The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day

Written by Jonathan Fenby
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

Fenby argues that France is a prisoner of her own history; she sees her casting off the shackles of tyranny in the French Revolution as her special crown, but never quite reconciles this with a contradictory yearning for conservatism as represented by a longing for military glory led by a strong and autocratic ruler. ‘Compromise’ in politics seems to be a dirty word. Anything less than utter capitulation is interpreted as almost a moral betrayal. Indeed, the body count in French politics is so high that I was surprised not to find ‘assassination attempts’ in the index! I was struck by how often entrenched and powerful influences, of both right and left, have successfully blocked desperately needed reforms. Even in the twenty-first century, those at the bottom of the pile, (mainly immigrants from ex-French colonies) are still the dispossessed. Fortunately, the book acknowledges the huge French contribution to the arts, commerce and science.

My main reservation is the book’s gender imbalance. Frenchwomen are half the population, yet they are conspicuous by their absence. Mentions of their fight for legal equality, higher education and the vote are minimal. Indeed, women’s rights/suffrage rate only seven index entries. This is a serious omission.