Rod Kedward has spent a long academic career writing books about the French Resistance during the Second World War, with a special focus on the developments in the South. This has made him sensitive to the great complexity of France, a central theme in this, his latest book, obviously designed to be his magnum opus: a history of the entire nation over the previous century and a bit. ‘Narratives which overlap or compete are the substance of this book,’ he states in one his several introductions. Indeed the whole book is crammed with symbols, representations, discourses, conjunctures, meanings, remembered festivals, carnivals and rituals that make it read like a translation of a contemporary piece of French ethnology. What is it that makes British faculty historians such chameleons? The French specialists among them become French, German specialists undergo the same magical metamorphosis into Germans, while the Russian specialists become perceptibly Russian, to the point of adopting old Soviet explanations for their awful behaviour. Being a foreign observer carries definite advantages; becoming a foreigner distorts interpretation – as we shall see in a moment.
But let it first be noted: nobody can question the significance of this book. Kedward has managed to cram in huge amounts of interesting material going back to the anticlerical Radicalism of the Petit Père, Émile Combes, in the early 1900s and ending just short of the French ‘Non’ to