From Les Eyzies-de-Tayac’s National Museum of Prehistory, early Gaul leader Vercingétorix, and Clovis’ creation of the Frankish Kingdom; to Jacques Chirac’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency and the threat of the ‘Americanization’ of French culture, Cecil Jenkins’ sumup of France: People, History and Culture covers quite a bit in only 309 pages.
Cecil pulls from several resources to give us a balanced view of French history and culture. Without too many romantic leanings or criticisms, he lays out French history as a logical, methodical series of human interactions in relation to the ever-changing world around it–however, at times, stubbornly fixed in unchanging political ways.
From the tribes of Gaul to the end of the monarchy; World War II and the latest economic crisis, Jenkins’ chronology is punctuated by political scandals, international faux pas, societal and global advancements, and the artistic translation of the times as seen though the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Impressionism, Existentialism and Relativism.
His writing is concise and very entertaining. Of the power and cultural clash between Great Britain and France:
… as it dawned on the French that they were being left behind by this suddenly predominate world power, the idea of Britain as the ‘hereditary enemy’ gained strength and Anglophobia, like its counterpart Francophobia, began to grow apace.
This did not significantly affect sophisticated intellectual circles, where there was rather an opposite tendency towards Anglophilia or Francophilia – major figures such as Hume and Gibbon could hold court in French salons, while Montesquieu and Voltaire made regular visits to England. But in the Hundred Years War the marauding British had been popularly known as godons, a corruption of ‘goddam’ – which, even according to Beaumarchais in Le Mariage de Figaro of 1784, the English still used on every occassion – and even as godons coués, or having tails like devils. And there were now much clearer differences between the two countries to feed this stereotyping. While France has an absolute monarchy, the British had a parliamentary system after killing their king. France was Catholic while the English were Protestant. Also Britain, as an island, had for long been more in favor of free trade than France with its protectionist tradition as laid down by Colbert.
What with these differences and with each country having recently made plans to invade the other, there was enough fear to lead each to turn the other into a bête noire and to begin to define itself as the opposite of the other. So the Goddams were seen as ruthlessly commercial and greedy, coarse and full of drunken horseplay – they know nothing about food or fashion, their women are horse-faced and mannish, and they actually think that vulgar Shakespeare is a writer. The Frogs, in turn, are absurdly pretentious and preening, there is a clockwork artificiality to their salon formalities, the men are effeminate fops carrying little parasols, the women are all dolled up and shameless, and who with British blood in his veins could sit through anything as anaemic and affected as a plotless play by Racine? And this is just the eighteenth-century version of a set of prejudices which is still alive today.”
He captures many of histories moments through the eyes of its overpowered and dominant figures with a focus so direct and observant it was very hard to put the book down.
For example, on Germany’s occupation of France during World War II:
… Hitler was anxious not to divert resources from the forthcoming confrontation with Britain and the Soviet Union in order to garrison and police a large country like France, nor, since he already had access to its industrial wealth and held it hostage by not releasing his prisoners, did he need to. So it was convenient to let the French do much of the policing themselves and to treat the country as a rather decadent holiday resort where German soldiers could come on leave and sample the dubious delights of Paris.”
Or Sarkozy’s reaction to the current financial crisis:
While [Sarkozy] viewed Europe as an alliance of nations rather than in federal terms, he had seen the possibility of making it a much stronger political force in the world. However, he had had another, chastening revelation. For he found his original neo-liberal assumptions dented by the shattering implosions of the global financial system and its damaging and social and political effects in Europe and across the world. France was fortunate to some extent in that it was not so export-oriented as that of Germany or so dependent on complex financial engineering as that of the US or the UK. But it soon had its own illustration of the workings of what now seemed to be a global casino with the case of Jérôme Kerviel, a young trader who–to practise his skills rather than to achieve any personal gain–lost the Société Générale 5 billion euros by reportedly gambling more than the entire market value of the bank. Before the combined Assembly and Senate at Versailles in June 2009, Sarkozy declared grimly that the Anglo-American financial system he had admired was a ‘dead end’ and that ‘the crisis had put the French model back into fashion’. ‘Nothing’ he told them starkly, ‘will ever be the same again’.”
Colorful, blunt and unapologetically realistic, France: People, History and Culture is a wonderful introduction to everything French. Through Ceil Jenkins’ pristine and focused lens we are reminded that human interaction, both personal and political, is a never ending pursuit to enrich the world around us. The point is to learn from our mistakes, evolve, and do our utmost best to avoid repeating the terrible blunders of our past.