France caught in the bastille of the past

A stern look at the world's most romantic nation

FRANCE ON TEH BRINK by Jonathan Fenby Arcade Publishing 449 pp., $27.95

When you see a title like this, you can't help asking yourself, on the brink of what, exactly?

Jonathan Fenby, who has reported from France for 30 years, is married to a Frenchwoman and knows the place intimately. He is clearly deeply worried about its condition and has written an exhaustively researched and sometimes exhaustingly detailed account of all that is wrong with Europe's most complicated country.

But a nation with France's history, culture, depth, and stability can hardly be said to be on the brink - of anything. Countries like France do not implode; they evolve, for better or for worse, and in his eagerness to explain the problems facing the French today, Fenby has paid too little attention to some hopeful evolutions.

"France fascinates, irritates and intrigues," he writes. Certainly, few people are left indifferent by the country or its people.

He dwells at length on the many contradictions that make France such a curious and compelling place - the deeply conservative nature of a country that has been a byword for revolution since 1789, the attachment to a strong state among people who pride themselves on their individualism.

But Fenby gets caught up in these contradictions. For a start, he swings between nostalgic laments for the passing of a bygone age and strictures about how the French cannot cope with modernity. And despite his obvious familiarity with France, he often lets the surface rhetoric of public life hide the real changes that are transforming the country.

France is a modern country, almost despite itself, and preparing its place at the top table in the 21st century.

The hidebound, state-dominated economy so often pilloried by US and British critics is nonetheless the fourth-biggest industrial power and exporter in the world. The French stock exchange has done better than its neighbors, leaping by 50 percent in the last two years. And businesses have quietly made themselves leaner and more agile, even as their directors have decried US-style free-market capitalism.

At the same time, socialist premier Lionel Jospin has introduced a modest, pragmatic, problem-solving approach to French politics that is far removed from the past ideological posturing on both left and right that Fenby decries, and which has proved highly appealing to an electorate tired of arrogant and often corrupt public officials.

Fenby is best on the bits of France that he likes best - the countryside, the food, the authentic, unpretentious village restaurants where French savoir vivre is at its most apparent.

He is sympathetic enough to the French mentality to understand how an academic could present a paper on "The Influence of the Sardine on the Mediterranean Imagination," while still laughing at how quintessentially French such an approach is.

He is also alive to the visceral anti-French feeling that is so close to the surface in so many parts of the world. Reading British commentaries on France, for example, made writer Andr Frossard realize that he was "egotistical, vain, servile, jingoistic, uncivil, hopeless in big business, peevish, undisciplined, garrulous and intemperate."

But even so, where would we be without France and the French?

At the end of his book, even though it is mostly a litany of French failings, from racism through corruption and elitism to a refusal of change, Fenby gives in to his evident love for the country and allows himself to hope that the French may yet find their own way to solve their problems.

Vive l'exception franaise.

*Peter Ford is the Monitor's correspondent in Paris.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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