I cannot recommend this book highly enough: to anyone interested in France, particularly Modern France, or Europe generally -- and anyone curious about, or needing to know about, cultural changes forced on traditional societies by the "buzz" in modern life.
Ardagh writes in English -- mercifully, for the many who love the French but know their language imperfectly. Even to someone who knows French well, however, the book still offers a great deal of value: many insights, the product of the author's nearly 50 years of fascination with and experience of France -- he was correspondent for The Times in the 50s, for The Observer in the 60s, and has an extensive bibliography.
And Ardagh's is at least one of the best - informed "outsider's views" of France and the French, views particularly valuable to this often - beleaguered land and its introspective people. Plenty of French political and cultural leaders will read this book -- many of them who have mattered over the last 30 years in fact were interviewed in its preparation.
John Ardagh is, by now, a venerable institution to anyone outside the Hexagone who has been interested in France since the 1960s. To those of us whose personal interests in France first were awakened by -- who teethed on -- his,
"The new French Revolution; a social & economic survey of France 1945-1967" (London, Secker & Warburg, 1968) ISBN 0436017504
the wait for this entirely new view -- not an update or revision but a new investigation, drawing only occasionally on his earlier work -- has been interminable. Works on modern France in French rarely are this general; works in English on the subject rarely are this good.
Ardagh also is irrepressible:
"...that reminded me of the time when the Irishman Richard Harris was named Best Actor at Cannes and the London press rejoiced, 'British actor wins award'; when he got drunk a month later, the headlines ran 'Irish actor arrested in bar'. Typical." (p.241-2)
-- this sort of writing makes his text flow wonderfully, and the strong opinions and barrage of facts and statistics he offers to support them are a rare pleasure to read for a "modern anything" sort of book -- the book is fun.
"There were various strands in the May ['68] movement -- euphoric, revolutionary, materialist and reformist, to put them in ascending order of importance. First was the element of national carnival..." (p. 13)
"The 'juges' are trained mostly at a Grande Ecole in Bordeaux, the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature: they form a close little world, where 'ils se marient entre eux, et ils font des petits juges', I was told." (p. 47)
"Back in the 1950s, [Renault's] little Dauphine at first appealed hugely to Americans: they had never seen a car so cute and they bought 200,000 in three years, often as playthings for wife or kids. But then the mighty VW invaded the scene, and Renault was eclipsed by a swarm of Beetles." (p. 123)
"...labour regulations [in France] are of horrifying complexity, enshrined in a vast tome, the Code du Travail, which by a kind of Parkinsonism is constantly being added to by zealous bureaucrats, despite the intentions to simplify it: for one European Commission inquiry on labour, the British submitted a working paper of 6 pages, while the French document was 1,000 pages." (p. 181)
"The United States may have far greater extremes of wealth and poverty than France. But it also has more social mobility, and thus more freedom of opportunity than France's older society where many class divisions today remain quite rigid, behind the shifts in lifestyle. This can be more a matter of attitudes than of economics..." (p. 188 -- the subsequent section, on the subtle and maddeningly - continuing differences between French and British "class" consciousness and divisions, will prove both fascinating and illuminating to American readers, and controversial to anyone French or British, as they perhaps are intended to be.)
And Ardagh pulls no punches:
"Regional planning has of course suffered from the usual French chasm between theory and achievement. Splendid blueprints may fall foul of ministerial rivalries, bureaucratic inertia or sheer lack of funds. Ask any Frenchman what he has done, and excitedly he will tell you what he is about to do..." (p. 262)
-- but at least his sarcasm can be hilariously funny, in true Parisian style --
"Many local executives and 'notables' seem mesmerized by geographical obsessions that sound weird to English ears. Towns are pieces on some huge chessboard, and the mere drawing of lines across a map yields some strange reality of its own. Translated into English terms, a local dignitary might talk like this:
'Swindon, bien que dans l'orbite londonienne, peut profiter d'une certaine vocation bristolienne, et tout en s'inspirant du rayonnement intellectuel oxfordien, elle se situe bien pour remplir un grand destin au carrefour des grands axes de demain -- de l'agglomération birminghamoise jusqu'à Southampton aux portes de l'Amérique, et de l'hinterland' ["in franglais", Ardagh observes] 'galloise jusqu'à Harwich, plaque tournante de l'avenir scandinavienne...'
Does the mayor of Swindon talk like that?" (p. 263)
-- irrepressible, like I said. And provocative: the "La Morosité amd beyond" subtitle of his "Conclusion", at least, should get a few backs up in Paris -- although, as Ardagh does warn in his Preface, "The book takes for granted all that is unique and lovable about French civilization. As the French say, 'qui aime bien, châtie bien.'"
I can think of no other more suitable gift for someone interested in France and the French -- an ideal Christmas vacation project.