Pick of the crop
Graham Robb has written the season’s best book about France. It shreds the French mythology comprehensively, demonstrating that what we think of as the eternal France is nothing of the kind. More or less everything about France has been invented and much of it rather recently. France has been going through an identity crisis that began even before the turn of the century since exacerbated by the new mood post 9-11 and the disturbances in the banlieue of major French cities. The French had believed that their Republican model would integrate everyone and sneered at the multiculuralism practised in Britain, for example. But it has turned out that appeals to laïcité in France and celebrations of difference in Britain have both turned out to be not exactly comprehensively fit for purpose. One reason is that in neither Britain or France is it entirely clear what it means to be British, or French. Or English. Or Catalan. Robb reminds us that identity has much more local origins than this – certainly in France. This is not always a flattering portrait of the people who came to be the French. The women did much of the work. The agrarian tradition celebrated today is as mythical as the rest. Agronomists dispatched from Paris in the 19th century despaired at the peasantry’s refusal to cultivate the land, holding to their pastures and the animals who kept them warm. Only the invention of the internal combustion engine and the tractor persuaded French men to till the land – when they had machines to drive around in. Modern France may be an invented trope but it is real enough. Is Republicanism with its various contradictions ultimately a strong enough idea to unite all the fractious clans within? So far, it has not proved fully capable of the job. France is a nation united, perhaps, only by its hatred of tax collectors and officials. Meanwhile, if you want to wallow in a really profound France, read this book.