Friend or Foe: An Anglo-Saxon History of France/the White Cities: Reports from France, 1925-1939

By Laughland, John | The Spectator, November 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Friend or Foe: An Anglo-Saxon History of France/the White Cities: Reports from France, 1925-1939


Laughland, John, The Spectator


The faulty French connection FRIEND OR FOE: AN ANGLO-SAXON HISTORY OF FRANCE by Alistair Horne Weidenfeld, £25, pp. 428 ISBN 0297848941 & £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

THE WHITE CITIES: REPORTS FROM FRANCE, 1925-1939 by Joseph Roth, translated and introduced by Michael Hofmann Granta, £14.99, pp. 301, ISBN 1862075549 & £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

In his magnificent funeral oration for Charles I's queen, Henriette-Marie of France, the 17th-century French cleric Bossuet contrasted the stately continuity of French history with the turbulence and violence of English. France - of whose crown Pope St Gregory the Great had proclaimed, already by the end of the sixth century, that it outshone all the others - was 'the only nation in the universe whose kings have embraced Christianity for nearly 12 centuries'. England, by contrast, was 'more agitated ... than the sea which surrounds her'. Within 150 years, the tables were turned, and the prosperous and stable English became whiggishly dismissive of their unruly and strife-riven neighbours, believing their own political serenity to stretch back to time immemorial.

Alistair Home does not mention Bossuet in his long history, although he counts as one of the masters of French prose, and this 'Anglo-Saxon history of France' certainly does not support that great essayist's view. Instead it presents French history as little but a succession of violent power struggles and wars, prosecuted by vain and useless heads of state. Although he presents this as a 'journey through 2,000 years of French history', Home in fact dispatches the first millennium in six pages: we get to the coronation of Hugues Capet (in 987) on page 5. Vercingetorix, the archetype of an unruly Gaul, is not even mentioned. And despite a spate of intriguing books published in 1996 to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian king in Europe - at least one of which argued that he laid the major foundations of the French polity - Horne, who does not even mention Clovis's conversion, dismisses him as a man 'who killed off most of his family' and the other Frankish rulers as 'yobbish louts'.

Many of France's other kings are treated to similarly unkind jibes. St Louis merited beatification partly because he cut taxes; Louis XV died 'regretted by no one'; Louis XVI was 'an honest blockhead'; Louis XVIII is 'partly an old woman, partly a capon'. Some of the greatest and most mystical figures of France's history get the briefest of mentions: Charlemagne is dealt with in one paragraph, Joan of Arc in two. Republican leaders fare little better: Giscard's 'arrogance knows no bounds', for instance. By contrast, a seriously evil figure like the Marquis de Sade is just 'a roué'. Home also uses a series of bizarrely ingénu epithets: Voltaire is 'a famous Frenchman,' Descartes a 'great French philosopher', and Proust wrote 'a very long novel'.

The narrative rises only briefly above this romping style - in which sometimes obscene and usually unfunny gossip often obscures the larger issues - when Napoleon, Colbert (to whom Home is thankfully indulgent) and de Gaulle are discussed. …

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