Modern France – A Very Short Introduction
By Vanessa R. Schwartz
Oxford – £7.99
Having not long lived in France, I thought it might be useful to come to terms with some of its fraught and tempestuous, colourful and seismic history. Hence the reading of Vanessa R. Schwartz’s Modern France – A Very Short Introduction.
At a mere 121 pages, it may admittedly be short, but it certainly covers a fair bit of terrain, for as mentioned in this snappy little book’s Introduction: ‘’[…] contradictions that in other places might seem like mere hypocrisy do not seem so in France […]. This embrace of contradiction held in productive tension is an instructive quality in a world as complex and connected as the one in which we live. In that way, France continues to be important as an object of study and as a coherent voice in world affairs.’’
As the country’s recent foray into Mali illustrates, France is without doubt a continuing ‘’voice in world affairs.’’ Whether or not it’s a ‘’coherent voice’’ is an altogether different matter, simply because the nation’s coherence is indeed, anchored to that of colossal contradiction.
And this is what accounts for France being so undeniably fascinating.
So far as this concise, and dare I say it, altogether coherent book is concerned, said western European nation remains a force to be reckoned with in a number of arenas. Politically, socially, economically as well as artistically, there aren’t many nations on the planet that so intrinsically, yet effortlessly, combine its roller-coaster individualism within and upon that of the world stage. As Patrice Higonnet, the Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard University proclaims; ‘’This quite brilliant ‘introductory essay’ has as its main point that the specificity of French collective identity and culture is – and always has been – in its ability to blend a very strong sense of national self with universalist values.’’
This powerful, yet endlessly captivating and individual trait, albeit a tip of the idiosyncratic iceberg, is herein laid forth in an altogether inviting and easy to read manner. That it accounts for just one area of France’s uniqueness – as this book makes so evidently clear – reinforces both the historical attraction and appeal: ‘’Thinking about social reform […] became redefined by the powerful insights and observations of two Germans, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who met when they were living in Paris. For them, the history of France would come to determine their developing laws of social development and transformation (‘Industrializations’s dreamers,’ page 105);’’ ‘’Protests against Le Pens’s racist extremism began the night he earned the runoff and thus delivered Chirac 82 percent of the vote […]. In such moments of clear choice between racism and the values of the rights of man, the French dramatically and emphatically chose the values of the Republic. These may be easy moments of unambiguous choice, but such moments also help perpetuate the unity of the Republic in ways that few modern democratic nations have the privilege to see crystallized except in times of war (‘The empire comes home,’ page 92);’’ ‘’When de Gaulle said […] that ‘’Every man who writes… and writes well, serves France,’’ he was not only explaining why he might have appointed a writer such as Malraux to revitalize French culture under the government’s supervision. He laid bare another truism about France: a long-established respect for writers and intellectuals (‘Beyond empire,’ page 45).’’
Replete with personality and a more than robust perspecitive, Modern France – A Very Short Introduction, really does shoot from the hip in such a way that leaves many of its contemporaries drowning within a rather dense quagmire of far too much academic flim-flam.