From Catholic monarchy versus social justice to “bleak chic”

This is my review of The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War with Terror by Jonathan Fenby.

Observing the newly restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII’s reluctant choice of ministers, the devious Talleyrand leaning on the arm of brutal Fouché , Chateaubriand described “vice leaning on the arm of crime”. A Christmas Eve dinner during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1871 included, elephant consommé and bear ribs in pepper sauce from slaughtered zoo animals, along with the more mundane stuffed donkey’ s head and roast cat with rats. These entertaining asides spice up Jonathan Fenby’s broad sweep from the ill-fated attempt to restore the monarchy, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, in the shape of the unimaginative, ageing brother of the guillotined Louis XV1, to the economic decline under the unpopular socialist President Hollande, aggravated by terrorist events like the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Throughout the book, I kept seeing parallels between past popular revolts and the present unrest: left-wing republicans trying to limit working hours, although the modern-day 35 hours a week was a ten hour day in the Paris of 1848; C19 Parisians uprooting trees to form barricades, and today’s CGT unionists burning tyres outside power stations in protest against legislation to make organisations more competitive, with the irony of a modern socialist government seeming to work on the side of employers. Of course, the paradox of the First Republic of 1848 was far keener, “a reminder of how eminently respectable republicans turned the troops on their own people motivated primarily by the desire for a decent livelihood.”

Jonathan Fenby is most readable when he focuses on particular people or events: the succession of four monarchs, including the well-intentioned “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe, whose approach to reform was too moderate to appease the republican genie let out of the bottle, particularly in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, which perhaps the author could have explained more. Napoleon’s step-nephew (I think, a few family trees would have been useful) managed to hold power for eighteen years as France’s last monarch, and presided over some much-needed economic progress and restoration of national standing, despite being dismissed by Bismarck as “a sphinx without riddles” and criticised for his amoral pragmatism. The humiliation of his loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 is an aspect of the ongoing rivalry between the two countries either side of the Rhine: now, France suffers by comparison with Germany as regards growth rates and trade deficits.

Fenby paints a fascinating portrait of De Gaulle, who comes across as an egotistical dictator, alternating as is often the case between arrogant certainty and melancholy, profoundly ungrateful for the help received from Britain and America, presumably a constant reminder of his own impotence when France was occupied in WW2.

The price of covering so much is a text at times so condensed as to become indigestible and occasionally unclear, particularly in the period 1870-1939 which I found hard going. I accept that forty-two governments between two world wars, with a system resulting in short-lived coalitions, is hard to cover adequately. Fenby tries to aid clarity with subheadings, boxes to feature somewhat arbitrarily chosen individuals, and day-by-day accounts of some key periods of unrest. However, I could have done with a glossary of the large number of players involved, a timeline of key events, plus an explanation of the current French voting system, to avoid the need to refer elsewhere.

Fenby leaves us with a rather bleak picture of a depressed country which despite its sense of being special, has fallen behind as it prefers “to reject economic modernisation in favour of defence of tradition”. Although the Republic has been accepted since 1870 as the regime that divides the French the least, the warring factions remain: “the country invariably opts for right over left with occasional eruptions to prove that the revolutionary legacy is not dead”. I would have preferred more of this kind of an analysis, perhaps a two volume history with a break in 1945, to give more space to develop themes.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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