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.
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?