France, from Gaul to de Gaulle

A lucid, entertaining history of France and its cultural contribution by an accomplished master of the grand narrative.

Liberty Leading the People, 30 July 1830, by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), painted 1830-31.John Julius Norwich’s history of France was his final tribute to a country that he loved throughout his long life, ‘living in everything from the grandeur of the British Embassy to a humble Strasbourg bedsitter’.

As the title indicates, the reader is taken for a cheerful gallop, Norwich covering everything from Vercingetorix, Caesar’s heroic, doomed opponent, to the end of the Second World War. He brings to life Clovis, King of the Franks, the Emperor Charlemagne, Count Robert of Paris, St Louis and the disastrous Crusades, the end of the Templars whose last Grand Master was burned at the stake and their baleful destroyer Philip IV, the Hundred Years War and Jeanne d’Arc, the sinister spider king Louis XI and the glittering Francis I – the rival whom Henry VIII so much admired. The miseries of the appalling Wars of Religion, the charm and gallantry of Henri IV and the magnificent follies of Louis XIV all receive attention. There is a sympathetic and perceptive portrait of Mme de Pompadour and of the weaknesses of the ancien régime that led to the horrors of Revolution.

A remarkably good epitome of Napoleon’s career in under 20 pages reminds us that no one has had a greater long-term impact on Europe. The author is good, too, on what came after Napoleon, if a bit unfair to the last Bourbons, Louis XVIII and Charles X, whose regime gave France a grandeur it would never know again (its heady atmosphere can be glimpsed in Balzac’s novels) and which put the franc on such a sound basis that it was not devalued until 1914. He considers Louis-Philippe ‘one of the best kings France ever had’, telling us that during his early years of exile Louis-Philippe fled from the German school where he was teaching after making the school cook pregnant, ‘the only casual affair of his life’.

As for 20th-century France, he rightly concentrates on the five-month battle of Verdun in 1916, where the casualties were so dreadful that some historians believe their memory explains France’s collapse in 1940. Excellent in conjuring up the ‘salle époque’ of the 1930s, he gives us the interesting detail that the Socialist President François Mitterand was in his youth a member of the quasi-Fascist Croix-de-Feu. He recalls the problems posed by General de Gaulle’s tricky temperament during the Second World War – recounting how, when in a telephone conversation with Churchill, he claimed the French people saw him as a new Jeanne d’Arc, Winston growled: ‘We had to burn the last one.’

Here is an overview of French history that will be especially useful to the tens of thousands of expatriate Britons who have settled across the Channel, helping them to understand their adopted country. Pellucidly readable, it is full of vivid and scandalous anecdotes by an author gifted with an unusually keen eye for the ridiculous. The footnotes are a joy.

One small omission is in failing to point out that historic France was essentially a monarchical country, as President Macron stressed only recently. (Unfortunately, three dynasties – Bourbon, Orleans and Bonaparte – competed for the throne during the 19th century, a struggle that paved the way for a republic.)

But there is not enough room for everything in this brilliant encapsulation. Almost the best thing in it is the author’s short epilogue, ‘The Essence of France’, in which he listed what he loved most about that enchanting, if occasionally exasperating, country – its architecture, its painting and its music. These were among Norwich’s greatest passions, which he invariably conveyed with authority, charm and wit.

France: A History from Gaul to de Gaulle
John Julius Norwich
John Murray 382pp £25

Desmond Seward has written many biographies of leading French figures. He is also author of Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells (Elliott & Thompson, 2015).