Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

France Caught in the Bastille of the Past A Stern Look at the World's Most Romantic Nation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

France Caught in the Bastille of the Past A Stern Look at the World's Most Romantic Nation

Article excerpt

FRANCE ON TEH BRINK by Jonathan Fenby Arcade Publishing 449 pp., $27.95

When you see a title like this, you can't help asking yourself, on the brink of what, exactly?

Jonathan Fenby, who has reported from France for 30 years, is married to a Frenchwoman and knows the place intimately. He is clearly deeply worried about its condition and has written an exhaustively researched and sometimes exhaustingly detailed account of all that is wrong with Europe's most complicated country.

But a nation with France's history, culture, depth, and stability can hardly be said to be on the brink - of anything. Countries like France do not implode; they evolve, for better or for worse, and in his eagerness to explain the problems facing the French today, Fenby has paid too little attention to some hopeful evolutions.

"France fascinates, irritates and intrigues," he writes. Certainly, few people are left indifferent by the country or its people.

He dwells at length on the many contradictions that make France such a curious and compelling place - the deeply conservative nature of a country that has been a byword for revolution since 1789, the attachment to a strong state among people who pride themselves on their individualism.

But Fenby gets caught up in these contradictions. For a start, he swings between nostalgic laments for the passing of a bygone age and strictures about how the French cannot cope with modernity. And despite his obvious familiarity with France, he often lets the surface rhetoric of public life hide the real changes that are transforming the country.

France is a modern country, almost despite itself, and preparing its place at the top table in the 21st century.

The hidebound, state-dominated economy so often pilloried by US and British critics is nonetheless the fourth-biggest industrial power and exporter in the world. …

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