Do we really need another history of France when Amazon already carries so many? This one is on the two centuries since Waterloo, making it timely, but it covers ground that has already been gone over by the likes of Theodore Zeldin and Alastair Horne. Fenby is not a professional historian but a journalist who, according to his acknowledgements, has worked in or on France since 1965. All this enables Fenby to recount France’s history, especially its recent history, with an easy fluency. However, his narrative reads overall like a skimming summary listing historical events, notable quotes and anecdotes; it lacks the sober depth of Zeldin and the witty apercus of Horne. On the other hand, it contains many surprising facts that I at least had not known, and is well-organized for such a lengthy work.
Fenby’s thesis, which he states explicitly in the conclusion, is that ‘while justly proud of the nation’s achievements since the Revolution, the French have become prisoners of the heritage of their past’. Therefore, the narrative mainly chronicles the continual conflict between revolutionary and reactionary forces down to today, with no outright victory for either side possible and no leader capable of uniting the country at a higher level above partisanship. As a result, no one is willing to attempt real reform, resulting in the demoralized apathy that has overtaken France since the end of Mitterand’s reign; hence, the appeal of extremists like the Le Pens.
Fenby provides no list of the causes of the Revolution, but his main theme is nonetheless clear: ‘the nation which takes its revolutionary and republican legacy as constituting its core values has never, in fact, fully digested that heritage because it has never wanted to shed its other, more conservative character’. Thus, France found itself conquering a revolutionary empire under Napoleon, perhaps inevitably, one infers, because the Revolution’s ‘leadership perverted the thinking of the Enlightenment in the conviction that it had the right to impose one perfect fate for mankind’. Fenby also asserts that the Revolution initiated a plutocracy, particularly under the Directorate, which was primarily concerned with making money. Napoleon introduced even more of a competitive meritocracy. Fenby’s roundups of the regimes that followed 1815 are mostly standard knowledge, but they contain some remarkable data, especially clever quips, and he tries to be even-handed in his assessments. Thus, we read that many technological innovations took place during the 1820s, e.g. the first photograph, quinine, the stethoscope, sewing machine and pencil sharpener, as well as Braille. But Charles X was not able to reconcile royalist with republican sentiment, leading to his overthrow in 1830 and replacement with the ‘bourgeois monarch’ Louis Philippe.
Making money was the hallmark of the July Monarchy, the king being himself one of France’s richest men. Advised by Guizot, Louis Philippe tried to steer a middle course, and Fenby’s account of his 18 years in power makes him look like a business manager on a throne. He too fell in the 1848 uprising, and the Second Republic lasted only several years before Napoleon III’s coup and fake election. Fenby gives a full rendering of how unsavoury he and his henchmen were, but also shows how much he accomplished with his laissez-faire economic policy. The arts flourished during the Second Empire, literacy rose sharply and Frenchmen pioneered aviation. They also invented margarine, the dry cell battery, the hypodermic needle, the bicycle and even a compressed air-powered submarine. Yet the Emperor too found it necessary to ‘zigzag’ between ‘reform and order’, until he blundered into war with Prussia and surrendered at Sedan.
Then the Third Republic rose from the ashes of the Commune, and lasted for an amazing 70 years. France continued to be a major cultural and scientific power despite the traumas of the Dreyfus Affair and WWI, with Paris remaining a magnet for both tourists and artists. It all ended with the German walkover in 1940, which enabled the rise of De Gaulle. Fenby convincingly demonstrates how most French collaborated with the Germans. Officials kept three sets of records–one for the occupiers, one for Vichy colleagues and a third showing how they helped the Resistance–and destroyed the first two on D-Day. Through sheer conviction that he embodied the nation, De Gaulle emerged as its leader upon Liberation, then was voted out after WWII, but finally founded the Fifth Republic after a decade of scheming to regain power—Fenby denies that he was ‘in the political wilderness’ until 1958, and hails him as France’s greatest leader since Napoleon.
All the strands of this book come together in the account of contemporary France. Mitterand was in power longer than De Gaulle, but under him unemployment became perpetually high and the economy stagnated; Fenby also describes his great deceptiveness about the state of his health. The right-leaning Chirac fared no better, and now no generally popular politician can be found. While Fenby indicates all the ways in which the Hexagon is still functioning well, he makes it clear that the country is on a downward course, with its brightest youth emigrating. Even more perturbing is the disappearance of the things that make France French. It now has more psychiatrists than priests; its education leaves most students behind; its bakeries are closing, and most apprentice bakers want to emigrate; running a restaurant is twice as costly as in the UK; it exports more vodka than cognac; most shockingly, only 17% of French drink wine daily, with just 3% claiming some expertise in it.
Fenby concludes that ‘France has become the prisoner of its history and its many embedded narratives’, but is that really its problem? After all, every country has a running battle between liberal and conservative elements, and copes with its historical legacy. Yet I believe the real problem with France is its aversion to hard work and risk-taking, the desire of most French to live a life of leisure. Nonetheless, I concur with Fenby’s assertion that France is really deeply conservative. Today, ebooks sell more than paper ones across the Anglosphere, but in France legislation protects paper publishers and sellers. This almost Luddite tendency in the country that wanted to lead the world is puzzling, and now the French do not know where to turn. No current politician can unify the country, leaving it adrift until economic collapse sets the stage for a new great leader, if there will be one.
by Hal Swindall
The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day, Jonathan Fenby, Simon & Schuster