France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror

Written by Jonathan Fenby
Review by Gini Grossenbacher

This book frames the past 200 years of French history within the context of the current waves of terrorism which began with the killings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and culminated with the series of November attacks in Paris. To date the threat of terrorist incidents in Europe continues to pose a danger to inhabitants and visitors alike. Against this background, the author sets out to show that “more than most nations, France carries the weight of its history in its view of itself. Here… the past is… vitally present, making its modern history crucial to understanding the past of today.” Fenby’s ambitious chronicle shows how France came of age despite recurring cycles of revolution, empire, kingdom, corrupt democracy, and occupation. Liberty, equality, fraternity were never truly achieved, yet these ideals continue as republican tradition. In his concluding chapter entitled “The Weight of History,” Fenby asks, “Was French democracy ‘unfinished,’ as the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has put it, and the republican tradition far less…rooted than the popular consensus believed?” I recommend this history to those who appreciate the playful ironies of French culture. Historical novelists will find a rich vein of information not only within its detailed discussion of revolution and republics, but also in its notes and bibliography.