The History of Modern France

The History of Modern France
Jonathan Fenby 
Simon & Schuster  536 pages  £25

How the French Think 
Sudhir Hazareesingh
Allen Lane  426 pages  £20

‘France’, said Charles de Gaulle, ‘cannot be France without grandeur.’ The country’s recent history suggests the great man was nearer the mark when he moaned how impossible it was to manage a country ‘of 246 different kinds of cheese’. André Malraux famously observed: ‘When the French fight for mankind, they are wonderful, when they fight for themselves, they are nothing.’ November’s horrific Paris attacks by Islamic terrorists, rightly, generated much sympathy for the country. However, will France’s current President, François Hollande, be able to follow in the great traditions of France and show the world how to deal with one of the foulest scourges of our time? 

Against this background, these two books could not be better timed. Jonathan Fenby knows the country well and argues that the French have become ‘prisoners of their past’. It can no longer prosper because the country that bequeathed the world exceptional ideas such as Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité has been outpaced by the rest of the world. 

Fenby’s history starts with the restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and ends with the murder of the editor and staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. Such a huge accumulation of facts can often be indigestible but Fenby, skilfully, avoids this trap with a narrative which has page-length biographies of major figures and important events, such as the Paris Commune of 1871, in a diary form plus a selection of choice sayings of the last 200 years. This includes the words used by the actress Arletty, who lived with a German officer in the Ritz during the occupation, to defend her collaboration: ‘Mon Coeur est à la France, mais mon cul est à moi.’ 

Wartime collaboration is an issue which the French are only now, 70 years later, beginning to examine, with the evidence indicating that de Gaulle, who led the resistance, was an artful spin-doctor when presenting all Frenchmen as having followed his lead. Many, including Jean-Paul Sartre, did nothing; Francois Mitterrand, France’s first socialist president, served the Vichy regime, and some even helped send Jews to their death. 

Such contradictions should come as no surprise, for even as French thinkers at the close of the 19th century expounded ideas of universal idealism, France was hugely expanding its colonial empire on the grounds of ‘the right of superior races over inferior races’. These contradictions are also the theme of Hazareesingh’s book, but he deals with French ideas from Descartes – the first chapter is called ‘The Skull of Descartes’to Derrida. Rousseau also figures prominently and the book is a marvellous primer for students eager to learn about French thought over the last four centuries. It can, at times, be dense. One sentence runs to 24 lines combining discussion of the Académie Française with that of the rock star Johnny Halliday. 

However, Hazareesingh does raise the question as to whether the 21st century has seen ‘the closing of the French mind’. His most potent illustration of this retreat from universalist concerns is that in 2014 the French book that grabbed world attention was Thomas Piketty’s study of global capitalism, a book on economics, rather than grand ideas. Like Fenby, Hazareesingh has an eye for detail. He reproduces the issue of the monthly satirical magazine, L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, published just after de Gaulle’s death in his village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in November 1970. The headline on the front cover read: ‘Tragic Ball at Colombey: 1 Dead.’ This was considered so objectionable that the magazine was banned and turned itself into Charlie Hebdo, ‘another impertinent reference to de Gaulle’. 

In many ways de Gaulle emerges as the last great leader able to mask the country’s contradictions. But while Fenby ends on a note of deep pessimism about where France is headed, Hazareesingh, despite starting his conclusion by talking of France’s ‘loss of self-confidence’, concludes that ‘the French will remain the most intellectual of peoples’ and continue to produce ideas that enthrall the world.

Mihir Bose is an award-winning broadcaster, author, and journalist.

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