A sweeping, literate history of a nation that the English-speaking powers have found vexatious and puzzling—but certainly never boring.
François Mitterand, the socialist president of France from 1981 to 1995, regarded his nation’s task in the modern world as merely to preserve its rank. English biographer/historian Horne (Seven Ages of Paris, 2002, etc.) wonders whether in the “new world order of American Empire, or what the French call hyperpuissance,” to say nothing of a Germany that stands at the head of the European Union, even that much is possible. Horne, though, is less inclined to look to the future than to consider France’s long and often glorious past, and always with a nice but not patronizing sense of irony: French cultural purists may sing the wonders of Lutetia, the Roman camp on the Seine that became Paris; but, Horne gently points out, the name is less than exalted: it means something like Mudville. Indeed, Horne is given to a playful, and usually revelatory, brand of revisionism. Why, he wonders, does Charlemagne get so much good press, and a statue before Notre Dame Cathedral, when he “was an absentee ruler who did little for France”? Why praise Baron Haussmann for architectural and aesthetic genius when his broad boulevards were really meant to provide clear fields of fire—usually for government troops shooting at citizens? (“In fact, and with what force will be seen later in the hideously destructive Communard revolution of 1871, he defeated his own purpose,” Horne remarks.) Yet Horne’s heroes are many and certainly never boring, from Sorbonne founder and troubled soul Abelard to the hard-working and courteous Louis XIV and on down to Jack Lang, Mitterand’s minister of culture, who fought a losing battle against the creeping crud of Anglo-Saxon culture. Mitterand earns points, too, despite what Horne nicely calls his “Machiavellian suppleness,” for all his efforts to keep France strong and, well, interesting.
A pleasure for Francophile readers, balancing the recent space of dimwitted screeds against a nation that dares to go its own way, hyperpuissance be damned.