« The inspiration for the Maison Française d’Oxford came in 1940-41 when England, fighting Nazi Germany with the modest help of the Free French and other allies forced from their countries by enemy forces, stood alone in defence of European civilization. England’s courage and determination incited the United States, Canada and Australia to join the fight to free Europe and restore her to peace and dignity.
Having lived in England during these heroic and tumultuous years, I was impressed by the courage and serene tranquillity that then reigned in this centre of civilisation, of reflexion, of research and teaching that is the University of Oxford. I then foresaw the possibility for the post-war generations of French and English scholars to come together under one roof, to share their aspirations and their understandings of life. I hoped that these encounters and the friendships that would result from them would contribute to the preparation of a better and more just world, a hope that has always been shared by the thinkers of our two countries and which may be realised with the help of people of good will on this earth. »
Claude Schaeffer, Archives de la MFO
1946: The birth of the Maison Française
The idea of establishing a French presence at the heart of the British academic world dates back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. It was defended in particular by the members of the French Club, which existed at the University of Oxford at the time and which brought together a community of francophile students. However, it was not until after the Second World War, in more favourable circumstances that this project was fully executed. The support that the United Kingdom had provided to the Free French provoked a desire to consolidate the links between the two sides of the Channel, in cultural as much as academic terms. The honour fell to the archaeologist Claude Schaeffer (1898-1982) – in charge of the Ugarit site in Syria, future professor at the Collège de France, but also Officer in the Royal Navy and Fellow of St John’s College – to take the initiative and instigate negotiations that would lead to the creation of a new institution. Another important figure was chosen to help in its establishment and watch over the first years of its life: Henri Fluchère, a renowned academic, translator of TS Eliot and specialist of Shakespeare, also known for his involvment with the Resistance. Under his guidance, the Maison Française was brought to life at the beginning of the school year of 1946, at 29 Beaumont Street, not far from the Ashmolean Museum. The name “Maison Française” was chosen in reference to the pavilions of the International University Campus that opened in Paris in 1925 with the same peaceable ideals.
French finances were still limited in the years immediately following the war, and the new institution did not escape a certain amount of improvisation. At this time there was only one British student in residence, the buildings were poky and dilapidated and the rationing policy was still in place. On top of it all, the winter proved to be exceptionally harsh and frost caused the drains to burst. One witness to this pioneering time remembers having to “collect snow to melt, so as to have the necessary in order to perform one’s ablutions and have some cups of rather dubious tea” (M-L Fluchère p. 12). Fluchère was not discouraged, however, the adventure was beginning.
1947-1962: At 72 Woodstock Road
At the end of the first year, the infant institution moved to 72 Woodstock Road and was really able to stretch its wings, deciding on its objectives and its structure, and developing a range of activities.
As concerns the mission and the principles of the Maison Française, the University of Oxford decree that confirmed its foundation on 22 October 1946, ruled out the idea of it being a teaching institution in its own right. There was no question of establishing a new College, nor even a branch of the Alliance Française. The Maison Française was to constitute a new kind of institution, intended to promote academic, scientific and cultural exchange under the shared responsibility of the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Universities of Paris and Oxford. The material aspects of the structure were to depend on the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs. A “management committee” based in Paris would carry out the actual monitoring of activities and an “Oxonian committee” would ensure their implementation.
In terms of actual goals, efforts were focused on the establishment of a genuine library with a substantial collection enriched with numerous journal subscriptions, aiming to provide both a workspace for students and a showcase for contemporary French intellectual production. Fluchère saw in this “a cultural tool and an instrument of French propaganda, which provides the interested reader with constantly renewed resources of contemporary life.” (M-L Fluchère p. 21).
Alongside this, conference and debate series were organised where French literary and scientific figures – such as Camus, Mauriac, Merleau-Ponty or Lacan – came to present their research and to exchange with their British counterparts. Thanks to the good work of the Maison, other well-known people such as Pierre Mendès-France or Guy Mollet found themselves invited into Oxford colleges.
From the very beginning, the MFO organised exhibitions, concerts, theatre productions and cinema screenings, in the hope of more widely promoting cultural prestige in all its aspects.
Finally, and without becoming a university college, the institution became home to a group of permanent residents, essentially British students at this time. Their “acculturation” took place through an almost family way of life, in the company of the French personnel. Over and above learning French, these residents were encouraged to become “familiar with our habits, our behaviour and our tastes” (M-L Fluchère p. 12). This was also a time when meals were eaten together in the presence of the Director. A certain number of rituals were established, such as a “kitty” that was made up of the fines imposed on any student who let slip a word or two in English…. (M-L Fluchère p. 57).
1963-1967: The move to 2-10 Norham Road
However exquisitely British they might have been, the buildings on Woodstock Road did not meet all the necessary requirements. The library rapidly reached saturation point and the lack of spacious rooms began to be a constraint. Moreover, this was merely a building rented from St Hugh’s College. In 1959 an opportunity presented itself for the French government to acquire six parcels of land belonging to St John’s College in a residential sector not far from University Parks, with the possibility of constructing an appropriate building. The transaction was concluded and the architects went to work on what is now the current building of the MFO. With a resolutely functional aesthetic, the building houses administrative offices, conference and reception rooms, a library and workspaces as well as a dozen bedrooms upstairs for residents.
The foundation stone of the new building was laid in great ceremony on 15th June 1962 by the University Chancellor and British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. The inauguration was celebrated with no less fuss in 1967 and Malraux himself came for the occasion. His presence was also a sign of renewal, as Franco-British relations had become clouded over General de Gaulle’s refusal to allow Britain to enter the European Economic Community. In a flamboyant speech that earned him a standing ovation, the Minister of Culture lauded the role of the University as the “power of Mind”, the guardian of the “immortal words” of Judeo-Christian and humanist heritage, and its goal of “saving human intelligence, so that man remains man” in the context of a materialist world increasingly haunted by primary instincts. The institution was already more than twenty years old when it relocated. It was already part of the Oxford landscape when the time came for it to really start establishing itself.
The symbol of this successful integration is the annual garden party, organised at the beginning of June (at the end of Trinity Term), which has become little by little an important event on the university calendar. This is the opportunity for the francophile community to come together in the presence of the French Ambassador, the Director of the Maison Française in full academic dress, and the Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of Paris and Oxford. Given that social rites are an integral part of British university life, from the beginning this event has been laden with more than merely anecdotal significance.
Read André Malraux’s speech for the inauguration of the MFO in 1967 (in French)
The Maison Française today
Today the Maison Française is a unique institution, enriched by its threefold traditional affiliation – coming under the responsibility of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, but also under that of the University of Paris, and very closely linked to the University of Oxford. In addition to this, today it also houses a CNRS research centre and brings together teams of researchers working in different areas. This has substantially contributed to the renewal of the organisation and its reputation.
Important changes in direction have been made since the 1980s. Given that the media provide increasing access to French cultural production, and that other institutions in both London and Oxford are dedicated to the dissemination of French language and culture, the MFO’s activities as a cultural centre have become less significant. Similarly, the idea of a showcase for French culture in the eyes of the British University sphere, has gradually been replaced with the need for a space for international and interdisciplinary dialogue. Above all, the focus has been on academic cooperation and research. This trend accelerated when Jean-Claude Vatin was Director, with the establishment of a CNRS research unit within the MFO in 1999. In 2020-2021, this research unit was composed of researchers and fellows integrated in different areas of study: classics and medieval studies, history and history of science, literature and arts, politics and international relations.
As a result of these changes, the residents are no longer primarily British students, nor even linguists, but more often young French researchers from various fields who need to spend time in Great Britain for their research.