Book Reviews: The History of Modern France by Jonathan Fenby

Book Reviews: The History of Modern France by Jonathan Fenby

Prolific historian and author Jonathan Fenby has turned a scrupulous eye on France’s recent history, delving into major events and milestones from the revolution of 1789 to the present day. He writes with experience and clarity, bringing to life the influential figures and factors that have shaped the country into what it is today.

Interspersed glossy pages bear photographs of famous icons ranging from Pablo Picasso to Charles de Gaulle, as well as some of the most pivotal social and political moments of the past two centuries. The prose is equally unflinching, exploring historic conflicts and modern struggles, including the current rise of homegrown Islamic extremism and the parallels between France’s divided nature now and then. In Fenby’s own words: “The central argument of this book is that, while justly proud of the nation’s achievements since the Revolution, the French have become prisoners… of their past.”

The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day, Jonathan Fenby, published by Simon & Schuster

From France Today magazine

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  • Michael James
    2017-05-21 04:09:18
    Michael James
    Jonathan Fenby is a good writer with a deep knowledge of his subject whether France or economics. However he has also imposed his own ideology on what he views, in France and anywhere else. His other book on France (France on the Brink) was first published in 1998 and was updated in 2014, probably simultaneous with writing this book (published in 2015). The earlier book is one among many commentaries by true believers in the neo-liberal agenda. France's main crime in this view is to only weakly implement the agenda. By being a social-democracy and not privatising all services and maintaining high public involvement in everything, including in many areas not considered appropriate for anything but private business, having high taxes and free schooling all the way to tertiary; and red tape (all that regulation by AOC for wines & champagne, for those pesky 360 types of cheese and many other foods), all of this drives the so-called free-marketeers crazy. Actually what drives them crazy is that, instead of being a shattered wreck of an economy and society like Chavez's Venezuela, France continues to be the sixth largest GDP in the world, a hugely productive economy (equal to Germany, better than the UK) and with fabulous infrastructure, and rating highly on the Human Development Index. And these gnashing of teeth over the impending doom of France has been claimed for at least 3 decades. This year see Fenby doing it for exactly 20 years in print. It hasn't happened and despite all the recitation of the main economic issue in France, chronically high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, France remains one of the best countries in the world to live in--and I would contend, for all those who live in France including the economically disadvantaged, who still have access to free education and healthcare (often rated the best in the world). As someone who has lived in France, the UK, USA and my native Australia, I can't understand those in the Anglophone world who so criticize France. As if these other countries don't have problems. Yet, France has essentially the same debt as percent of GDP as both the UK and USA (and without the benefit of printing money; these two have had QE of $1 trillion and $4 trillion respectively). In fact right at this moment France has growth of 1.2% (annualized from Q1-2017) as does the UK while the USA has 0.7%. I don't even believe the unemployment is so much better in the UK or USA whose official statistics hide the massive casualisation and part-time work and zero-hours-contracts (especially since the US-induced GFC) not allowed in France (and subject to so many cries of "labour reform" by the likes of Fenby et al). As to the Islam problem, all these countries have had terrorism attacks by radical-Islam. The 230 French killed since Charlie Hebdo is the number of people killed by firearms in 36 hours--every 36 hours--in the USA (or about 7 days, normalized to population). No one is saying it is good but equally it is not such a huge disaster that it spells the end of France. Finally, Fenby's timing is a tad unfortunate for both books. Though I have never bought into the line that the neo-liberal orthodoxy as practiced almost everywhere but exemplified by the UK and USA was the only choice (Thatcher's TINA; There Is No Alternative), it has pretty much revealed to be wearing the Emperor's clothes in the past few years (though really since at least 2008) and of course in the rather spectacular previous 9 months with Brexit and the election of Trump. Now France has also rejected the old order but has not turned to irrational nuttiness. Partly protected by its much better electoral system and more robust democracy. People often observer at how dissatisfied the French appear to be, yet they really are just more expressive while in the UK and USA one can only wonder that so many people have remained so supine for so long. At any rate by all means read Fenby but read him critically and especially be wary of conclusions. It is not so simple. I have no idea how Macron's presidency will work out, but well before they went so seriously off the rails I had clear views of the toxicity of British and American politics which have been proven correct and look to be getting worse by the day. And, other than the multi-party coalitions in the Nordics and Germany etc, this is the first serious attempt at breaking the dysfunctional hyper-partisanship that has come to dominate two-party politics.