In the period from the mid 19th century until the end of the second World War, irredentism was a very common thing. For example, before the first world war, Italy wanted to annex the Italian speaking regions of Austria-Hungary and of Switzerland. The idea was, to my knownledge, popular for both Italians of inside and outside the country.

During the same time, the idea that "all Germans should be united under one same state", an idea known to as "pangermanism" became prominent and became more or less the source of both World Wars. Similarly, the idea was popular for both Germans inside and outside of their country.

Similarly during the same period there was the idea that all slavs should be part of the same empire, an idea known as "panslavism".

This makes me wonder why in the same period of time, there wasn't ever the idea of unifying southern french-speaking Belguim, western french-speaking Switzerland and perhaps the back-then french speaking Aosta Valley in Italy under a single, unified French state?

Perhaps is was the French were much more obsessed by getting Alsace-Moselle back, even though those were mostly non-French speaking?

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    Incidentally, there was a kind of “French” irredentism in Belgium, the rattachisme. But I don't think it was very strong and did not attract that much interest in France itself (i.e. Belgian rattachists were more interested in being “reunited” with France than France was in taking control of Wallonia).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 20:47

3 Answers 3


The thing is that at the time in question, France was actually quite diverse (and yet sufficiently unified on a political level to become a rather successful democratic nation-state rather than crumble like Austria-Hungary). And as you correctly surmised, Alsace-Moselle (the German “Elsaß-Lothringen”) loomed large in French minds but not quite for the reasons you suspected.

The problem is not so much that France had no time to focus on Switzerland or Belgium but rather that it could not define itself based on some narrow ethnolinguistic features, precisely because Alsace was obviously strongly influenced by German culture. In France, it was (and to some extent still is) commonplace to contrast the “German” (ethnolinguistic) vision of what a nation is with the French vision exemplified in particular by Ernest Renan, who developed a whole theory of the nation designed to support claims that peripheral regions (and especially Alsace-Moselle) really are French.

France was, therefore, first, the area under the influence of the French kings and later a nation that sees itself as being based on the (actual or theoretical) consent of its citizens. At times (e.g. during the revolutionary wars or, in a twisted way, during colonization) there was even some temptation to consider that France could grow to encompass large parts of Europe or the world to bring progress to everyone (colonization was actually very ugly but, in France, its predatory nature was not explicitly acknowledged in the way it could be elsewhere; even the unification of mainland France itself was not always a smooth process).

The French language was therefore not a given, a way to sort people into French and non-French, but something coming from the top as a way to realize this nation. At the end of the 19th century, there are millions of French citizens (to say nothing of the colonies) who do not speak French or, at the very least, do not speak it as their first language (in Brittany, the Basque country, etc.).

It's interesting to note that during one or two centuries, the French language was extremely prestigious. It was the language of many European courts and thinkers actually debated whether it was intrinsically more suited to sophisticated thought than other languages. A bit later, in 1794, Henri Grégoire famously advocated the “eradication” of local languages and patois (the dialects many French people actually spoke) to spread the French language, linked in his thinking with progress and democracy. The common thread and relevance of all this is that the French language is presented not so much as something distinctly French as it is something France gifted to the world (but that everyone might want to speak).

In this context, it makes sense to claim territory that (in some way) belonged to France in the past rather than focus on languages and unifying French speakers is not a priority (or could even backfire badly).


Actually, there was a mild form of French "Irredentism" that manifested itself in the Austro-Sardinian war of 1859, when France demanded the return of Savoy and Nice in exchange for aiding Sardinia in a war against Austria.

When France overran and occupied Switzerland, Belgium and other nations under Napoleon, she illegitimately claimed control of more than French-speaking territories. After the defeat of Napoleon, the more "legititmate" types of irrendentists (if any) pretty much kept quiet.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when France's borders were "rolled back" to pre-Revolutionary times, France became a "model citizen". France was later admitted to the "Concert of Europe" which solidified her status as a "Great" (European) power, but needed to be on her best behavior to maintain this position. After that, the only French territorial claims (in Europe) besides Savoy and Nice that were considered "legitimate" were those in Alsace and Lorraine, against Germany, the new, rising "aggressive" power, which took those provinces away from France in 1871.


First off all, these movements exist in France, too, just see how France ironed and blended smaller regions like Alsac or Occitania to a more uniform French nation. Such kind of national movement was already present during e.g. the French revolution, where the properly cohesive force was the national identity.

What you forget, your examples about national states where state boundaries were significantly different from national boundaries and/or nations with no independence/own states (unlike in case of France). Slavs were never even close to have a unified, big empire, not small part because slavs do not speak the same language, and also national identity existed even from the start: just take a look at Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia... Panslav movements (much like Italy or Germany) was just a way to justify independence from the feudal structure at that time, justify an opposition or to justify the Russian influence. Not accident that Poland was generally less enthusiastic about panslav ideology.

Italy or Germany was also just a concept, to gain political influence over an extended region when present feudal structures were unable to hold them. It is not only about languages. Just as France did not melt in every French speaking region, Germany did not include Austria, german-speaking Switzerland, Luxemburg, Netherlands (local German dialects are rather close to Dutch), in spite many of these regions are traditionally part of Holy Empire or the Habsburg Empire and culturally very close to Germany.

Let me also point out that XIXth century Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, were not ethnically that clear as most people retrospectively think. Most ethnics were mixed all over the place: the previous centuries filling the villages with settlers due to larger population movements following the wars and plagues, and as well as towns. Most town population e.g around the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy were bi or trilingual.

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    Actually Brittany, Alsace, Corsica, etc. are not comparable at all, it's the opposite: They have been integrated into France in spite of linguistic differences. And German nationalism was in fact very much about language; What to do with Austria was a big issue at several points in time and it was even briefly integrated into Germany during the Nazi era. That it (and other similar movements like Italian irredentism) was ultimately unsuccessful does not mean it wasn't. That's in stark contrast with French nationalism.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 6:37
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    None of what you said is wrong, but how does this answer my question to any stretch of imagination?
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 7:52
  • @Bregalad You ask why X didn't happen and I told you it actually happened, and why happened different way in the places you showed as examples.
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 15:25
  • @Relaxed Language is just one factor in national movements, when one ask is X in the same nation as Y. Slavs do not speak the same language, the differences are actually rather big between different slavic languages. Austria was not in Germany very specifically because Germany was unified under the Hohenzollerns instead of the Habsburgs, and not because one "brotchen" the other "semmel".
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 15:31
  • @Greg That's the point actually: Language is just one factor and it did not play the same role in France. For Italian irredentism is mostly about language (and that's what the question is about). German nationalism also largely was and certainly included Austria (cf. the Großdeutsche Lösung) even if it ultimately failed in that respect. These movements did not exist in France and Alsace is a case in point.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 21:31

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