576 pages, St. Martin's Press, ISBN-13: 978-1250096838
France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror by Jonathan Fenby frames the past 200-years-or-so of French history within the context of the current waves of terrorism which, in case you’ve forgotten, began with the killings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and culminated with the series of November attacks in Paris; to date, the threat of terrorist incidents in Europe continues to pose a danger to inhabitants and visitors alike, and it is against this background that the author sets out to show that “more than most nations, France carries the weight of its history in its view of itself. Here…the past is…vitally present, making its modern history crucial to understanding the past of today.” Fenby’s ambitious chronicle shows how France came of age, in spite of recurring cycles of revolution, empire, kingdom, corrupt democracy and occupation. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were never truly achieved, yet these ideals continue as republican tradition (in his concluding chapter entitled “The Weight of History,” Fenby asks, “Was French democracy ‘unfinished’, as the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has put it, and the republican tradition far less…rooted than the popular consensus believed?”)
The great conundrum of French history is the French Revolution – or rather, the sequence of revolutions, coups and insurrections during which the nation was repeatedly destroyed and recreated. How is it that a heap of cobblestones, furniture and overturned vehicles – handcarts in 1848, 2CVs in 1968 – erected at particular points on the Left Bank of Paris can bring down a régime whose domain extends from the North Sea to the Mediterranean? (Baudelaire observed that when Napoleon’s nephew conducted a coup d’état in 1851 and installed himself as supreme leader, it seemed that “absolutely anybody, simply by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, can govern a great nation”). In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo was thinking of this discrepancy between the mass of political power and the lever of popular unrest when he described a barricade in the 1832 insurrection as “at once Mount Sinai and a pile of rubbish”. Some greater narrative seemed to preside over the chaos, a tale of freedom wrested from a tyrant by dint of pure Enlightenment reason, momentarily abetted by frenzied bloodletting. It is this so-called narrative that the nation still recounts to itself like a favorite bedtime story, demanding that large parts of its history be dismissed as aberrations and sections of its population as enemies of the fatherland.
This narrative at least makes it possible to walk a steady path through the gun smoke, the tear gas, the barricades and the decapitated bodies. France: A Modern History is primarily a reminder of the chief political events of modern French history; as such, it is inevitably concentrated in Paris. In 1832, with its 800,000 inhabitants, Paris contained less than 1/13th of France’s population, but it was the fulcrum of events that determined the fate of national regimes, its newspapers shaping opinion. Fenby’s guiding argument, however, is applicable to the nation as a whole. France, says Fenby, has never “fully digested” its “revolutionary and republican legacy” because “it has never wanted to shed its other, more conservative character”. Torn between radical fervor and fear of change, “the French have become prisoners of the heritage of their past”. With only ten pages on the Revolution, there is not much food here for analysis, but Fenby does provide plenty of concrete examples of the unresolved conflict: the bitter intransigence of the Dreyfus Affair, the enthusiastic cooperation of the Vichy régime with Nazi Germany, the brutal treatment of Algerians and the callous abandonment of the white colonists. Since the fall of the Bastille, every national debate has been tinged with extremism; the Enlightenment, it seemed, required an enemy, and so the furrows of the fatherland (says the Marseillaise) must be “fed and watered with impure blood”.
The key figure in Fenby’s account is Charles de Gaulle, who tried to transcend the cleavages born of 1789 by becoming an incarnation of une certaine idée de la France (a typical cumulonimbus of a phrase in which everyone could see whatever they liked). Faced with the chaos of events, de Gaulle adopted what is still widely seen in France as the only reasonable philosophical stance of the enlightened citizen: total cynicism. After de Gaulle, the nation’s leaders looked increasingly like chancers, crooks, philanderers and windbags. Fenby uses his long experience as a foreign correspondent to paint a picture of dodgy politicians presiding over the decline of a once-proud nation in which there are now more psychiatrists than priests, where 43% of the population claims to know nothing about wine, 80% of croissants are made in factories, and most snails and frogs’ legs are imported. Sacre bleu.