In his 1882 Sorbonne lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation,” historian Ernest Renan defined the nation as “un plébiscite de tous les jours”: a daily referendum. The pithy, oft-cited phrase was the best formulation Renan could find to anchor the otherwise flimsy authority of the nation – one defined by both its past and present functions. In the past, the nation was grounded in a shared heritage, “la possession en commun d’un riche legs de souvenirs”; but in the present it was defined as the mere wish to live together for the moment, “consentement actuel, le désir de vivre ensemble.” These two dimensions—let’s say “temporalities”—required a synthesis. That synthesis was the referendum: a constant reassessment of whether the past should be prolonged to the present.

Renan’s model and word choice resonate only too well with the October 1st referendum for Catalonia secession. If we accept a 90% affirmative vote from 43% of the Catalan population, then new “plébisicite” results are in, and the region’s 1979 autonomous status should transition to nationhood. Naturally, the Spanish government and European Union disagree, claiming that the autonomy-granting constitution renders a secession vote illegal. For them, a literal referendum can found a nation, but it may not dissolve one.

Such opponents focus on the “present” dimension of Renan’s definition. For them, “le désir de vivre ensemble” could be written into 1979 legal stone with no need for shared language or culture. Supporters—that 90% of 43%—make recourse to its “past” function. For them, the Catalonian region has its own “riche legs de souvenirs”; sardana instead of flamenco, castells instead of bullfights. Assimilation, they argue, only took place through bloody coercion, during the 1714 reign of Philip V and that of the Franco dictatorship two centuries later.

A literal referendum can found a nation, but it may not dissolve one.

If each faction disregards one of the nation’s temporalities, they do so due to a shared misconception: that Spain is a European irregularity. In truth, it is far from the sole motley counterpart to a set of culturally-homogenous nation-states. When Renan fretted in 1882 about provincial secession, he was referring to the precarity of France. Since 1870, the Third Republic may have been marked by relative integration, but it had reached that point only after a century-long venture to apply abstract republican ideals to a set of disparate linguistic, cultural, and ethnic traditions.

As we look at the Catalan case, it’s useful to turn to antecedents for national cultural unification, a pan-European project traced with real rigor in Anne Marie Thiesse’s La création des identités nationales. Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle. Her work takes aim at two fictions: the first that the nation is born in some primordial age, the second that it emerges slowly, naturally through history’s long arc. No, Thiesse says. A nation is the work of specific agents—a group of visionaries voting in Renan’s “plébiscite” to link a disparate past to a unified present. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the phenomenon of culture-creation took place from Germany to Russia, England to Finland. But let’s stay close to Renan and relativize the Spanish case by deconstructing the French claim to cultural unity.

France was, quite simply, never just France. First it was the Gauls, a Celtic population occupying the territory till the Franks (who were Germanic!) invaded in 486, adopted Romanic language, and renamed the area Francia. By the time Francia was preparing to transition to modern nation-statehood 1303 years later, its linguistic and regional diversity was astounding. The Académie française had sought since 1635 to standardize the French language, but dialects or “patois” like Alsatian and Basque, Occitan and Franco-Provençal remained dominant beyond the capital. Even Catalan had a role to play.

What once constituted unity may one day seem untenable.

When the 1789 revolutionaries defined the French state, they relied on universalisms: a “liberté, égalité, fraternité” devoid of cultural specificity, a blank slate offering all provinces a place in its new republic. One reason that project first failed, leading, instead, to a century of terrors and monarchical revivals, was because it ignored the Renan’s first temporality. A republic required roots in the past, a single voting body not just capable of communicating with the capital but also motivated to do so. Citizens from Aix-en-Provence to the Pyrenees needed to feel the poetry published by Paris Pont Neuf was worth reading. That required more than shared laws and language; it required a shared history.

Such was the work of Thiesse’s agents, and, for a time, it seemed like they were going to make France…Celtic! Inspired by one James Macpherson, a Scottish poet who “rediscovered” the third-century Ossian epic by investigating Gaelic folklore, the French state underwrote the analogous fieldwork of the Académie Celtique. The thinking was that by investigating Breton folklore, they might uncover a lost literature composed before the 486 Frankish invasion. There might just be a secret national epic, a French equivalent to Ossian, a text to displace the Iliad—a past temporality to anchor the present one of 1789.

Although the Académie Celtique made little progress, their work did inspire Théodore Hersart de La Villemarque, an ambitious philologist hailing from Quimperlé. La Villemarque’s ethnographic research resulted in the 1839 collection of (dubiously authentic) Breton ballads Barzas Breiz. Contemporary fiction writers, too, were taken with the Celtic fetish. Eugène Sue interwove Frank and Gaul histories in Les Mystères du peuple; George Sand lauded MacPherson and denounced the French failure to commemorate their corresponding Breton splendor.

And then, rather quickly, that regional heritage was forgotten. The Gaulois-Celtic thesis fell out of fashion, and an Anglo-Normand poem, La Chanson de Roland, surpassed Barzas Breiz as quintessential national epic. Published just two years before, its twelfth-century manuscripts would proudly top syllabi of French literature courses for decades to come. Barzas Breiz, meanwhile, was re-appropriated by Breton secessionists. The text La Villemarque had crafted to bring his nation together became a weapon to rip it apart.

This is the typical story in Thiesse’s book: a set of agents, a false epic, a past temporality forged to serve the present. Like Spain, France has its particularities. There is the rigor of the Enlightenment thought, the devotion to 1789 and its Rousseauean social contract. There is the belated arrival of romanticism, the uncertainty toward which province should sate the thirst for local folklore. There is a century of rotating political regimes, republic giving way to empire to monarchy, then back to the beginning.


These are the paradoxes that require referendums. Because individuals and contingencies shift their opinions, because what once constituted unity may one day seem untenable. “Human desires change,” Renan wrote, “after all what does not change? Nations are not something eternal. They began, they will end.” This time, however, we would be mistaken to equate Renan’s prophesy with the Catalan case. He thought the nation would be replaced by a European confederation, that the world was headed toward integration not fragmentation.

If Renan prophesied incorrectly, it may be because there is a categorical difference between the nineteenth-century “plebiscite” and that of October 1, 2017. The first had democratic underpinnings, but it was orchestrated by the élite. That cosmopolitan cohort capital-hopped from Berlin to Paris to London, returning to their host countries-to-be with the latest scoop on how to build a nation. Jacob Grimm may have bestowed on Germany its foundational fairy tales, but he launched his research with a librarian post for the youngest brother of Napoleon I.

The Catalan referendum is of a different order. It is more real and more radical because it is representative. It is a movement made nauseous with the idea that the synthesis between past and present has been chosen for so long by those cosmopolitan elites. And nothing, nothing sparks violence like a synthesis put on a trial—a false agreement unmasked, the nation’s oxymoron airing for all to see.