Miserabilists poised for change

On the Brink by Jonathan Fenby Little, Brown pounds 18.99: After 30 years of egotism from Giscard, Mitterand and Chirac, the dull Lionel Jospin represents an important advance in French politics
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France has beaten the world at the world's favourite sport. Global sales of French cheese, wine and TGVs are exploding. More tourists go to France than any other country. The French economy, limp for most of the 1990s, is threatening to boom. The cock, it seems, has reason to crow again.

And yet, in the spiritual and political sense, the French way of doing things has been rejected by the the rest of the world.

"The very idea of France has become, like no other, a universal concept," Jean-Claude Barreau, inspector general of the French school-system, wrote as recently as last year (temporarily forgetting that the United States existed).

If so, France is a universal nation without a universe. The American paradigm, American market values, American dress, American culture, have triumphed all over the world, even, increasingly, in France.

Is this enough to explain the loss of French nerve of recent years? Possibly. The flip-side of French confidence, even arrogance, has sometimes been a manic-depressive tendency to inertia and miserabilism.

In his excellent new book, Jonathan Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle as saying: "The French need to be proud of France. Otherwise, they fall into mediocrity." The General would, no doubt, have appreciated the political importance of those huge, joyous, multi-racial crowds which filled the length of the Champs Elysees the day after Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup.

It might seem that Fenby's book has been overtaken by events. The "brink" upon which he places France, is the brink of social, political and economic implosion. Even a year ago, that seemed a reasonable proposition; now the opinion polls, influenced by the reviving economy and the World Cup, suggest that the nation is happier than at any time in the last 11 years.

But Fenby's book is by no means out of date. The political and economic weather has changed but much of the landscape has not. France remains the most undemocratic of democratic countries; the least capitalist of capitalist countries. France is a country founded on equality but it has a more impenetrable, self-serving and self- perpetuating elite than any other democratic country (Britain not excluded). It was once the cutting edge of modernity - "the place where the 20th century was," according to Gertrude Stein. But it now seems daunted (perhaps with some cause) by the looming 21st century of global culture and restlessly mutating information technology.

All these contradictions are brilliantly teased out and wrestled with in this book: a book which seeks to be critical of France, sometimes very critical, but from the point of view of a friend and Francophile and long- term observer. (In other words, not from the point of view of the brainless Frog-bashing which irrupts regularly in some British newspapers, even some serious newspapers.) This, as I know to my cost, is a difficult tightrope to walk: living in France, dealing daily with French people, is a delight and a frustration: sometimes the frustration overcomes the delight and the judgements of even the most fundamentally Francophile observer can be warped.

Fenby avoids this trap while writing with passion, and deserved anger, about the depths of political corruption revealed in recent years; about the collapse of Mitterrandism into empty arrogance and venality; and about the menace of the National Front. There are especially moving chapters on the hollowing out of rural France and the empty lives, and extreme Islamist temptations, of the second-generation immigrant youth of the inner suburbs of French cities.

My only criticism is that the book under-estimates the degree to which things have already started to change. And it underestimates the importance of that underestimated man, Lionel Jospin.

The French soccer triumph under Aime Jacquet, the most Yorkshire of Frenchmen, was a paradigm for a new French Jospinist realism: success based on organisation and hard-work. The revelations of political corruption continue but then, under Jospin, the judiciary has a freer hand to attack such abuses - on both right and left - than ever before. Educated young French people are pouring abroad in unprecedented numbers, but that reflects their greater willingness to speak foreign languages, and seek out foreign ways of doing things. Jospin's education minister even declared that "English is no longer a foreign language in France."

Jospin, elected Prime Minister by accident, looks and is pretty dull. But he also represents something different and important in French politics. After a 30-year war between the self-serving political egos of Giscard, Mitterrand, Chirac (brilliantly described by Fenby), here, finally, is a French politician who wants quietly to move things forward rather than preserve his own power. Arguably, Jospin is more revolutioinary in French terms than Blair in British ones.

Much heavy lifting remains to be done. The danger of the French recovery is that it will disguise, rather than attack, the archaic, fragmentary forces in French society. But there are signs that France is evolving towards a more realistic assessment of its place in the world which, as Fenby says, is the first step towards the revival of a different kind of French greatness.

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