A wealth of information about, and insight into, modern France. The book is split into three sections, this arrangement being how the authors have chosen to delineate the aspects they see as forces influencing French culture, disposition etc.
The first section, Spirit, gives a brief scan of French history, and attempts to get a handle on the French mindset with regards to topics like globalisation, their attachment to rural traditions despite the overwhelming majority of the population living in the cities, and the value of rhetorical and conversational skill.
n this section, a whole chapter each is given over to World War II (1939-1945) and the Algerian War (1954-1962), such is the influence these events still hold over the country.
Structure, the second section, is possibly the most informative, but it’s also the most disappointing in style. Page after page of dates, statistics and percentages betray the book’s origin as a report for the ICWA, but this still doesn’t disguise how much information is presented: discussions of political structure (and the reasons and history behind it); distribution of power at the national, regional and municipal levels; the education system(s); law; associations and language are all present.
Finally, Change addresses the current political situation, issues surrounding immigration and France’s changing racial make-up, and the country’s relationship with America and it’s place in the EU.
Throughout, the authors cannot help name-dropping friends and acquaintances they’ve encountered, to the point that it becomes tiresome to read another anecdote about the hiking club or some politically ambitious friend, even though one is assured of being well informed about whatever topic is being discussed. No doubt is was felt this would provide a feeling of sincerity for the reader, but with this kind of overuse it ends up feeling forced.
The other complaint I had about the style was the frequency of descriptions provided in the third person, again, presumably, done with the aim of engendering trust, but actually coming across as badly realised Gonzo journalism. Take for example this first paragraph of the final chapter:
Sitting at his desk one Wednesday afternoon writing an Institute report one Wednesday afternoon, Jean-Benoit was startled by the sound of sirens howling in the streets – not fire-engine sirens, but air-raid sirens, distant and melancholy. He recognised the sound from war movies, but it was the first time he’d heard the wail for real. His thoughts spiralled. The Kosovo war was drawing to an end, but anything could have happened. Was there a nuclear attack? His thoughts raced to Julie, who was travelling in the Middle East. He thought about going down the street to the subway for shelter.
Of seven sentences, four begin He or His, yet the authors are not sufficiently well drawn as characters to justify this attention or to create empathy. Further, both authors are referenced here in the third person – who is supposed to be the voice here? If the the answer is “both” or “neither”, this breaks the facade of connection with the reader this style was aiming for in the first place.
Major stylistic gripes aside, there can be no denying the depth and breadth of information presented in such a compact book: in just under 350 pages, Nadeau and Barlow have managed to convey an insightful analysis of France, and more importantly, it the French. Bravo!
Tags: books, France, Jean-Benoit Nadeau, Julie Barlow, language