French Century – An Illustrated history of Modern France

November 19, 2007

Brian Moynahan was the Sunday Times roving correspondent in the years before Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and turned it into the mail order catalogue that Don McCullin called it under the  editorship  of Andrew Neil. (McCullin’s public observation was undoubtedly the reason Neil fired him, although war photography and investigative reporting were anyway not what News’s advertisers regarded as the appropriate editorial environment for their products.)

Moynahan somehow survived the purge of the Harold Evans-era hacks to become the paper’s European Editor in the world’s best journalistic base, Paris. Fluent in French and with a history double-first from Cambridge, he went on to a career as prolific author of books on religion, politics and history. His revision of the Man for All Seasons view of Thomas More in his biography of William Tyndale, If God Spare My Life, heralded  his graduation from jobbing war correspondent to historian. The French Century carries on the series he initiated with The British Century and The Russian Century, with documentary photographs that are good enough to have been selected by Moynahan’s picture editor at the Sunday Times colour magazine, Michael Rand.

Moynahan’s mixture of politics, art, technology, fashion, sport, theatre and music presents a remarkably full picture of France during, between and after two world wars. He shows not only de Gaulle and Pétain, but the anti-Semitic doyenne of couturières, Coco Chanel, and the exuberant Franco-American entertainer and war resistante, Josephine Baker. Moynahan reminds his Anglo-Saxon readers that French achievements in aviation (Blériot et al.), science (the Curies) and sport made France the leading nation of the world for much of the first third of the twentieth century. They are at least as important to an understanding of French hauteur as the nation’s colonial expansion. The story unfolds from the cleavage that the Revolution wrought in French society, manifested itself in the Dreyfus trial and climaxed during the German occupation. Pétain and his ministers at Vichy used the presence of the Wehrmacht to turn France away from liberté, fraternité and égalité towards travail, famille and patrie.

After liberation and the vicious épuration of suspected collaborators, traditional divisions played themselves out again over Algérie Française and the riots of May 1968. The resonances of the conflict between those who would return to the glory of the Versailles court and the sans-culottes who occasionally answer the call “Aux barricades!” to defend the downtrodden survive under Nicolas Sarkozy, latest incarnation of a tendency to restore order from the top when democracy has gone too far.

Reviewer: Charles Glass is writing a book for Harper Collins on the Americans who survived the German occupation of Paris during the Second World War.