France on the Brink:
A Great Civilization in the New Century
Release date: July 1, 2014
at Skyhorse Publishing
at Skyhorse Publishing
France on the Brink was chosen as a New York Times book of the year and hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “a comprehensive and entertaining diagnosis of what ails French society” when the first edition was published at the turn of the century. Since then, the crisis enveloping France has only worsened, and this second edition, completely revamped to cover the developments of the past fifteen years, offers a fresh assessment of where the nation stands. New chapters chart political developments under Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande; the rise of the hard right National Front; and the unrelenting economic woes that have led to unprecedented levels of disillusion and fragmentation. In this new edition, Fenby offers a loving though candid and unvarnished picture of the nation, contrasting its glorious past with current realities.[provided by the publisher]
Copy received from France Book Tours for an honest review
France on the Brink by Jonathan Fenby was a fascinating read. Although I think I'm pretty knowledgeable about current events and political situations there were many interesting things that I did not know about France, french culture and french people. I found this book to be very interesting and very informative. It's 400 plus pages so there is a wealth of information. What distinguished this book for me was the authors voice throughout. It felt like a very personal journey through France and its history.
Fenby deals with a lot of tough topics and he is very honest and candid about some of the aspects of France that aren't as glamorous as expected. I specifically fond it very interesting that such a high number of french people are looking to retire outside of France. The discontent with French politics was very interesting but I personally think that this discontentment could be shared with a large part of Europe. I found his portrait of Chirac to be very blunt and straightforward.
One of my favorite parts was the wealth of french culture and history, it was described with such richness that its easy to see why France is still revered. One aspect that I found a little surprising was the ethnic diversity and also some of the prejudices held. I found this to be a little surprising. If anyone is looking to learn and read about the current situation of french life this is a must read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned much more than I had expected.
***Jonathan Fenby reported from France for a variety of newspapers, including the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Times of London, Guardian, and London Observer. Married to a Frenchwoman, he was, to his surprise, made a Chevalier of the French Order of Merit in 1990. He is also the author of acclaimed biographies of Charles de Gaulle and Chiang Kai-shek, among other works. He lives in England.
Visit his blog on China
A French Life
The French were intrigued more than shocked when the existence of François Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter became public knowledge late in his second term. His wife had known about them for a long time, but accepted the situation. ‘So, yes, I was married to a seducer. I had to make do,’ Danielle Mitterrand said later. ‘She’s his daughter, and François loved her enormously. They resemble one another like peas in a pod.’ Asked about the young Mazarine towards the end of his life, Mitterrand shrugged the matter off. His widow was philosophical. ‘We must accept that a human being is capable of loving, passionately loving somebody—and then, as the years go by, he loves in a different way, perhaps more deeply, and then he can fall in love with someone else. It is absolute hypocrisy to want to pass judgement on that.’
Such honesty spoke volumes about France. It was fitting from the widow of a man who, in so many things, personified his nation’s history over more than half a century. By the time he became President, Mitterrand had already spent nearly four decades in politics. He was Europe’s last ruler who had been in office in pre-nuclear days, holding his first government job when Truman, Attlee and Stalin were meeting to fix the shape of the postwar world. For most of his presidency he was known affectionately as ‘Tonton’ (‘Uncle’). By the end, some followers had taken to calling him ‘Dieu’ (‘God’), if only for his seeming immortality. In everything from his childhood to the secrecy about his health, from his private life to the equivocations about his wartime years, from the twists of his career to his last New Year’s dinner, François Mitterrand’s odyssey was a parable of modern France. Beginning as a true Catholic believer, he ended up, in the words of one of his Prime Ministers, as a pure cynic. The man and his country moved in parallel from traditional roots to end-of-century malaise.
‘My childhood, which was happy, has illuminated my life. When one is a child, when one arrives on this planet of which one knows nothing, everything is to be learnt, everything to be felt. The first sensations are so strong and dominant. They make their mark on a virgin canvas. I draw the largest part of my reserves of strength from my childhood. I have the impression that what I had at that moment, and the little of it I have preserved (and I have kept some of it), represents the purest and cleanest part of my personality.’
Jarnac is an ordinary town of some five thousand inhabitants surrounded by open countryside and rivers in the Charente department of western France. It is best known for having given its name to the expression for a stab in the back, ‘un coup de Jarnac,’ from a sixteenth-century incident in which one nobleman struck another from behind in a duel. François Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand was born there on October 26, 1916. His father was a stationmaster who later changed profession and became head of the vinegar makers of the region. With four sons and four daughters, the Mitterrands were a close-knit family into which, François recalled, ‘guests entered as if they were burglars.’ Austere and devout Catholics, they distrusted moneymaking and rarely displayed emotion, in all respects akin to de Gaulle’s father and mother.
François was sent to boarding school in the nearby big town of Angoulême. A withdrawn child, he had trouble communicating with others and made few friends. One lifelong character trait was established at an early age. ‘I have never tended to confide in others,’Mitterrand remarked much later, ‘In a big family, one has to develop zones of solitude.’
As a loner, the young Mitterrand enjoyed going for long countrywalks. He nurtured a taste for strolls along riverbanks and wrote poems about their waters, starting with the Charente and the Gironde of his native region and going on to take the Rhine, the Rhone, the Nile and the Niger as inspiration. Seventy years later, he recalled with pleasure the sound of the wind blowing at night through the riverside trees. On his walks, the shy boy from the Catholic school spoke to imaginary crowds, haranguing them with rhetoric inspired by the revolutionaries of 1789 and 1848. Back at home, he climbed up to the attic, littered with maize husks, and launched vibrant speeches through the window overlooking the garden, ‘changing the course of history according to my choices.’
If he looked back with happy nostalgia to his childhood in the Charente, he was less forthcoming for many years about his early life in Paris. Arriving by train from Angoulême just before his eighteenth birthday to study politics and law, he felt lost and small in the big city—‘at the foot of a mountain that was to be climbed. I was without an identity.’ Living in a religious pension in the Rue de Vaugirard on the Left Bank, he soon gravitated into reactionary politics.
This was hardly surprising for somebody of his background in the fevered climate of the mid-1930s, when some dreamed of a Socialist- Communist revolution and others looked at Mussolini and Hitler as role models. He joined a group called the National Volunteers, the youth wing of a big extremist movement, the Croix-de-Feu, and took part in his first demonstration within a month of arriving in the capital. A photograph taken in February 1935 shows him at a march against foreign students: a banner beside him proclaims, ‘Go on strike against the wogs.’ He wrote for a newspaper which admired Mussolini, travelled to Belgium to visit the pretender to the throne of France, gave 500 francs to a campaign against the Socialist leader Leon Blum, and became head of a right-wing student group. At the age of twenty-one, he also fell in love.
‘One Saturday, I had the blues,’ he recalled. ‘I went back to my room. On the table, I came across an invitation I had forgotten about. It was to a dance at the teachers’ training college. I went. I saw a blonde with her back to me. She turned towards me. My feet were riveted to the ground . . . Then I asked her to dance . . . I was mad about her!’
Women were always important to François Mitterrand. Over the years there was as much speculation about his love life as about his real political beliefs. He was said to have had a string of celebrated journalists as mistresses and a love nest in Venice. He was reported to take particular pleasure in caressing the insteps of his lady friends. ‘He was fascinated by Casanova,’ according to a journalist whom Mitterrand picked to chronicle his last days. ‘He couldn’t go into a bar or a restaurant without seeking out the face of a woman and giving his famous wink.’ When he met the actress Juliette Binoche by chance in a bookshop, he asked her to give him a call. With undue modesty, she found the prospect too intimidating: ‘How does one call the President of the Republic?’ she wondered, ‘It’s like picking up the phone and asking for Father Christmas.’
Others were not so reticent. Any attractive woman who rose to a high position in the Socialist ranks was suspected of having slept with him on the way up. When he told one of them that she might become a party secretary as a reward, she is said to have replied on the pillow that she didn’t know how to type. A roman-à-clef in the 1980s intimated that he had an illegitimate child as well as the three sons born to his wife. The rumours were confirmed in 1994 when Paris-Match magazine printed photographs of the President stepping out to a twentieth-birthday lunch at a celebrated fish restaurant with his daughter, Mazarine, who had been conceived as he embarked on his second unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1974, and who bore a striking resemblance to her father.
Her mother was an archivist whom Mitterrand had met near his home on the southwestern Atlantic coast. In Premier Roman, a thin novel that was scoured for autobiographical fragments when it became a bestseller in 1998, Mazarine wrote of her heroine’s parents as ‘longtime lovers, unmarried, leading their own lives, even while loving each other more than anything. They taught her that love was the only tie that triumphs over looks and judgements, convention and taboos.’
There was never any secret about Mitterrand’s first love, even if the blonde Marie-Louise Terrasse had not been as struck by him as he was by her when his eye fell on her at the student ball. She did not give him her name because her mother forbade her to identify herself to unknown young men. In his mind, Mitterrand dubbed her ‘Beatrice,’ as in Dante. He spoke incessantly about her to friends and watched her as she travelled between home and school. Finally, he accosted her. Defying her mother’s command, she joined him at a café table, and they shared a pancake. In the spring of 1940, when Mitterrand was called up to the army, they got engaged. In his letters to her from his army post, he referred to Marie-Louise as VM, for ‘visage merveilleux’ (marvellous face).
As a sergeant during the Phoney War before the Nazis attacked, Mitterrand must have found the time slow. So, when not writing to VM, he turned his hand to a spot of fiction, with a short story entitled ‘First Chord,’ about a young couple, Philippe and Elsa. She was ‘supple and gay, sparkling as she awoke, a Persian at the sword, her pink curves like a jar of hair cream.’ The prose slurped on: ‘Every day of their brief love, she leaped from bed. As he lay about, she walked round the room dressed in her blue dream [sic]. She loved this hour of daydreams . . . Elsa never dared to parade naked in their room, for Philippe had a curious degree of modesty for a flirtatious man: odd habits, delights that remained ever elusive.’ He was, after all, only twenty-three years old, and, if only he had known it, was following in the footsteps of de Gaulle, who had penned romantic fiction (equally unpublished) while convalescing from a war wound in 1914.
After France’s defeat, the sergeant was taken prisoner of war together with thousands of French soldiers. As the months dragged by in his Stalag, VM’s letters became rarer and rarer. Friends attributed Mitterrand’s three escape attempts to his desire to get back to her. Again, there was a parallel with de Gaulle, who repeatedly escaped from German prison camps in the First World War, only to be recaptured each time. Mitterrand was more successful; his third breakout succeeded, and he returned to France, entering a controversial period of his life which will be dealt with later.
But he found that the girl with the marvellous face no longer fancied the idea of marrying him. Early in 1942, the engagement was broken off. Many years later, as Catherine Langeais, Marie-Louise became more famous for a time than her former fiancé as an early television announcer. Some amateur psychologists believe that rejection hardened the young man’s character and contributed to the growth of his pervasive cynicism. At the time, he spoke of the ‘dryness of my feelings.’ Decades later, he still sent Langeais flowers on her birthday.