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France on the Brink:
A Great Civilization in the New Century

France on the Brink 2=2nd edition cover
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
France on the Brink
Jonathan Fenby
Publication Date: 2nd edition
August 5, 2014
at Arcade/Skyhorse Publishing
Pages: 432
ISBN: 978-1628723175

social history / France

Source: Received
from the publisher for a virtual book tour
on France Book Tours


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This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

      books-on-france-14 New author challenge


new eiffel 5

In this totally updated edition of France on the Brink (which includes data about President Hollande), Jonathan Fenby tries to understand a country that may seem puzzling to many: it attracts millions of tourists every year, 84 millions in 2013, Americans have a very romantic a view about anything and everything French, yet at the same time  France is experiencing “double-digit unemployment, a rampant extremist party of the far right and [they are] a people who reject the elite that has ruled them for decades” (p.x). The French are notoriously unhappy, despairing, and complaining about many things if not all, especially about their economy and their political leaders. To understand what’s going one, Fenby gives us a “portrait of France today and a longer -range account of the evolution of the country” (p.xi) since the 1950s.

This nonfiction book deserves more than my usual review format. I will try to sum up some main elements of each chapter, including many quotations.

In Chapter 1, the author highlights what makes France “A Special Place.”
No country “displays such a disjunction as France between its people’s view of their country’s role in history and their feelings about contemporary life.” (p.1)
Yes, you can list its very positive elements: rather good health care system (well, at least in comparison to some countries) culture, history, art, writers, philosophy, tourism, landscape, architecture, gastronomy, fashion, language, and they all have an important place of honor in the world.
Yet the French are morose(s) about the state of their economy, the integrity/abillity or lack of among their politicians. They know too well the issues of immigration, violence, insecurity, racism, unemployment, education, road safety, and a humongous and paralyzing bureaucracy.
Starting his analysis of the political scene from the late 1950s, Fenby points out a major factor: the failure of real great leadership mostly since the 1980s.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to trying to see “Behind the Mask“.
Behind a façade of political change, France is paralyzed by the amazing longevity of its politicians, some not hesitating to come back a few decades later on the left when they were originally on the right. There’s also the famous phenomenon of cohabitation, where both left and right end up being together in very high positions, and hinder one another to rule efficiently.
According to the author, these produce too much conservatism, which prevents the country from adapting to our changing world.
This part has a lengthy passage on Charles de Gaulle, who started the current 5th Republic.

Chapter 3 focuses on “Economic Matters“.
If you think you pay too much tax here, think about France, where the taxation is over 46% of the GDP. French firms themselves “are handicapped by the highest level of payroll tax in the world” (43%. The author says it’s 5% in the US), and a huge number of regulations and paperwork.
As an example, I remember visiting a small olive oil press in Provence a few years ago, and the owner showed me a very thick stack of paper on the corner of his desk: these were all the forms he needed to fill in just to be authorized to add one item to his shop, something like lavender soap, or as minimum as that.
The author concludes here that France is not ready for the change and adaptation to the new global situation. French leaders prefer to put short-term political advantage ahead of rough policies which would be very good to put France back on its feet, but might incur popular displeasure.

Chapter 4 raises the question of the traditional clichés and symbols. How are they doing? Are they like “Vanishing Madeleines“? (with a really funny play on word). Believe it or not, things like nice food, artisan bread, wine, “one by one, the landmarks crumble, change, or are not quite what they seem to be” (p.96). Then the author turns to the traditional separation between country and city.

Chapter 5, “Country Living, reveals the “waning of country customs” (p.127) and that “modern reality is catching up with the old countryside” (p.104), with constant major rural depopulation. Gastronomy however, is still closely connected to rural regions.
And here you can see how Fenby learned to appreciate la France profonde: he gives great examples and ideas of out of the beaten path outstanding restaurants.
There’s also a moving passage on his wife’s village, where she hid during WWII.

As for the working class, presented in Chapter 6, “Modern Times, it is not faring much better, with the noticeable disappearance of traditional small shops and the growing powerlessness of workers.

If one could have traditionally considered there were 2 Frances, nowadays one might add “Another France“. This is the one presented in Chapter 7.
We are talking about les banlieues: housing estates, often gaunt relics of urban planning, which dehumanized the residents in concrete tower blocks and where the population is usually mainly made of immigrant families of two generations.” (p.158) We are dealing here with an “entirely different urban culture, a source of concern and fear, which has developped in ways that the orthodox society neither understands nor is able to cope with. As such, it presents one of the biggest challenges to confront the nation today.” (p.158) The problem is that the gap is growing between the traditional France and this new one: “The world of the suburban estate is a universe which the average French person likes to steer clear of” (p.164). Hence the hostility, the long history of non-integration, and consequently the ghetto life and all its shadows: unemployment, violence, gangs, drugs, etc.
Here the author offers another inside closer look, with snapshots of such areas from north to south over recent decades.

Facing these problems, the way they were sometimes directly created by the rulers and not dealt with in a timely manner, it was inevitable that we would discover a “Spectre at the Feast.” Chapter 8 explains the slow rise of the National Front.
Doing so, it gives a good background of antisemitism in France, and addresses the issue of the position of France during WWII and the Holocaust, which does not come here as clean as you would have hoped.
I have to say, it seems to me the author is minimizing too much the movement of Resistance in France. I still know so many families who were actively involved in it and paid for it one way or another.

In “Divided We Stand“, Chapter 9, the author tries to look deeper at the roots of the national psyche, at its dualism going back to the Middle Ages.

Having thus considered the background of all the issues, it is time to focus on more recent political figures.
Chapter 10 presents “Three Men and a Country“, that is, François Mitterand, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and Jacques Chirac, three men who “encapsulated France’s political history from 1974 to 2007” (p.252).

We mentioned earlier on the integrity, or lack of, among French politicians. This is illustrated in depth in Chapter 11: “Friends of François“.
His friends and close colleagues ended up indeed all linked to money scandals, with a record of deaths and suicides among these people during Mitterand’s presidency.

Of course, there were also sexual scandals in Mitterrand’s life. These are presented in “A French Life“, Chapter 12.
Fenby draws a strong portrait of a man of contradiction, whose incoherent policies damaged the country and “set a pattern with deeply unfortunate [and long-lasting] results.” (p.316)

More portraits are drawn in “Jaws of Victory“, especially with Balladur and Chirac.
The author has sometimes harsh though funny descriptions, see for instance Séguin, “with the general air of a mournful bloodhound” (p.341).
This Chapter 13 highlights the political earthquake that hit France at the first round of the presidential election of 2002, with Le Pen arriving second.

Chapter 14 focuses on the previous and current presidents: Sarkozy (“Bling”) and Hollande (“Normal”) (From Bling to Normal).
The author analyses their presidency, looks at their private life and scandals, and the reaction of the French to all this: “It is as if grassroots France is in rebellion against the central state.” (p.393)

And yet France is “On The Brink” and has not collapsed yet.
Chapter 15 tries to summarize the points at stake.
“Part of the problem lies in the high expectations the French have of their nation-state” (p.397).
They may be too proud of their values and not ready to admit they have to change and adapt for the new global reality. Actually, “Ministers and presidents know what needs to be done, but they shrink from the challenge of convincing an electorate who, as a result, clings more to the status quo.” (p.403)

The author suggests a fusing of common purpose between the moderates of left and right, the political class rediscovery of its public service role, and having an elite more open to the world and its ideas. He states that it is “high time for a fresh, non-violent revolution…to set out a…path which embraces the modern world while preserving the best of the past.” (p.404).
Fine words, but I don’t see how this could ever be done concretely in France. But what can I say, I’m French…

Anyhow, I didn’t expect Fenby to find THE solution to the French problem, and that’s not the purpose of the book. The goal was to show the problem and explain its roots, and this is done masterfully.
The book is nicely complemented with a 5 page bibliography and an extensive alphabetical index.


The writing is very clear and easy to follow. Yet the reader can perceive how informed the author is, thanks to his job as a journalist and reporter, his many encounters of key characters in the political field, his many readings, and his inside knowledge through his marriage to a French woman.

VERDICT: Enjoying the beach in Southern France is fine. If you want to go deeper and start understanding the current social, economic, and political situation of that country, this is THE book you need to read.


 France on the Brink was chosen as a New York Times book of the year and hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “a comprehensive and entertaining diagnosis of what ails French society” when the first edition was published at the turn of the century. Since then, the crisis enveloping France has only worsened, and this second edition, completely revamped to cover the developments of the past fifteen years, offers a fresh assessment of where the nation stands. New chapters chart political developments under Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande; the rise of the hard right National Front; and the unrelenting economic woes that have led to unprecedented levels of disillusion and fragmentation. In this new edition, Fenby offers a loving though candid and unvarnished picture of the nation, contrasting its glorious past with current realities.[provided by the publisher]



Jonathan FenbyJonathan Fenby  reported from France for a variety of newspapers,
including the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Times of London, Guardian, and London Observer.
Married to a Frenchwoman, he was, to his surprise, made a Chevalier of the French Order of Merit in 1990.
He is also the author of acclaimed biographies of Charles de Gaulle and Chiang Kai-shek, among other works.
He lives in England.

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