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France in the New Century: Portrait of a Changing Society

John Ardagh <em>Viking, 800pp, £20</em>

Every ten years or so the journalist and historian John Ardagh writes a book about the French. He began in the 1960s, with The New French Revolution, which evolved into The New France, then spilled into France in the 1980s and later into France Today. This vast new tome, 800 pages of small type, seems to include every word of the previous books plus whatever else Ardagh wished to add to his verbal cassoulet.

Reading the result is an extraordinary experience. Irritation and tedium jostle with moments of interest and illumination as page after page of statistics, percentages, description - and, most of all, the thoughts of John Ardagh - stun the reader. Does one care this much about the French? The answer is yes. Does one want to know, to this extent, what Ardagh thinks about them, that he had "copious civet de chevreuil and a home-made apple pie" for "74 francs prix fixe" or in which town someone stole his mac and typewriter? No.

Almost all of French life is in these pages. Thus the book will be of inestimable value to any journalist who wishes to know that less than 10 per cent of the French workforce is unionised (against 39 per cent of ours) and that French employers add 41 per cent to their wages bills to pay for their marvellous public services, while British employers pay only 18 per cent for our wretched equivalents.

Ardagh ignores nothing of superficial or of practical interest. He provides an intelligent record of France's modernisation and of the practices and systems that have brought the country to its enviable position as the world's fourth-largest economy, after the USA, Japan and Germany. He also clarifies the mysteries of French bureaucracy and the social welfare system, and explains how the French live and prosper within their unique combination of paternalism and individualistic laissez-faire.

Ardagh is best of all on recent French political scandals, which have caused so much morosite in the French psyche. This loss of belief in politicians of all parties and a longing to preserve a European version of life in the face of American globalisation emerge as the two defining qualities of late-20th-century France. The exposition of the Juppe and Jospin regimes is fair to both and underlines how fortunate the French have been with the arrival of the Protestant Jospin, whose upright personality was a tonic for a people exhausted by the corruption and scandals of the Mitterrand and Chirac years.

He is also excellent on the elite who have run France for centuries: a corps of people far less attached to the moneyed or upper classes than our British version. The collection of Ecoles - des Mines, des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Nationale d'Administration, Polytechnique and so many others - seems to bring forth a management structure far more useful, and certainly more attractive, than our own establishment. Indeed the great bonus for inhabitants of the British Isles in reading this book is the painful revelations it makes as to how and why we live as we do. No one can read the chapters on French engineering, on their car industry, their public health and transport systems - and the continuing government support for the same - without an agonising lurch of the heart about our losses during the Thatcher years.

Equally miserable to read is the account of the French in Europe, a clear exposition of the enormous benefits that EU membership has brought in terms of wealth and improvements to their quality of life. The French people are as suspicious of Brussels as any Brit, but have the wit to see why this union has been, and will continue to be, worthwhile. It makes one cringe over the jingoistic and short-sighted misery inflicted on us by many of our leaders and most of our newspapers.

All these things, however, could have been supplied in a book one-quarter the length of this. The amount of repetition is as remarkable as it is exhausting, with Ardagh relating many of his facts three, four or five times. This can only be because the Ardagh word processor has extracted sections from his previous books and pasted them into this one, without reflecting that we need to be told only once that Catherine Trautmann was a "popular Socialist mayor" of Strasbourg before becoming Jospin's minister of culture, or that Philippe Bourguignon has made a tremendous success of Disneyland Paris. As we trot round France with this man of benevolence and moderation, this "prudent centrist" who absorbs and exudes facts like a pair of electric bellows, we are often touched by his ponderings and impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge. But it also feels like playing an eternal game of Trivial Pursuit.

Ardagh is a man of set opinions. He loves Brittany, is warmish towards the "good" left and fond of egomaniacal if benevolent dictators (you feel he'd vote for Ken Livingstone); so we get a lot about these subjects. He is too obsessed with Jean-Marie Le Pen and far too uninterested in the real French right to give the latter serious attention. The current crumbling of the French right, even worse than that of our Conservative Party, thus remains unexplored.

The worst analytical fault of the book, however, is the lack of insight into how the French got where they are today in terms of recent history. For Ardagh, French modernisation began with the May 1968 uprisings, to which he often refers. He avoids almost entirely anything to do with France's activities during the Vichy years, which is rather like writing a book about Germany and Britain today without taking into account what 1939-45 meant to them. In this kind of history, the vigorous activities of the Vichy government, and of French collaboration in general, are characterised passively as "the German Occupation" - an attitude towards recent history that most of the French themselves no longer accept.

This vast plum pudding of a book longs for editorial attention. Inside it are many choice bits and pieces struggling to get out. Until that happens, it must remain a book for the reference shelf and not the pleasant and informative guide to France today it could, and should, have been.

Carmen Callil, former publisher of Chatto & Windus and founder of Virago, is writing a book about a family in Vichy France