Image: Front Cover of COEA, ‘Le Petit Livre de l’Occitanie’ (Nimes, 4 Vertats, 1971). Scanned from book.
In the context of my own research, the re-shaping of the South is particularly interesting. The 5 Départements of the Languedoc-Roussillon (Pyrénées-Orientales, Aude, Hérault, Gard and Lozère) are being fused with the 8 Départements of the Midi-Pyrénées (Ariège, Haute-Garonne, Tarn, Aveyron, Lot, Tarn-et-Garonne, Gers and Hautes-Pyrénées). This will create one larger region of 13 Départements, covering much of the South-West.
This also combines a number of France’s historical minority national groups: Basques, Catalans and Occitans. I find this fascinating in the way in which it will forge connections between these different historical groups.
With apologies for shameless self-promotion, I’ve written a fair bit on the development of identity in this region. In particular, I’ve discussed the importance of Rugby, Wine and Socialism to regional identity in the journal National Identities, and looked at the importance of the Occitan Cross in a new edited volume looking at Place and Locality in Modern France.
One of the burning questions of this merger is what this new region might be called, dredging up all sorts of linguistic and historical arguments. I was spurred into writing this piece by an interesting article in the Midi-Libre with an accompanying poll that asked people to respond to suggestions. It’s worth visiting the site to take a look.
I’ve picked out a selection of the top-voted suggestions from that poll to look at the interesting ideas they conjure up. At the time of writing, it has had nearly 2,000 votes cast and I’ve included current vote share next to each name:
Languedoc-Roussillon – 7,6%
This is obviously interesting in that it projects the name of one of the mergers across the whole area. If ‘Languedoc’ is seen as being exclusionary, it seems the maintenance of this name will be even more so. This seems the simplest option (being an area that has a traditional presence and long history), yet excludes once more those who feel Catalan, Basque or so on.
Occitanie – 6,7%
Occitanie is the region in which Occitan is principally spoken, encompassing much of the southern half of France (the Midi, described as Méridional), but concentrated most strongly around the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. It has been recognized as a vibrant identity since the Middle Ages, but has skirted political validation, except as the territories of the Count of Toulouse, both prior to and following its conquest by the French nation in the 13th century. There has been a pronounced Occitan movement since the Liberation, with particular emphasis on the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the area covered by ‘Occitanie’ had been fairly contentious. Some Occitan nationalists have spoken of a territory which spans 33 Départements, whereas many activists have based it in the more realistic confines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Naming this merger of the two regions Occitanie would provide a territory for a national identity (often hazily defined) that has heretofore lacked a territory.
This traditional name is a useful and adaptable label that works well for the region (and remains the bookies’ favourite). The linked Midi-Libre article points to the fact that the Mayors of Montpellier and Toulouse have supported this and it seems the most intuitive option. Many interviews I’ve conducted in the region identified that people felt more Languedocian than Occitan, and found it a less contentious identity to claim. Again, as above, it references the distinctive language element of Occitan, yet situates it within the Republican framework of Départements established after the French Revolution.
This is an interesting suggestion, as it has a recent and controversial past that sits alongside its ancient heritage. In 2004, the incoming Président de la Région George Frêche proposed a change to the region’s name: gone would be the Languedoc-Roussillon in favour of a title recalling the Roman presence in the area, Septimania. Protests against the idea conveyed a popular rejection, as 5,000 people gathered in Perpignan to protest against the plan. Following this reaction, Frêche admitted defeat:
‘95% of people have expressed their love for the (name) Languedoc-Roussillon, and 5% defended Septimanie. It was a proposition and the people didn’t want it, I am abandoning it, I’m backing off. I’ve touched a raw nerve and I won’t stand against popular will’ (AFP, 2005).
Yet this climb-down did not signify an end to his attempts to rebrand the region, as he changed the flag from the traditional Occitan cross to a figurative rendering of the seven suns referred to by Septimania, representing the seven principal cities of the region. This would be an outside choice, owing to the fact that it has already been tried and found wanting!
These options for different names present interesting insights into a complicated and storied region, with a wealth of rich and interesting history.
I’ve recently been working on an article with a friend (James Hawkey, a lecturer at Bristol University) looking at the 1907 Wine Revolts in the Languedoc and the impact on the linguistic identity of the area. We’ve spent a long time trying to clear up in our minds how best to talk about quite nebulous concepts, in particular the diffuse area in which people speak Occitan and understand some sense of common occupational identity.
In the end, we included a footnote that asked the reader to view the terms ‘Occitan’ and ‘Occitanism’ as specifically referencing the languages of the Midi and not the nationalist movement that came later (with its diverse political and regionalist overtones). We included within this term a variety of Occitan variations (Provençal, Lengadocien, Auvernhat). It was important to acknowledge that these terms are live and are debated. They can seem anachronistic (the terms were not in widespread use before the 1960s) and they can seem politically motivated (‘Occitan’ occasionally being regarded as anti-Félibrige – the literary group which promoted the Occitan language). I’m very thankful that James, as a linguist, was able to conquer these difficulties and enable us to communicate effectively! My apologies for paraphrasing him here!
Even from our limited experience, you can see how controversial these names can be. Our reviewers counselled us to be extremely careful about how we conveyed the swirling relationships between language, politics and history that these words conjured up. Naming the region will not be easy, nor will it be uncontested. One can only hope that historical sentiment is considered to ensure that a consensus can be built.
My choice? Well, if I’m honest, I think Occitanie would be wonderful, although recognise it could be potentially controversial. The concept of recreating a 13th century concept in modern France has something fantastically ambitious about it. In reality, Languedoc is a good consensus option, I feel, as long as it integrates diverse voices (such as Catalans and Basques). Either way, I’m glad I don’t have to make the ultimate decision. What’s in a name? A hell of a lot.