Wednesday, May 02, 2007

France And The French

Many historians have pointed out that Germany should have been permitted to win World War I, because the end result would have been no different than the Western Europe of today: a loose confederation of states under the economic domination of Germany, Central Europe's largest--and only--power.

A victorious Germany in World War I would have had the incidental benefits--and quite significant those incidental benefits would have been, too--of no period of National Socialism and no World War II. Further, although it lost both world wars, Germany eventually--and inevitably, or so some would say--won the peace that came afterward, and the long-term losers of the world wars clearly turned out to be Britain and France, both of which had a hand in the first victory but only one of which had a hand in the second.

These thoughts have been in my mind as Joshua and I have been reading Rod Kedward's "France And The French: A Modern History", published in February of last year. (In Britain, the title is "France And The French: La Vie En Bleu Since 1900".)

The Twentieth Century was a very bad century for France. In 1900, France and its colonies occupied 10% of the land on the globe, its economy was one of the world's four largest, its standard of living was exceeded only by the United States, and it was one of only three genuine global powers.

By 2000, France's colonial period had long since ended, its economy retained no global significance whatsoever, its standard of living had declined to the point where Portugal and Spain were its peers, and its sole pretense to world power was fighting to retain its place on the United Nations Security Council.

What happened?

Well, a lot happened, and that is the story that Kedward attempts to tell in "France And the French". However, I do not think that Kedward tells the story particularly well, and Kedward's deficiency is in failing to address the economic choices--wrong economic choices, over and over--that France made throughout the Twentieth Century.

Failed policies in taxes, tariffs and trade are the true story of France's grim journey through the Twentieth Century, but Kedward seems uninterested in the minutiae of policies and economics, and the implications thereof. Instead, he focuses on the French "character" and he informs the reader, over and over, in a myriad of ways, that "the French are different".

Kedward is a British writer who wrote his book for a British publisher, but I doubt that British readers--let alone American or Canadian or Australian readers--need 736 pages to be told that the French are "different". Most readers, I believe, have long since gathered this fact on their own.

Kedward divides the history of Twentieth-Century France into three distinct periods: World War I and its aftermath; the Occupation and the Gaullist years; and the events of 1968--a revolution in all but name--and the aftermath of 1968, which carries France to the Century's close.

Joshua and I have completed the first two-thirds of the book, and we are eager to proceed to Kedward's analysis of the post-1968 years, which reviewers have deemed to be much the strongest part of his book.

The first two-thirds of the book have some pronounced strengths and some pronounced weaknesses. Kedward's treatment of World War I lacks new insights, and his discussion of the near-endless series of political and economic crises that France endured in the 1920's and 1930's is unsatisfactory. On the other hand, his chapters on the Occupation seem spot-on, and he is unafraid to declare the concept of the "Resistance" the fiction that it largely was.

It wll be interesting to see whether Kedward continues to ignore economic analysis in the final third of his book. France's economic failings between 1968 and 2000 constitute the overwhelming event during those three decades. In 1968, the per-capita income of France was 50% higher than the per-capita income of Britain. By 2000, the per-capita income in both nations was equal--and yet both were sorely behind comparable income figures in the United States, Japan, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Since 2000, that gap has only widened.

How the mighty have fallen! Is it any wonder that Sarkozy has made the lingering effects of 1968 a recurring theme of his current presidential campaign?

While reading "France And The French", I could not help but recall one of Rudolf Bing's bon mots. During that same fateful year of 1968, the Metropolitan Opera traveled to Paris for a series of performances, and was received with chilly reviews by the Parisian press. Addressing one Paris newspaper's adverse comments about American soprano Roberta Peters, Bing said "Miss Peters may have had a bad night, but the Paris Opera has had a bad century."

France, too, has had a bad century, and economic and demographic and political studies suggest that the 21st Century will be even worse for France.

Already, France has ten million fewer inhabitants than Iran--and, with a current birth rate of 1.15 and falling, France's population is expected to be cut in half over the next thirty years. The economies of Korea and Taiwan and Brazil and Poland will surpass the economy of France in the next decade or sooner. In fifty years, France will be a dedicated third-world country (although one of my best friends, who studied art history in Paris for one year in 2004, already calls Paris "a third-world city with a great subway system").

And all of this has happened because of taxes, tariffs and trade. Does anyone--even Sarkozy--get it?


  1. I know this is just semantics, but who would've "permitted" Germany to win WWI?

    If you ever come to KC, we have a good WWI museum at the Liberty Memorial. I believe it's received some sort of national designation recently.

    When do you think France's last good century was? The 19th wasn't so hot either.

  2. To answer your questions in reverse order:

    1. France's last good century was the 18th Century, when France was the wealthiest and the most powerful nation on earth. No, the 19th Century was not particularly good for France, either, but there WAS an amazing economic and political recovery after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, a recovery that lasted for over thirty years.

    2. I had no idea that there was a World War I museum in Kansas City. I have never visited Kansas City.

    3. Yes, "permitted" is the wrong word, and that was a contentious statement, in any case. Certainly with respect to Britain, World War I was a disaster and, truly, Britain COULD have stayed out of the conflict. On the other hand, once the Germans started marching, France genuinely had no choice but to fight. It is amazing how easily the outcome of World War I could have gone the other way--as late as March 1918, it looked like the Central Powers were on the verge of winning the war outright.

    Let me go back to the subject of World War I museums. My middle brother and I have visited the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum in London, and we saw literally EVERYTHING in both museums. It took us two entire days to complete the National Army Museum and it took us seven entire days (we did not go on consecutive days) to complete the Imperial War Museum. We spent an entire day visiting the World War I section at the Imperial War Museum, and I thought that this was the very best part of the museum. I highly recommend both museums for your next London trip.

    The World War I section at the Invalides was closed for renovation for over five years, and, consequently, I have never been able to see it. I do not know whether it has reopened.

    My brother and I DID visit the World War II section of the Invalides, and it, too, took us an entire day. It was magnificent, and very theatrical.

    The differing presentations of the same subject matter--the British exhibits in London were expository; the French exhibits in Paris were dramatic and full of flair--surely reveal something significant about the two national characters.

    Joshua and I completed "France And The French" this weekend, and the final third of the book did not live up to its billing. When Josh and I were done with the book, both of us were slightly irritated, but I cannot explain why.

  3. 1. I would have guessed the 18th Century also, although the Revolution and the Seven Years War must have left scars. Actually, I don't remember enough about European history to say much of intelligence.

    2. The Kansas City World War I museum is semi-new. It's part of the restored Liberty Memorial complex that was originally dedicated in November 1921. Here's the website:

    During my final years with the City, a special one-cent sales tax was passed to restore the Memorial and to create a museum worthy of its collection. Although it can't compare to the Imperial War Museum, they've done a good job with what they have. A number of high-powered speakers have been and are being brought in: Niall Ferguson, Paul Kennedy, John Keegan,and Paul Fussell among others.

    Two weeks ago I visited New Orleans, never having been there before. On our final afternoon, I toured the National World War II Museum. It's much better than I expected and I left very frustrated that I hadn't scheduled more time for it. I plan to return to N.O., both to enjoy the French Quarter again (cafe au lait and beignets)and to spend more time at the museum.

    My only contact with the Imperial War Museum is from television. In the '70's I would stay up late to watch (and re-watch) episodes of "The World at War" on PBS. I can still remember the haunting theme music. The Imperial War Museum was always listed in the credits.

    Now I have another reason to visit London.