People’s history in France: A branding strategy, or a new kind of social history?

Academic innovation?
By Émilien Ruiz

While it took over two decades for Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (Harper Collins, 1980) to be published in French as Une histoire populaire des États-Unis (Agone, 2002), the 2010s saw an increased number of other histoires populaires in France. Some of these are translations of books entitled A People’s History of. . . , offering French readers people’s histories of humanity, the sciences, or sport. However, over the past three or four years, French historiography has been enriched with many people’s histories of its own, such as those of Nantes, football, or of course France, with the successive publications by Michelle Zancarini-Fournel and Gérard Noiriel in 2016 and 2018. This growing trend raises the following question: Are “histoires populaires” just a trendy branding strategy? The commercial success of Howard Zinn’s book and its many variants (such as comic books, documentaries, abridged versions, or versions for children) may have prompted publishers to attempt to copy this phenomenon, or at least to take advantage of the “brand” represented by the title. Or rather, might the reading of these books prompt us to identify the emergence of a new way of writing about society? That is, a product of renewed historiographic approaches whereby more classic formulations—such as “a social history of . . .”—are set aside.

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