Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Bad Neighbour, Just Difficult

Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Bad Neighbour, Just Difficult

Article excerpt

LAVIE EN BLEU : FRANCE AND THE FRENCH SINCE 1900 by Rod Kedward Allen Lane, £30, pp. 740, ISBN 0713990414

The French rarely read books by foreigners about their history.

This is a pity, for their own historians have not always done the job well. The ideological fault-lines of French intellectual life have obstructed understanding of France's 20th century.

A francocentric view of the world has added to the problem. So, until recently, has the absence of the tradition of lacerating self-criticism and collective guilt common in the rest of Europe. Dreyfus, the fall of France, Vichy, Indo-China, the Algerian war, these are all difficult and delicate subjects in France. Things are beginning to improve, but much of the best work on the country's modern history is still being written by Englishmen and Americans.

Rod Kedward's La Vie en Bleu is a case in point. It is not a work of original research, and does not pretend to be.

But it is an outstanding synthesis of modern scholarship on almost every aspect of the last century of French history, elegantly written, intelligently selective and marvellously perceptive.

No comparable period of history has seen such fundamental and durable changes in the fortunes of a single European nation: two world wars, one of which came close to extinguishing France as a political community; the brutal and humiliating unwinding of the French colonial empire in the 1950s and 1960s; three ill-constructed republican constitutions and one quasi-dictatorship;

the belated but remarkably rapid transformation of a country of peasants and workshop enterprises into an industrial and urban powerhouse; the incorporation of France into a European community which is becoming ever less French in its habits of mind. 'La vieille France . . .' President Pompidou soliloquised at a famous press conference;

then, smiting the table with his fist, 'C'est fini!' Pompidou may not have known how right he was. Gestures, meaningless or profound, have a special place in French politics. The Fifth Republic has a strong, fixed-term, executive president who speaks directly to the electorate as no other politician can. With a weak legislature, a comparatively feeble press, a long tradition of street violence, and no nationally organised political parties other than the Communists, there are few intermediaries between the state and the mass of the population. The civil service, although weaker and less independent than it was, remains a powerful, paternalist force, operating in the shadows. These things sharply differentiate French democracy from the British or American model, and call for rare skills in a historian who tries to penetrate behind the gestures. …

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