Book Review: Modern France – A Very Short Introduction by Vanessa R Schwartz

This Short Introduction (from the Oxford University Press series) is a cultural entry, investigating the place that France has held over the past two hundred years, the origins and development of this role up to the present day.

It is neatly broken up into five discreet parts (all around 20-30 pages in length). The first looks at the impact of the revolution, with its use of words, images and symbols to empathize the revolutionary values and redefine the geographic and historical nation.

The 2nd chapter furthers this by investigating one long-term outcome of the revolution, the civilising mission of the French. This of course predates 1789; given the dominance of the French language in aristocratic and diplomatic circles and the major role of French thinkers and authors within the Enlightenment. The goals and ideals of the revolution were transmitted via the written word; accordingly, the skilled practitioners became (and still are) highly valued in French society.

Next, we move away to the subject of Paris, and its dominant role in modern France. This is investigated from the cultural angle: initially in Haussmann’s overhaul of the physical city (the visual impact of his boulevards), then looking at the city’s key role, over the next 100+ years, in consumerism, museum culture, visual representation (the origins of photography and cinema in France), fashion and tourism (today France is the most visited country in the world).

The last two chapters are grounded in the today. The background and consequences of France’s assimilation of the people of many other nations, races and religions into the culture of the Republic are considered. The much-pondered issue of compatibility between Islam and modern France goes back a long way. The author states that economic decline and failures in housing and employment is a more effective explanation for the rupturing, rather than cultural differences.

The final part is about, contrary to the rural and agrarian notions than many people hold of La France Profonde, modern France’s ongoing commitment to high technology and its utilization for the benefit of the nation. For example, the role of the Eiffel Tower and the TGV in tourism and France’s use of nuclear energy.

This technological bent, and its concern for modernity and utopianism, we learn takes its place alongside all the other influences of, and products of the revolution. The author in her introduction takes us back a short distance to 1989, for the bi-centennial of the revolution. The “opera-parade” staged that evening to celebrate the anniversary (and present France), consciously focused on the international, universal and very much ongoing effect of the revolution, rather than treat it nostalgically.

Whatever the strength of your Francophilia, this is a fascinating subject. The fact that the content is broken up into five chunks limits the depth that the authors covers here, but she presents her study very well – this short introduction is one to refer to often when wanting some more cultural background on France and its recent history.

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