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Discovering France and the French

The Discovery of FranceThe Discovery of France by Graham Robb has proved to be a fascinating book on the history not so much of France as of the peoples of France. The book tries to make sense of the many contradictions and facets of France as we experience it as fellow citizens of Europe, and in its telling you learn a lot about French history.
We tend to think of France as a relatively homoegenous country and race – an assumption soon exposed when you consider the different outlook, habits and physical appearance of the people of Brittany compared to those of Provence or the Languedoc. To many “French” has been a foreign, imposed language and identity, an example of the rational and enlightened intellectual state imposing its will on disparate and wayward or even “backward” provincial or rustic peoples.
Unlike the UK, which being an island relatively quickly assumed a degree of national identity fairly easily, the French were until relatively recently much more parochial outside of the major cities. I recall talking to an old man in the Tarn departement some 20 years ago, who had never travelled more than 20 kilometres in his 78 years. The size of France, and the relatively late onset of modern industrial society with its roads, railways, trade and transport meant that many parts of the country were out of reach of the state, the national rule of law and way of life.
It is still evident that many parts of rural France in departements such as the Lot in the South West, were and are relatively poor. But what visitors, tourists and incomers view as a rural idyll, was inevitably for many of the local population an unbearably hard existence with little opportunity or inclination to enjoy the view, the peacefulness or nature. This was all compounded by the isolation imposed by the landscape and lack of means or affordability of transport.
I suspect that there is a similar story to be told of parts of the UK, but given the sheer size and nature of the topography of France, it was obviously much more widespread.
The book may not provide all the answers to the infuriating contradictions that the French display, but it is an entertaining and enlightening read, which will help anyone trying to understand our neighbours.
Thoroughly recommended reading in my view!

Illuminating, engrossing and full of surprises, “The Discovery of France” is a literary exploration of a country few will recognize; from maps and migration to magic, language and landscape, it’s a book that reveals the ‘real’ past of France to tell the whole story – and history – of this remarkable nation. ‘With gloriously apposite facts and an abundance of quirky anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of people, places and customs, Robb, on brilliant form, takes us on a stunning journey through the historical landscape of France’ – “Independent”. ‘Certain books strain the patience of those close to you. How many times can you demand: ‘Look at this! Can you imagine? Did you know that?’ without actually handing over the volume? This is such a book’ – “Mail on Sunday”. ‘An extraordinary journey of discovery that will delight even the most indolent armchair traveller’ – “Daily Telegraph”.

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

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