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France on the Brink:
A Great Civilization in the New Century
=2nd edition cover
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
|France on the Brink
By Jonathan Fenby
Publication Date: 2nd edition
August 5, 2014
at Arcade/Skyhorse Publishing
Genre: social history / France
Buy this book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bookstore
This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
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.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
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]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan 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.
Visit his blog on China
Follow him on Twitter | Goodreads
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political and economic situation?
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I love your detailed chapter by chapter commentary on this one.
It sounds like a really important and informative read. For someone like myself who would like to understand the issues facing modern France and who is not afraid of details it sound like something worthwhile.
I may give this one a try.
Thanks Brian. To understand the issues currently facing France, this is definitely THE book to read. Be sure you get this brand new edition
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Great review! This book sounds wonderful and totally up my alley of interests 🙂 I’ve only occasionally looked at France’s political and economic system over the years, especially when I was covering European politics for an e-zine, but I’m interested to know how their economy copes and adapts as global economics are changing and expanding.
well, they are not coping too well. I highly recommend you this book, seeing your interests
France is facing a difficult situation due to the socialism that has been prevalent for the past 50 years. Every country in Europe has problems but France’s are exacerbated by the regulations, and corruption.
Thanks for sharing your opinion. Unfortunately, the problems are not all related to the fact of the left or the right ruling. That would things easier if we really what side always worked, lol
I don’t know, that much about current French politics. I do know, that they have a new president and that there is always controversy about the president’s marital situation. All of Europe is experiencing economic difficulties, actually the whole world is,even Canada. This book sounds like an important read to become aware of France’s situation.
Thanks for your opinion. I had a good laugh about the president’s marital situation. Yes, they seem to have nice records, lol
I must say, that I did see Charles de Gaulle, when he toured the Italian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. I was young. He caused a huge uproar in this country with his “Vive Quebec libre!”. The ramifications are still being felt in the politics of that province.
oh wow! that’s quite a moment! thanks for sharing
It’s true, this is definitely not a beach read! Initially I really struggled to get into this, in part because it requires a lot of thought. I ended up loving it though, especially the parts where the author shared his own experiences and interesting stories about modern day politicians.
Yes, it was interesting how he inserted them into his narrative
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(My comment has refused to post, possibly because of length so I will break it up into smaller posts.)
First I must confess I haven’t read the book. I will do so though I have to admit that the summary and tone of comments (here and Amazon) haven’t encouraged me much. I don’t even understand the title “on the brink”.. “yet has not collapsed yet”. I find it distinctly weird that the author, this blog and most comments (notable exception Denise Duvall) complain that France has problems as if the entire rest of the world doesn’t too. As an Australian I could plausibly claim that my nation is one of the rare exceptions (only country to avoid the GFC fallout along with Norway and one or two other minor economies; one of the lowest debt:GDP; low unemployment etc), but actually that is only another superficial observation. We have the same two-party dysfunctional hyper-partisanship politics as all the Anglophone world. And after all the complaints about France the major weakness appears to be:
French unemployment may not be good but there is a weird denialism in the Anglophone world that they somehow have it better when they clearly don’t. Official stats may claim lower rates but the US rate is “more like 14.45 percent of Americans unemployed” according to more realistic measures (see SIMONE PATHE November 7, 2014 at pbs.org). And that is even without accounting for the world’s largest prison population (2.4 million) and military (1.4 million, the common fallback employment for low-SES groups).
Likewise in Australia the official unemployment rate is supposedly about 6% but the Broad Labour Underutilisation rate is 14 to 15 per cent, a figure which most Australians would agree is more consistent with reality. The thing to remember about France is that their “inflexible” labour laws (one of those things that neo-conservatives hate) reduces the rampant casualization of employment in the Anglophone world where working for one hour a week is counted officially as employed, while such workers have no paid holidays, sickleave or retirement benefits. Or security of employment. This is not just waiters or cleaners, in the US more than 50% of all university teaching is now done by people on short-term contracts, working per course taught and working three or four contracts with different universities and still struggling financially. Their part of the $1.2 trillion burgeoning student debt keeps their nose to the grindstone. The UK has adopted similar unregulated fees for universities which has seen 3 to 10-fold increases so they are headed down the same unsustainable route. Australian conservatives have so far failed to get similar deregulation of universities through the Senate. Does this regressive measure fall into those “presidents know what needs to be done” category?
As to “the elite that has ruled them for decades” France has one of the most meritocratic systems in the world. The leaders may all be ENA and SciencesPo graduates but they get there by merit. In the US if the next election is Jeb-v-Hillary then in the 32 years, 1988 thru 2020, there will have been only 8 years without a Bush or Clinton family member running the country. In the UK the top three politicians (PM Cameron, Treasurer Osborne, London Mayor Boris Johnson) all went to Eton (literally the royal school, leaning against the walls of Windsor castle) then Oxford where they were all members of the exclusive Bullingdon Dining Club (notorious for trashing fancy restaurants and then getting daddy to write a check for repairs and hushing it up). Even in Australia we currently have a PM and treasurer who both went to the same elite Jesuit Riverside private school, and a health minister and the Labor opposition leader (!) who both went to the elite St Xavier Jesuit private school. We used to pride ourselves on our secular politics but somehow have been lumbered with the same sanctimonious god-botherers as the US (and Jesuits are a particularly virulent form, not being called God’s Marines for nothing).
The main thing wrong with all these “elite” politicians appears to be a robotic adherence to a demonstrably failed neo-conservative economic strategy that is steadily degrading the conditions of most of their populace.
thanks Michael for your thorough comment. It might indeed be good to read the book. The book is focusing exclusively on France, because that’s the country the author knows well, where he lived and worked for many years. His point is not to say that it’s worse in France than in other countries.
If I speak highly of painting on rocks, it does not mean that I disparage any other type of painting, just that I speak about what I know best.
His point about “the elite that has ruled them for decades” by the way is not about the elite (by the way, Sciences Po is not THAT difficult, I have friends who went that way), but about “for decades” see what I wrote: “France is paralyzed by the amazing longevity of its politicians”, when for instance one man shows up in a left side party and a few decades later, the same man, not a man in his family, is still on the political stage (used here on purpose) and actually now in a right side party.
Being born and raised in France, I find this book well documented and giving great analysis of the situation of France, trying to explain the real face of France behind the façade that attracts so many tourists. It is not a work of political/economic comparison between countries.
But thanks for giving details about other countries
I would like to read the book but there’s hardly time in the day, and so many books (on France let alone one’s other interests). I haven’t seen it in the bookshops here but I am sure it will appear before too long and I will browse it. My favourite was John Ardagh (many preferred Theodore Zeldin; I don’t) but of course he is no longer around to update us on France in the 21st century.
Fenby lived in France for 5 years in the 70s. I lived there ten years and plan to spend some regular time there in my retirement; in fact I may consider living there permanently because I am not in Fenby’s financial class (I am sure he still owns a house there) and managing two homes on opposite sides of the planet is out of my reach.
Writing and reporting on France is a tricky thing. Much of it is designed with the American audience (by far the biggest Eng lang book market) and, cliched or not, that is often poison to feed their naive and prejudiced views (I know of what I speak since as a naive Australian I once loosely held such views myself; imbibed and formed unconsciously because they are woven into Anglophone society and their version of history.) The very title of the book feeds this prejudice and was what my long post was trying to rebalance. IMO it is more appropriate to apply that title to the USA (and Japan and the UK; incidentally all places I have worked).
I think another part of the problem is that, by definition, those writing and commentating in print on France are all from a certain class; Fenby, Ardagh, Zeldin, you and me. When we live and work in the Anglophone countries we live in a rather privileged bubble. When we live in France it is less of a bubble (though we are still privileged of course) because society is flatter. (I would say one great plus for Australia is that it too is flatter even if the “globalised world” and its driving politics is trying really hard to change that.)
Are you going to post the remaining three parts of my submission?
being French, I didn’t read it with what you consider American prejudices. Also please sir you don’t know me at all. If you did, you would know right away that I have never been in the privileged class, neither in France, nor where I live now, nor any member of my family.
I didn’t see any other comments from you. Maybe better anyway not to spend more time commenting on a book you have not read. I noticed that you misunderstood parts of my review, probably because of that
I did understand that you were born in France. Perhaps it was presumptuous of me to assume “Fenby, you and I” were in the same “class” but I don’t think it is wrong to believe that those who follow and write about politics, economics and culture (and of one country) are of similar dispositions. I don’t use “class” in the strictly social sense. My parents were working class but like so many of the boomer generation I got an education and became a professional (a biomedical research scientist; this probably has made me “argumentative” and sceptical/analytical on other’s claims). The life opportunities (including living in France) that that gave me is what I consider priceless “privilege”, certainly not monetary (since as you will probably realise that is rarely the case for scientists).
In my comment(s) I took you at your word to “share thoughts”. I was responding to the particular points you made in your review–it is true that without reading the book I cannot tell how much Fenby shared them. But I did point that out in my first sentence of my first comment.
Anyway, I will post the remaining parts of my original comments and it is up to you whether you post them.