France on the Brink: A Great Civilization Faces a New Century Paperback – 14 Jul 2000
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Top Customer Reviews
Any book, be it fiction or non-fiction, not only tells its own story - and this one tells a great deal about its subject - but also something about its author. There is no exception with the hefty volume that British journalist and South China Morning Post editor Jonathan Fenby has written about his beloved home-from-home, France. In On the Brink, in which Fenby expresses his holistic point of view about what he sees as 'the trouble with France', it seems one can distinguish at least four different lines of inspiration or attitudes.
The more amiable one to a French person is that of the epicurean gourmet, the connoisseur who obviously relishes telling us about regional dishes and vintages who, as linguists would say, loves the signified (the thing itself) as much as the signifier (what it is called). For there is a delicate and sensuous poetic ring to boeuf aux herbes de Massiac (beef with herbs from the Massiac region), potee auvergnate (an Auvergne hot-pot) or poularde demi-deuil (literally, a fat hen in half-mourning). Indeed, Fenby successfully made my French mouth water on several occasions.
His culinary acumen is so assured that it provides him with a tool for assessing and differentiating characters - French President Jacques Chirac, for example, is 'a man who lived for the roar of the crowd and who washed down his favourite dish of calf's head with Mexican beer', while the more refined Edouard Balladur ate 'steamed sole'. Or again: 'This was a battle between two strands of politics, between straight-on, no-nonsense populism and genteel conservatism - calf's head versus caviar'.
More markedly in the opening chapters, Fenby compiles a lengthy catalogue of France's woes and shortcomings.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
It is in the political arena that Fenby is really in his element, and he has hardly a kind word for any of the men and women who have run France since de Gaulle, most of whom he seems to have met face-to-face as a reporter. In Fenby's portrait, payoffs, favoritism, cronyism, sexual intrigue and even violence seem to be business as usual among France's political class, most of whom seem to be interested more in status and luxurious living than in making the country a better place. Fenby's key point is that it is the politicians rather than their usual scapegoats -- immigrants, foreign influences, or the uniting of Europe -- who deserve most of the blame for pushing the country to "the brink"; yet Fenby is hopeful that France will survive and continue to be both a cultural beacon and a significant player in world affairs.
Critical to Fenby's thinking is his idea that the leadership in France is more and more inbred and separated from the people. The system allows for immense concentrations of power without effective checks and balances. The resulting lack of "tranparence" in fiscal and political matters should really be quite appalling to the French population.
Unlike the previous reviewer, I find a sense of malaise in many of my friends and acquaintances there and a special sense of unhappiness among the unemployed and underemployed, especially among the young.
I do see France as being "on the brink" in the sense that it has fundamental decisions to make about how it will govern itself (increasing accountability versus perpetuation of "une classe politique"), how it will manage its economic system (creation of real jobs versus quaint solutions such as the 35 hour work week), and how it will truly integrate the large number of people who are on the outside looking in.
I would recommend this book to people who are interested in some of the problems and promises of contemporary France.