France

Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. In that year, Patrice Gueniffey completed his doctorate under Furet at the prestigious research school the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He remains at that institution today, Furet’s most famous disciple and a celebrated historian in his own right.

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Jeremy D. Popkin, a historian at the University of Kentucky, fittingly begins his account of the French Revolution with a printer in Lexington enthusing in late 1793 about the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 in his Kentucky Almanac. The printer’s geographic distance from the events in Paris meant that his idealistic vision of the Revolution coincided with its most violent and repressive period in 1793–94, later dubbed ‘the Reign of Terror’. This juxtaposition of 1789 and 1793 is useful for Popkin to make his key point that, ‘despite its shortcomings, however, the French Revolution remains a vital part of the heritage of democracy’.

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French journalist Agnès Poirier has a flair for relating the saving of France’s artistic treasures. One of the most gripping chapters of her previous book, Left Bank: Art, passion and the rebirth of Paris, 1940–50 (2018), told the story of Jacques Jaujard, who skilfully evacuated the Louvre’s greatest works mere days before the outbreak of World War II. In Poirier’s brief volume on Paris’s cathedral of Notre-Dame, devastated by fire on 15 April 2019, it is the turn of curator Marie-Hélène Didier and Notre-Dame’s operational director, Laurent Prades. As Poirier tracks the fire from outbreak to containment, we watch them battle Paris’s traffic-locked streets by car, RER, Vélib’, and foot to reach the cathedral and rescue what they can. Prades’s sudden (and entirely understandable) inability to remember the code for the safe in which the Crown of Thorns is kept makes for tense reading.

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I wanted to like this memoir very much, not least because the inside of the book jacket promises, with some originality, a ‘not-uncritical love letter to Paris’. People (myself included) have a tendency to wax rhapsodic about France’s capital, but anyone who has ever lived there for any length of time knows ...

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There is a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail outside a castle, brimming with French men-at-arms, who taunt King Arthur and his knights remorselessly, while the Britons are convinced that the Holy Grail lies behind the drawbridge. The Grail was, of course, membership of the Common Market ...

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A country that fails its purge is about to fail its renovation,’ warned French-Algerian writer Albert Camus in a January 1945 editorial. Camus’ ominous edict, issued in the weeks following the end of Germany’s occupation of France, encapsulates something of what Agnès Poirier is trying to say in this ...

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After a succession of dramatic political events across the Western world in 2016, all eyes were on the French presidential election when it took place in the first half of 2017. Would the French resist the sirens of populism? Would the surprise campaign of the youngest candidate ever, Emmanuel Macron, offer a ...

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Letter from Paris

Phoebe Weston-Evans
Thursday, 25 May 2017

Springtime allows Parisians to indulge their predilection for life en terrasse. Trees and gardens are blooming, neighbourhood markets and squares are coming alive, and the newly pedestrianised right bank of the Seine is busy with walkers and cyclists.

A rollerblading poet stopped to cadge some tobacco from a friend of mine as we were sitting outside a bar on ...

The eminent French historian Annette Wieviorka, in The Era of the Witness (1998, English version in 2006), analyses the difficulties arising, in writing historical narratives about recent times, from the exponential growth in the number of people wanting their stories to be heard. Wieviorka, whose field of specialisation is the Shoah, traces the trend of wh ...

Peter Rose interviews ABR contributor Lee Christofis, who recently attended a number of exhibitions in Paris showcasing works by Léon Bakst, Cy Twombly, and Arnold Schoenberg among others. His visit coincided with the fortieth birthday of the Pompidou Centre. Lee's 'Letter from P ...

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