The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day by Jonathan Fenby - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Vichy Business

The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day


Simon & Schuster 536pp £25 order from our bookshop

Jonathan Fenby ends his history of France from the Revolution to the present day on a fashionably gloomy note:

The level of unhappiness two centuries after the Revolution and the empire had ended … was, at base, rooted in a determination to stick to an image of the French nation which had been outpaced by the changing world that encompasses the Hexagon. Old assumptions no longer worked, but a realistic alternative acceptable to a majority of the French people was absent and there was a signal lack of politicians ready, and able, to rally the country behind a new course. France had become a prisoner of its history and its many embedded narratives.

As a journalist who has been Paris bureau chief for both Reuters and The Economist, and as the author of a previous (rather glum) study of modern France and of a biography of de Gaulle (subtitled ‘and the France He Saved’), Fenby writes with the authority of experience, and his book is affectionate, admiring and exasperated. It is essentially a political history, even though attention is also given to economic, social and cultural matters.

France is admittedly in decline (comparative decline, anyway), much as the United Kingdom is. Both still

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