On the Brink: The Trouble with France

Robert Hudson (University of Derby)

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Hudson, R. (2000), "On the Brink: The Trouble with France", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 113-115. https://doi.org/10.1108/ebr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Jonathan Fenby is a Francophile, with a vast knowledge and understanding of French society at the end of the twentieth century. In his book, he presents his readers with a snapshot of contemporary French life, which ranges over a wide raft of social, cultural, political and economic events. The leitmotif to the book is that old pre‐war song Madame La Marquise in which, as everything goes wrong around her, the Marquise is informed by each of her servants that tout va très bien, tout va très bien, when clearly nothing is going well at all. In Fenby’s account the Marquise has been transmogrified into France, where it is clear that nothing seems to be going very well for that country, at the end of the century. The author therefore presents us with a litany of woes in the space of 400 pages, and his effort makes for some rather disturbing reading.

After setting out France’s glories in the first dozen pages as the largest, biggest, finest and best, he shows how beneath the surface, France is in deep crisis. The basic message of the book is that “Europe’s most self‐confident people is losing faith in itself and in those who run its nation” and that “France finds itself rudderless in this pragmatic end of century”.

It would be quite fair to situate On the Brink in that tradition of writing on France established by the likes of Alexander Werth, John Ardagh and Theodore Zeldin, in which individuals well established in journalism (at least in the first two cases) who have a deep knowledge and love for France, have set out to explain the current state of affairs in that country to their Anglo‐Saxon contemporaries. Werth’s book was a superb reflection on life during the Fourth Republic; Ardagh’s book has been up‐dated and reissued many times by Penguin over the last three decades, whilst Zeldin became one of those rare things in the English‐speaking world, a guru on French life, who was accepted, honoured and constantly deferred to by the French media and public, with appearances on television chat shows and cultural programmes such as the now defunct Apostrophe. The great thing is that in On the Brink, Fenby has provided his readers with a more up‐to‐date account of what has been going on in France over the last decade, and it could well establish a new standard in the literature on France, written by non‐French nationals. The only drawback is that a book like this will quickly date unless it goes through regular revisions.

An academic book, this clearly is not, and this reviewer often felt that On the Brink would have benefited greatly from extensive footnoting, especially given the seemingly excessive use of statistics in the first two chapters. Sadly, there was sometimes an irritating absence of precision, a lack of detail on individuals and events and a failure to clearly establish the author’s sources. One sometimes wondered, what sort of audience Fenby had in mind when putting the book together. For example, when discussing the so‐called crise des intellectuels, the reader is, on the one hand, rather engagingly informed by the author that: “A piercing analysis of current philosophy by an American and British academic [not named!] has shown pretty convincingly that some of France’s leading thinkers [not named!] haven’t got much of a clue what they are writing about, and hide their vacuity behind a thicket of meaningless prose.” These individuals are then contrasted with Jean‐Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron [both named, naturally!] who were, as this reviewer can readily affirm, severely criticised, by both Left and Right, in their own day. Yet we are never told who the intellectuals in question are, just that one is “a dandy philosopher” who “may pose for Paris Match in a silk shirt...” whilst another has “dazzled” with his assertions that “the Gulf War never happened”. Perhaps the decision, not to mention Bernard‐Henri Lévi and Jean Baudrillard was some sort of elaborate tease, specially introduced for Francophile readers? Nevertheless, as an academic, this reviewer shuddered at the thought of some of his students quoting from what is otherwise an excellent book.

Although On the Brink is full of doom and gloom there are, nevertheless, one or two humorous passages. I loved Fenby’s description of the impact of graduates of the Grandes Ecoles, and particularly those of ENA, on the economic and political life in France. The humour abounds with remarks, such as that of the former Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua: “We should export half of our ENA graduates. And send them to our main competitors.” This, from the man who had so badly mismanaged events in Nouvelle Calédonie, back in 1988. Then there was the quip from a speech by Alain Madelin, that: “Britain has the IRA, Spain has the ETA, Italy has the Mafia – and we have ENA”. This I just loved, having once taught in a Grande Ecole.

Fenby has produced a really competent overview of life in contemporary France, warts and all. On the Brink would be of particular interest to people in the world of business who wish to find out more about French business culture. Above all it would appeal to all those who love France or want to find out more about the country. I completely agree with the author’s concluding words, that: “...the beacon from this lighthouse nation will grow dim as France implodes on the problems it cannot bring itself to face – and Europe and the world will be poorer places as a result”.

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