Premature Evaluation, pt 1 (On the Brink: The Trouble with France)

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, the market for reviews of revised editions of books on France originally published in 1998 is bound to be small. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

On the Brink: The Trouble with France, by Jonathan Fenby, is meant to be an exploration of France’s uniqueness, and its importance for Europe. As he writes in the preface, “Without a healthy France, there is no Europe.” What I actually found in the first several chapters, though, was a description of the specifically French versions of common European tropes.

Attachment to the land? Check. (Everywhere I’ve ever been.) Pride in a long and improbable history? Check. (Again.) Distinctive regions? Check. (Even Latvia has regions.) Harkening back to a glorious golden age? Check. (Remember the great Moravian empire? The Moravians do.) Possibly exaggerated sense of its role in world history? Check. (The Estonians, with a population barely bigger than metropolitan Munich, think they took down the USSR.) Distaste for its political class? Long struggle to separate church from state? Declining rural populations? Demographic worries? Far right parties regularly drawing about 15 percent of votes? Check, to one and all. And so on and so forth.

It’s nice to learn more about how these general characteristics manifest themselves in France — since I know far too little about the place — but the implied argument is that they make France different, whereas I saw them as illustrating how much France resembles other European countries.

Don’t get me wrong, the specifics are important; indeed, they are much of what Europe is about. And chapter 9 makes some of the contrasts specific by comparing France with England. On the other hand, given how England differs from much of the rest of the continent, there may not be too much gained for readers from other countries.

I’m interested in the stories Fenby tells, in the details he marshals and in the overall portrait that he paints. I’m just not convinced that he’s showing how France is either different or important. I’ve got another 150 pages to go, and this is a premature evaluation.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged , , by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

4 thoughts on “Premature Evaluation, pt 1 (On the Brink: The Trouble with France)

  1. Well, my mother-in-law somewhere along the way pointed out that France has the richest soil in Europe.
    Over here in the USA (strictly my POV from the vast number of conversations I’ve had with people, of course; others may have a different impression), when people think of Europe, they’re mainly thinking of France and Italy. If you say you’ve gone to Europe, the assumption is you’ve visited one of these two countries. Britain and Ireland are places to which you would specifically refer, if you’d gone to either. Italy to a lesser extent because of the large number of Italians, but “Europe” takes in Italy, while only barely encompassing the UK.
    For Americans, Germany is some kind of garrison; nearly everyone knows someone who was stationed there at some point after World War Two. Scandinavia is just weird; Iberia, Eastern Europe and Greece, peripheral. Unless you’re talking Ancient Greece, of course.
    So, from the perspective of the USA, anyway, France and Italy are the core of Europe.

  2. Doug, I’d be surprised if the population stats below haven’t been posted here before, but one reason that France is rather different from Latvia and Moravia is that there is a pretty solid basis for the French idea of a long and glorious history with a golden age. Starting out as the ‘fille aînée de l’Église’ (an official title) France grew in size every century (hence all those regions) and pretty much dominated Europe following the Wars of Religion. French was the second language of elites from Britain to Egypt, right up in the late 19th century, and French fashions in everything from bonnets to furniture were those that everybody imitated. This lost ascendancy, similar to that of the US today, still haunts every Frenchman.

    Population history goes a long way to explain the process if these figures from Wikipedia are correct.
    • until 1795 metropolitan France was the most populous country of Europe, above even Russia, and the third most populous country in the world, behind only China and India
    • between 1795 and 1866, metropolitan France was the second most populous country of Europe, behind Russia, and the fourth most populous country in the world, behind China, India, and Russia
    • between 1866 and 1911, metropolitan France was the third most populous country of Europe, behind Russia and Germany
    • between 1911 and 1931, metropolitan France was the fourth most populous country of Europe, behind Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom
    • between 1931 and 1991, metropolitan France was the fifth most populous country of Europe, behind Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy
    • between 1991 and 1997, metropolitan France recovered its rank as the fourth most populous country of Europe, behind Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom
    • since 1997, metropolitan France has recovered its rank as the third most populous country of Europe, behind Russia and Germany.

    Just imagine a USA similarly displaced from cultural pre-eminence a hundred years from now and you’ll be on the right track. Anyway, I look forward to further reports on the book and I’ll probably check it out myself. Thanks for the tip.

  3. There are a couple of things about France that are unique. One is the insane level of centralization in the state. Everything is centered in Paris, and to be important you have to go there. Probably the closest comparison is to the UK, but even there there is far more decentralization. In France, even the mayors are in some sense centrally chosen.

    Associated with this is the extreme aversion of the state to regional cultures and languages. The French have a word for it: “communitarianism”, which means favoring your community or region over the state. The French government and a substantial number of its citizens is extremely hostile to languages like Basque, Breton, etc. Until recently, there was a list of approved names for French children, and you were only allowed to pick your name from that list.

    These make France somewhat unique in Europe. The closest analogues for political centralization are the UK (though that is rapidly becoming less true with devolution) and cultural centralization (maybe Greece, which doesn’t recognize many of its minorities).

    Contrast France with Germany, which is politically and economically decentralized and gives language rights to communities like the Sorbs.

Comments are closed.