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The best books on Modern French History

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The Long '68: Radical Protest and its Enemies by Richard Vinen

The Long '68: Radical Protest and its Enemies
by Richard Vinen


The social and political development of France has been strongly contested ever since the country finally became a republic for good in 1870. Here, Professor Richard Vinen of King's College London recommends five books that will help you understand modern France, all written in a golden age of French historical writing.

Interview by Benedict King

The Long '68: Radical Protest and its Enemies by Richard Vinen

The Long '68: Radical Protest and its Enemies
by Richard Vinen

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Before we get on to the books, have there been any particularly big fights over French history in the current presidential election battle?

To an extraordinary extent, yes, because of Eric Zemmour, who’s a slightly eccentric candidate, but not a completely marginal figure. It’s almost as if academic history is his main interest. He made his reputation writing for the Figaro, and I used to read him every week. I used to think his stuff was a bit strange, but probably no stranger than stuff you read in the Daily Telegraph from time to time. He wrote a lot about history as a journalist and was not ill-informed. He read a lot. He’s a funny figure in that, on the one hand, he’s rediscovered quite a lot of royalist historians, people from the Third Republic, who were against the republic—Jacques Bainville, in particular. I find it quite refreshing because it’s the kind of stuff that I would read as a primary source, but which, obviously, he reads as an authoritative secondary source.

He also clearly sees himself as struggling against a certain interpretation of Vichy France, particularly the interpretation advanced by Robert Paxton, which is now completely orthodox, perhaps excessively orthodox, in France. In a funny way, he’s right to say that Paxton has become a pillar of the French establishment.

The only thing missing from Zemmour’s discussion of history is the Algerian War. His family came over from Algeria in the early 1950s. Lots of Jews from Algeria have a different perspective to Jews in Europe. They weren’t direct victims of the Holocaust, although they were victims of Vichy anti-Semitism. A lot of them were very anti-Arab because they saw themselves as being driven out of Algeria, a country they’d been in for a long time before the French arrived. Zemmour’s family left before the great exodus, which went with the end of French Algeria. He doesn’t have the anti-Gaullist streak you often find on the extreme right. It’s very odd that you can be someone from Zemmour’s political background and, at the same time, think of yourself as a kind of Gaullist, which I think he does.

Isn’t he quite sympathetic to Vichy?

Yes, his line is one that some people put forward after the Second World War, which is that Vichy was in a tacit collaboration with de Gaulle. Vichy was protecting France while de Gaulle was leading the fight from abroad. There was never any substance in this, but it was put forward in the late 1940s and early 50s. It may have slightly suited de Gaulle that it should be put forward.

Presumably, this anti-Third Republic historian Bainville would have been a Catholic. How does Zemmour square his Jewishness with Catholic conservatism?

Bainville was a member of Action Francaise, which doesn’t mean he was necessarily a Catholic. Charles Maurras, the founder of Action Francaise believed in Catholicism, but that’s not quite the same as saying he believed in God. Action Francaise was actually condemned at one point by the Vatican, and its newspapers put on the Index for a while. They have complicated relations with the Catholic Church and I think, similarly, Zemmour thinks Catholicism is a good thing, although he’s not himself a Catholic.

He comes out with the oddest stuff. In the last interview I saw with him, he said that, of course, in the good old days, synagogues were required to be hidden away, because they interfered with the Catholic culture of France. This seemed a very bizarre period to be celebrating. I don’t think it’s actually true that the Third Republic required that but it seemed odd to look back on that with nostalgia.

Let’s run through the books. First up is Theodore Zeldin’s A History of French Passions. I have read bits of this, but reading the whole thing defeated me. Tell us why it’s a great book and what it tells us about France.

It’s not really a book where you’re meant to read the whole thing. It’s a good bedside book, very easy to dip into. It has all kinds of strange juxtapositions. The volume I’ve got here on my desk is called “Taste and Corruption”. If you turn to the contents page it’s divided into “Good and Bad Taste”, “Conformity and Superstition”, “Fashion and Beauty”, “Newspapers and Corruption”, “Science and Comfort”, “Happiness and Humour”, “Eating and Drinking” and “Guide to Further Reading.” It’s deliberately eccentric in its approach or it’s a particular kind of approach to French history, a kind of cultural/social approach that revolves a lot around the peculiar juxtaposition of different things. It’s a very stimulating book to read.

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It struck me when I was doing the list that a lot of my books were published in the 1970s. Looking back, that was a time of intellectual ferment. Zeldin’s book is an exciting book. I can remember reading it as an undergraduate and it was almost like punk rock—I thought, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to do this.’ It was so different from everything else one read. It was so conspicuously useless for the purpose of passing exams. It was also a book that begins with this rather apocalyptic view that history itself is no longer being written in a conventional way. It’s as if Zeldin is saying, ‘This is the last throw of how you might write history.’

Looking back it’s ironic. Zeldin said, ‘Now people look for their general explanations to sociology’, but actually throughout the 1980s, there was a huge revival of straight narrative history. Very few people, I think, would look to sociology for big, general explanations now. Nonetheless, it was as if the historical profession was cornered, and he was coming out fighting. That’s one of the things that makes it exciting.

If you wanted to know about Emile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair, are there passages in the book, which tell you what happened?

You could find it, but it’s all in strange places. If you want to know about Vichy it’s under “Gerontocracy.” He himself says that you don’t have to read the book in order.

Let’s move on to Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: the Modernisation of Rural France 1870-1914. This is another classic, isn’t it?

Yes, it is a classic. Weber was a very peculiar man. He published a collection of autobiographical essays called My France, which are well worth looking at. He was born in Romania and was partly Jewish but was also associated with the extreme right, at least in terms of family background. He left Romania as a refugee and was educated in England and France. He served in the British Army. I read somewhere that he had trained as a Methodist clergyman. He had all these peculiar experiences, all of which eventually came together when he went to the United States and became a very big name historian. But he’s always slightly different from mainstream academic historians. He’s very ambitious, capable of seeing a big picture.

This book is inspired by a certain kind of modernization theory. In the 1950s and ’60s, you had books that were about a big change in history, usually political change. For instance, Elton’s work related to the Tudor revolution in government. In retrospect, it seems a very parochial book, but it was brilliant at the time. Then, in the 1970s, people started doing much more social history but also looking for big changes. Think of something like Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. The objection to these books is always that they take changes over a very long period and telescope them, saying that it all happened, as with this book by Weber, in the late 19th, early 20th century.

I worked as a dishwasher in a French hotel, just before I went to university. When I read Weber’s book, I thought that, actually, lots of the things that he is describing as having gone out in the late 19th century are things I can remember happening in Haute Savoie in the early 1980s. The people I worked with still used the word ‘bourgeois’ to mean someone who lived in a town, using it as a geographical definition rather than a social definition. It makes Weber’s book kind of dubious.

“Things like drinking red wine weren’t created by God”

On the other hand, it’s inspiring to have this massive intellectual self-confidence, arguing that ‘here is the big change of modern France.’ It’s a fantastic book for anybody to read. If you’re interested in France, it gives you a sense of how what we think of as being quintessentially French was born. One of the key things about the book is the idea that things like drinking red wine weren’t created by God as what the French do. There was a time when lots of people in France drank cider—in Brittany—or beer, in Alsace. Weber said, ‘There’s a national culture which is created by certain institutions. It doesn’t just spring up naturally. In the case of red wine, was created largely by conscription and military service.’ He gives you a sense of how France used to be so fragmented and how it all comes together.

It’s a wonderful book, very suggestive if you’re working on any other country as well. If you’re looking at India, say, you instantly think, ‘This is a world in which peasants are drawn into a national culture, where—if they move from rural India to Bombay to work as a bus conductor, say—they experience the excitement of encountering all these national institutions.

Is it about people leaving the land? Or is it about rural people who now start drinking wine and serving in the army?

A bit of both. There is some urbanization. Mainly he’s talking about how a national culture comes to the countryside. In some ways, that’s what makes France different from every other country in Europe. In every other country in Europe, the peasants were, indeed, leaving the land. What’s remarkable about France is people were leading a different life, but staying on the land. Urbanization probably affected France less than most European countries, and especially emigration affected France much less than other countries. If you’re a Russian peasant, your life is going to change because you might well move to Chicago, for example. Whereas if you’re a French peasant, you will almost certainly stay in your own little area. You might move to the nearest small town, your son might become a stationmaster or an instituteur, a primary school teacher. They’re quite modest changes on the face of it but in cultural terms, they’re quite dramatic.

Let’s move on to Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, Algeria, 1954-1962. What story does this tell?

It’s the story of the Algerian War of Independence. It was a story that was still very new when Alistair Horne wrote this book. It’s a story that has become, in some ways, ever more central. Lots of people now work on Algeria and, obviously, there’s a huge Algerian population in France. There’s people like Zemmour who in some ways come from Algeria, without being Muslim Algerians. There’s a very strong sense of a move to world history, away from seeing France as a self-contained hexagon. Also, very importantly, from around 2000 the French began to talk about torture in Algeria. It became very much part of French public life, particularly because of the trial of Maurice Papon. He was, in fact, tried for offences committed under Vichy, but the trial slid into discussions of what he had done when he was prefect of Paris during the Algerian War when a demonstration of Algerians was very savagely put down.

All those things have made the Algerian War more central than it was in the early 1970s. And Horne’s book continues to be significant. People still read it a lot. It’s not the kind of book people would write now. I’m very struck now that if you read French historians, or any historians writing about the Algerian War, we are so crippled by a kind of political correctness that we will often start out with huge discussions about vocabulary and whether one can use the word ‘European’—is that not an essentialized, racialized category? It’s always quite refreshing to read Alistair Horne who is magisterially politically incorrect. The whole book revolves around a title that he takes from the great imperialist poet, Kipling. He makes an outrageous remark at the beginning where he says that the Algerians, because they have this Islamic fatalism, have no interest in their own history. It’s complete and utter rubbish. Nonetheless, it gives him confidence to take the whole subject on.

He’s also got very good contacts in the French military. He knows lots of the people he’s writing about, all these really major, and in retrospect rather sinister, people who were involved in the generals’ putsch against de Gaulle in April 1961. They are people who he presents as human beings because he’s known them as human beings. He’s very well connected, partly because his publisher is Macmillan. For Alistair Horne, Macmillan means Harold himself, who, of course, was still around and opened up lots of contacts for him. Harold Macmillan knew de Gaulle very well and had been in Algeria during the Second World War. He was prime minister during the Algerian War and features in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal as a character. It’s always rather intriguing to me to think how much Harold Macmillan actually was pressing Alistair Horne to write this book, and how much Harold Macmillan saw it as a book that was politically live.

Horne is a popular historian, isn’t he? He’s not exclusively a historian of France, is he?

He’s not exclusively a historian of France, although he is mainly a historian of France. He’s a popular historian, but being popular is not a bad thing. He never had an academic job, although I think much of his work, including A Savage War of Peace, would be taken seriously by academics. He was, I suspect, too wealthy and well connected ever to have needed an academic job. He eventually wrote the authorized biography of Harold Macmillan, which is his main exercise in non-French history.

Let’s go on to Robert Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, which was published in 1972.

Paxton was born in 1932 so was a comparatively young man when he wrote this book (there was a time when I thought 40 wasn’t young, but now I think it is). It’s an extraordinary book, a book that becomes part of French history, in the impact it had on public discussion in France. It pushes the idea that Vichy was not simply a puppet of the Germans, but rather an autonomous government, doing things partly in parallel with German actions, but which it’s not required to do.

Paxton is particularly interested in the fate of the Jews and later wrote much more extensively about that. He says there’s a specific Vichy anti-Semitism, a specific Vichy initiative in what’s done to the Jews. He is taking down Vichy in lots ways. He’s also saying that Vichy is important and very central to French life. He’s attacking some people who are still figures in French public life in 1972.

It’s also an interesting book in retrospect. Paxton, in lots of ways, was a very unfashionable kind of historian in the early 70s. I’ve talked about Weber and Zeldin, about books that are intellectually avant garde, social history rather than political history, books tackling these huge, big themes. The thing about Vichy France is that, although it’s a book with huge implications, in lots of ways it’s a very focused political work of history. He used a lot of diplomatic archives. He was initially a military historian and wrote his first book about the French military at Vichy. I remember once meeting someone who had known Paxton in the late 1960s, when he was at Berkeley in California. He said you just can’t imagine how unfashionable Paxton was at Berkeley in the late 60s, this bloke in a suit, working on the French army, at a time when everybody was spending their spare time dropping acid, writing books about big sweeping themes in social history. It’s a striking example of a book that can seem rather narrow but then has these explosive implications.

Paxton has this narrow political narrative but it’s beautifully done, very well written. It’s pretty straightforward and then occasionally he livens things up with a hand grenade. There are these sweeping generalizations like ‘the French Resistance was probably only about 2% of the French population.’ This is completely separate from his main argument. He’s got very little evidence for it but, at the same time, it makes it a more provocative, exciting book. Historians will one day move beyond Paxton. In some ways, it’s been hard for French people to do that because it seems as if you’re making an apology for the Vichy government, if you do move beyond Paxton. Having reacted against him very strongly when he first published, people have almost tilted the other way and turned him into this great icon of academic respectability. But even when people do turn against Paxton, they’ll still say this is a wonderful book, a classic example of how you might do a certain kind of history.

Let’s move on to the final book you’ve chosen on modern French history, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. This is Paris-Montpellier: PC-PSU, 1945-1963. What is this about and what is PC-PSU?

PC is the Parti Communiste and the PSU is the Parti Socialiste Unifié, which is a democratic socialist party that flourished as a result of the Algerian War and then exists briefly in the 1960s and feeds into Mitterrand’s Parti Socialiste, eventually. The reason I included it is partly that I felt I should include something in French and this is a rare example of Le Roy Ladurie’s work that hasn’t been translated. Le Roy Ladurie is just a fantastic historian. Again, he was one of those people in the 1970s who conveyed this extraordinary excitement in their work, especially in his great book Montaillou, about a Pyrenean village and the investigation of the Cathar heresy there, which he then uses to reconstruct the whole social life in late medieval rural society.

This book is extraordinary, partly, again, because of the confidence behind it. I look at this book and I think, ‘This man is writing his intellectual autobiography when he’s in his early 50s.’ It’s extraordinary that he had the self-confidence to do that and that it didn’t seem incongruous to do that. The whole book doesn’t mention the thing for which he’s most famous, which is writing Montaillou. In some ways that’s very exasperating because one wants to know how he came to write this classic book.

It’s exciting because he’s just got a superb eye for detail. He talks a lot about what it’s like to grow up in the Normandy countryside. He talks about moving to Montpellier and the southern culture he discovers there. You’ve just got a constant sense of this man who’s always looking at the world as a historian. He’s always aware of the kinds of things that might later interest a historian.

His own personal history is very interesting. His father was Minister of Agriculture in the Vichy government, not a dishonourable minister, and a man who leaves and joins the Resistance in 1943. Nonetheless, it means he grows up within a certain kind of Catholic, right-wing culture. He then rebels against that as a student and joins the Communist Party. He’s a Stalinist. He’s then one of a large group of French intellectuals who move away from Communism in the 1950s. There’s a beautiful—and I’m sure in retrospect rather stylized, rather simplified—description of him leaving the Communist Party when the Soviet Union invades Hungary. He says that he cycled on his mobylette through the streets of Montpellier to hand in his party card in his pyjamas because he was so outraged by this. He’s very good at dramatizing what are, obviously, changes happening to all sorts of people of his generation. He’s very funny about the life he leads.

Nowadays, it seems to me, historians—especially Anglo-Saxon historians—take our own lives terribly seriously. I go to endless seminars where people say, ‘Oh, I feel threatened by the fact that my political position means people say nasty things about me on social media.’ And you think, ‘Well, stop watching social media then.’ But Le Roy Ladurie lives in a world where the Algerian settlers, the Organization Armeé Secrète, put a bomb outside his flat. He says, ‘It was a very small bomb, it didn’t do much harm.’ He says that they resent him because they see him as someone who ought to be on the right because of his family background, but has actually moved to the political left. He describes all this in an equable tone, as an amusing series of incidents, which sound very terrifying to live through, but he’s always rather detached and academic about them.

The book gives you a sense of what it’s like to be a really productive historian, of intellectual adventure. Like lots of that generation of French historians, he begins his life as a lycée teacher, being sent to the provinces to teach in a school. You get a sense of him coming alive to the possibilities of research in the provinces. It’s a very moving book because of his talk about politics, his own political position and the way in which he’s rather ironical and detached. He has this extraordinary eye for social change and things going on around him.

Is he talking about different schools of French history and historical interpretation throughout the book? Is a lot of it focused on debates around French historiography?

You get less of that than you might suppose. One of the interesting things about him—given that he’s such an important historian and taken so seriously in the Anglo-Saxon world as the last great representative of the Annales school—is that he tends to see things in narrower terms. He’s very interested in sources, which is something that I think people totally neglect when they’re trying to understand French historians, how much—in Le Roy Ladurie’s case—the key discovery of his life was the Inquisition files that led him into Montaillou. He’s interested in networks of patronage. He’s got quite a hard-headed, cynical view of the French historical profession. If you want to know about his historiography, the books to read are the two volumes Parmi Les Historiens and Le Territoire de l’Historien, which are basically collections of his book reviews. You realize that there’s a period when Le Roy Ladurie reviews everything that’s published and he’s always got something to say that is more interesting than anybody else.

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I read him a lot during the Covid pandemic because he writes about plague. He says in the early 1970s, ‘we’re going to live through the age of the jet plague.’ He uses this Trumpian phrase that the plague is ‘chez elle’ (at home) in Asia, and it’s bound to come over on jet airplanes. There’s a wonderful moment where he reviews a book on the military profession in the Middle Ages. He says, ‘If you think about it, when societies invented soldiers, they had to invent the idea of the civilian at the same time. The idea of the civilian dates from the invention of the conventional soldier.’ I remember reading this review and comparing it with a review in the English Historical Review of the same book. There was this very, very dull English review about the book being ‘some useful work based on solid sources.’ Then you read this brilliant idea, which explores the implications and so much more in a wide-ranging and exciting way.

Of all the books you’ve recommended, the most recently published is 40 years old, and they’re all published within a 10 year period. Was there something going on in the 1970s and early 1980s in French history or has something gone wrong since?

That’s a very good question and a disconcerting one. One answer might be to say that this is just autobiographical, these are books that dominated my youth, although lots of them I didn’t actually read until I was at least in my 20s. I think there’s also, especially in France, a kind of golden generation, born in the late 20s, early 30s. Even the Anglo-Saxon historians I’ve talked about here are often responding to that generation. There’s an intellectual confidence that eventually goes, partly with specialization, partly with the sense of the political minefields about how you write history that makes these kinds of books harder to write.

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I think that France itself has come to be seen as less central. These historians were writing at a time when people writing about France took its centrality for granted. They were writing books that would be read by every civilized person in the world. That’s much harder to sustain now. When I got my job at King’s in 1991, the job was advertised as ‘Lecturer in French History’. There will never be a job in England again, which is advertised as a lectureship in French history. France has stopped being central.

I suppose the book I might have mentioned in this context is a book by Pierre Nora called Les Lieux de Mémoire, the Realms of Memory in English translation. Pierre Nora is a wonderful historian, a contemporary of Le Roy Ladurie and also to some extent a contemporary of Paxton’s. There’s this odd tension between Paxton and the French historians. Le Roy Ladurie doesn’t like Paxton because Paxton is rude about his father. Nora is always said to be the man who stopped Paxton from being published by Gallimard, the most prestigious publisher in France. Nonetheless, as Nora edits Les Lieux de Memoire, there’s almost a sense that the writing of French history has ceased to be a natural activity and has become a more self-conscious activity in which you’re creating a certain kind of myth about your country. It’s almost like the winding up of a certain kind of national narrative, if that makes sense.

Interview by Benedict King

March 29, 2022

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Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen is Professor in History at King's College London. His most recent book is The Long '68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies.

Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen is Professor in History at King's College London. His most recent book is The Long '68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies.