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 pretend to be great powers, capable of ‘punching above their weight’, but neither is the force in world affairs that it used to be. Britain has perhaps adapted to its diminished role more easily, content to be an American satellite and the playground of global capitalists. France maintains a sturdier, if truculent, independence. British realism may be healthier; French defiance more admirable.
Fenby gives the impression that the Fifth Republic is nearing its sell-by date. Perhaps it is. It has lasted more than half a century; of all the regimes since the Revolution, only the Third Republic (1871–1940) endured longer. Yet it is more probable that it will be reformed rather than overthrown, as the earlier republics, along with two monarchies and two empires, were. Paris is not likely to be again a revolutionary city, imposing its will on reluctant provinces. The last time the barricades went up was during les événements of May 1968, which the doyen of English historians of France, Richard Cobb, dismissed contemptuously as a parody of revolutionary activity.
For much of their modern history the French have talked left, but voted right. The country has been more stable than superficial appearances might suggest. Brief periods of violent change have been followed by the restoration of authority. A rising of Parisian workers after the Revolution of 1848 was bloodily suppressed, provoking the wry comment from the exiled King Louis Philippe that it was easier for a republic than a monarchy to shoot its citizens.
The Third Republic collapsed because of military defeat. Vichy was a temporary expedient. Some saw it as shameful, but in 1940 the armistice made sense; even a degree of collaboration made sense. De Gaulle would declare that ‘Vichy was always null and void’, but for at least a year and a half Marshal Pétain was the most popular French head of state of the 20th century. The turning point for him was the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. The Germans moved into the unoccupied zone, thus ending what autonomy Vichy had possessed. Many close to Pétain urged him to fly to Algeria, where, as de Gaulle admitted, the French would have received him ‘with open arms’, and the Americans, who still recognised him as head of state and who indeed still had an embassy in Vichy, would have welcomed him too. But Pétain refused, saying he had promised the French people he would stay with them. Fenby’s judgement of Pétain and his prime minister, Pierre Laval, the true architect of Vichy, is harsh, but each in his way was a patriot. Long before the war, Laval had recognised that France must some day come to an accommodation with Germany. His mistake was to think this was possible with Nazi Germany.
De Gaulle failed to reform the constitution in 1946. The Fourth Republic was the Third Republic reborn. It achieved much in the way of reconstruction and promoted European union (Laval’s policy actually). It collapsed because of its failure to solve the problem of Algeria, being unable either to crush the rebellion or to extricate France from the struggle. Whereas Britain withdrew from empire with as much grace as could be mustered, France tried to cling on to its empire, first in Indochina and then in North Africa. In May 1958 the army’s generals, despairing of the politicians in Paris, joined the European colons in a putsch that destroyed the Fourth Republic. The crisis brought de Gaulle back to power. Greeted by huge and enthusiastic crowds in Algeria the following month, he told them he had understood them. But he recognised that French Algeria could not be maintained and betrayed his supporters. This did France a great service – as great as his defiance in 1940 and the creation of the Free French.
There is much to enjoy in Fenby’s fluently written history and much to learn from it too. He brings it right up to date, giving an account of the Charlie Hebdo murders. He argues powerfully that ‘French exceptionalism’ may have had its day. I’m not so sure. France remains in many ways better governed than the United Kingdom. Its sense of localism is stronger. Paris no longer dominates the country as it used to, certainly not to the same damaging extent as London and its financial interests dominate Britain. Of course, as Jonathan Fenby points out, surveys indicate a high level of unhappiness in France. But then the French have always been great grumblers.