The French connection

The Secret life of France
Lucy Wadham
Faber £7.99

THE ever-expanding body of literature on France gains another entry with this book by Lucy Wadham, which proposes a dissection of France from top to bottom.

Well might you groan. We have all travelled a long way from the 1980s, when John Ardagh’s magisterial The French was the basic text if you wished to understand those who live their lives according to liberté, egalité et fraternité. The genre took a quantum leap forward with the mega-sellers of Peter Mayle whose gentle account of settling in Provence spurred thousands to seek happiness in little towns and villages from Brittany to Briancon.

Whatever the merit of Mayles’ effort, it sparked a hunt among publishers to find similar — and similarly profitable — efforts of fish-out-of-water foreigners grappling with language and locals in a porridge, or maybe cassoulet, of misunderstanding which was eventually resolved with a bottle of the local plonk and all parties involved Learning About Differences.

Thankfully, Wadham’s book is a cut above those tired clichés. She has lived in France for a quarter of a century and divorced a Frenchman, which gives her credibility, and she can write, which gives her book readability. Her account of Nicolas Sarkozy ‘mentally undressing’ her at a press conference, and her subsequent dissection of the little Frenchman as a ‘sex dwarf’, is one of a number of highlights.

However, there are a number of other passages which Irish readers should surely study with interest.

There’s an enlightening account of the French attitude to street protest which, along with fresh baguettes and rumpled songwriters, is a real Gallic strong point. Her comment that “it is widely acknowledged in this country (France) as a harsh reality of political life that it is the street that dictates reform”, for instance, isn’t quite the statement of the obvious that it first appears to be (set to one side your musing that the likelihood of such a sentence appearing about Irish political life is on the same level of expectation as good news about Anglo Irish Bank).

Wadham cites various proposed reforms which were stymied by vigorous street protest after Jacques Chirac became French president in 1986, and compares them cannily to the reforms that his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, was able to achieve because of inherent sympathy on the mob’s part with socialist politicians.

Having raised four children in France, she’s also acute when it comes to the political indoctrination of the little Froggies, noting her children’s schoolbook characterises the ideology of the Vichy collaborators in World War II as “reactionary, anti-liberal and anti-democratic” — but not fascist. She also deals well with the whole matter of collaboration, contentious even now, 65 years after De Gaulle strode up the Champs Elysee.

It’s not all high-fibre. There’s a dizzying account of French infidelities and the terrifically French way everyone just accepts them — a topic no book on the French seems able to resist — but there’s also a practical crunchiness to the reading: her account of the workings of the French health system, for instance, are destined to provoke many an ‘ooh la la’ from Irish readers, and why not: it was rated at number one in a UN survey of 191 nations’ medical care for their citizens.

Overall: tres bien.


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