The great conundrum of French history is the French Revolution, or rather, the sequence of revolutions, coups and insurrections during which the nation was repeatedly destroyed and recreated. How is it that a heap of cobblestones, furniture and overturned vehicles — handcarts in 1848, 2CVs in 1968 — erected at particular points on the Left Bank of Paris can bring down a régime whose domain extends from the North Sea to the Mediterranean? As Baudelaire observed when Napoleon’s nephew conducted a coup d’état in 1851 and installed himself as supreme leader, it seemed that ‘absolutely anybody, simply by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, can govern a great nation’.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo was thinking of this discrepancy between the mass of political power and the lever of popular unrest when he described a barricade in the 1832 insurrection as ‘at once Mount Sinai and a pile of rubbish’. Some greater narrative seemed to preside over the chaos, a tale of freedom wrested from a tyrant by dint of pure Enlightenment reason, momentarily abetted by frenzied bloodletting. This ‘narrative’, which the nation still recounts to itself like a favourite bedtime story, demands that large parts of its history be dismissed as aberrations and sections of its population as enemies of the fatherland.
As Jonathan Fenby shows in his engagingly diplomatic history of modern France, this narrative at least makes it possible to walk a steady path through the gunsmoke, the tear gas, the barricades and the decapitated bodies. The book is primarily a reminder of the chief political events of modern French history. As such, it is inevitably concentrated in Paris. In 1832,
with its 800,000 inhabitants, Paris contained less than one thirtieth of France’s population, but it was the fulcrum of events that determined the fate of national regimes, its newspapers shaping opinion.