France – A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror, St Martin’s Press, November 2016 by Jonathan Fenby.
review by Jamie Ivey
France has been a confusing place to live over the past few years. Events, particularly the wave of terror attacks starting with Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, have seemed strangely out of sync with the France I thought I knew. I suspect I am not alone.
An expat for 10 years my knowledge of modern French history has been cobbled together from films, documentaries and an Anglo-centric history degree. The story I am familiar with is boiled down, bare bones stuff: Sun King, Louis XIV, invented absolutism, ruling France like a God on earth. All the gold and pomp and splendour of an earthly deity was expensive, and eventually the French people decided that they’d had enough of Kings and there was a revolution. Meanwhile Britain with its navy was conquering the world. Occasionally she knocked France’s new emperor Napoleon of his perch, and imprisoned him in some far off island.
By the time of the First World War, France had still not got its act together, and needed rescuing by the English and the Americans. Ditto the Second World War. Despite being saved twice the French were never truly grateful, opposing the British in all things European, and snubbing the Americans by refusing to support the war in Iraq.
My view of modern France has also been influenced by Ex-pat literature. From A Year in Provence to A Year in the Merde the French are characterised as workshy and a little backward. Mayle has them obsessed by food and wine, and Stephen Clarke (A Year in the Merde) with sex. Being an expat in France was thus, until recently, a cosy, superior experience. One could graciously concede that the food and lifestyle was better than in England or America, safe in the knowledge that when it came to important matters like the economy and war, France was a basket case.
How then to account for the fact that this supposedly weak-willed anti-interventionist nation, led by a politician who would rather speed off on the back of a moped for illicit midnight sex than stick his head above the parapet, now finds itself at the head of the global war on terror?
Fenby’s book promises a new narrative, a re-telling of history to explain the France we live in today. A France where, on a recent visit to L’Estaque, the Med port whose special light gave birth to impressionism, I passed a Jewish school completely surrounded by soldiers fingering the triggers of assault rifles. A France where during a lunch last week in Aix, convoys of CRS riot police shut the Cours Mirabeau. This leafy, gorgeous tree-lined road is usually a temple to the slow gentle Provencal way of life. Instead it was transformed by sirens into a cathedral of apprehension.
To an extent Fenby succeeds in his mission, tracing the history of the five French Republics since the revolution and explaining the royalist, republican, revolutionary, Paris, provinces, divisions which have consistently made consensus impossible. French government over the centuries is characterised by Fenby as consumed by self-interest and self importance, with the only vehicle for real political change, street protest, riot and revolution.
The picture that emerges over the course of the 500 pages is of a governing class that is increasingly unable to reconcile its view of France as a special nation, the cradle of the Enlightenment, a crucible of scientific invention, the home to the world’s greatest writers and artists, with the economic realities of running such a geographically disparate nation. As a result of this contradiction the contemporary French are depicted as morose, as if they feel cheated by history which should have somehow dealt them a better hand.
Where the books disappoints is the speed with which it deals with France’s historical involvement in the Middle East. The Sykes Picot agreement outlining the spheres of influence of France and the UK in the region after the First World War merits only a paragraph. The involvement of French Gaullist troops in Syria during the Second World War fighting for the right for France to determine Syria’s future is similarly brushed aside. The treatment of the history of French Algeria is thankfully more detailed, giving a good insight into the bubbling tension between a secular French state and its Muslim citizens.
Throughout Fenby’s prose is easy to read and he appreciates that he has a great story to tell. At times events snowball in the manner of a fictional thriller and there is an inherent dramatic tension not normal for a history book. As an introduction to modern French history the book is indispensable, and to be highly recommended to expats and tourists seeking to broaden their understanding of France and the French beyond trite travelogues.