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13 books that tell you (almost) everything you need to know about France

The Local France
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13 books that tell you (almost) everything you need to know about France
If you're after some reading suggestions for France, we have just the thing. Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

From history to food, manners to politics, there is a lot to understand about France - so we asked our readers to recommend the best books to help explain the country.

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Political tomes, comedic autobiographies, foodie guides and profiles of great Frenchmen - via a children's classic - here's what they recommended. 

A Year in Provence

Peter Mayle

It’s a book that had to be here. It may now be over 30 years old, but Mayle’s seasonal diary of an immigrant life in rural Luberon is as French life-affirming as it gets.

It’s not all rosé and roses - January’s bitter mistral is something to be endured rather than enjoyed even by the locals - but the travelogue offers more than a hint of Provençal life, where time runs … differently. There's no wonder it sparked an exodus.

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Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Simon Schama

To even begin to know modern France, you need to know the French Revolution.

Enter Simon Schama, whose landmark work charts the social and cultural history of the defining period of French history. You may even recognise a modern politician or two in the study of the leading lights of their age. 

France

Emile Chabal

Hardly an original title, but this brief history of the country from 1940 through to the gilets jaunes protests of 2018/19, explains in just 180 pages how the past 80 years of history have led to the wonderfully, frustratingly, complex country that France is today.

The Discovery of France 

Graham Robb

Anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of people, places and customs combine to tell the history - and the story - of France. It’s like you’ve travelled across the country without actually travelling across it. France: An Adventure History by the same author is also well worth a read.

Deep France

Celia Brayfield

Along similar lines to Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Brayfield chronicles life in La France profonde of the Béarn, in the shadows of the Pyrenees. Tasty recipes - thrown in for free - are an added bonus.

One More Croissant for the Road

Felicity Cloake

It's hard to argue with the notion that gastronomy is a pretty crucial part of French culture. For this book, food writer Felicity Cloake cycled 2,300km across France, tasting as many regional specialities and local dishes as she could along the way.

The result is part travel guide, part food book and part love letter to France and its cuisine - a different and very delightful way of viewing France. 

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle

Julian Jackson

This multi-award-winning biography of wartime-leader-turned-president Charles de Gaulle, published in 2019, draws on a vast range of published and unpublished memoirs and documents.

De Gaulle is a pivotal figure in modern French history and this book reveals a lot about the man himself, and also about the country he fought so hard for, which eventually rejected him.

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Revolution française: Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation

Sophie Pedder

Love him or hate him, few can deny that Emmanuel Macron has also made a huge impact on more recent French history, and this book from Economist journalist Sophie Pedder traces his rise.

The book ends with Macron's 2017 election, and obviously much has happened since then, but it still provides a fascinating insight into Macron and Macronism which helps to make sense of the turbulent times we are living through.

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

Jean Nadeau

Jean Nadeau sets about unravelling the riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma that is France.

It's aim is a look at the culture and social mores of France - revealing the secret ideas about land, food, privacy and language and weaves together the threads of French society, uncovering the essence of life in France.

Le Petit Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a children’s book. It’s a philosophical, humanist, tale of a fantastical journey of self discovery.

It may not help with the day-to-day trials of living in France, but it may give you an insight into the contradictions and mindset of many French people. With 140 million copies sold worldwide, it's one of the best-selling and most-translated books ever published.

A Year in the Merde

Stephen Clarke

With names changed to protect the innocent - and the author - A Year in the Merde chronicles the semi-fictionalised year in the life of a Briton in Paris.

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Clarke has been described as the anti-Mayle, with his rather more acerbic view of French life - and Paris clearly isn’t Provence. But it may help you get served by even the grumpiest Parisian waiter; learn how to make perfect vinaigrette every time; and how not to buy a house in the French countryside…

A History of Modern France - From the Revolution to the War with Terror

Jonathan Fenby

If you didn't study French history at school, sometimes you need a primer to help you put France's history in context.

Fenby's book does just that, taking a broad sweep over 200 years of French history and guiding the reader through the many turbulent changes in society and politics. Need to understand the current parliamentary deadlock? It all goes back to Charles de Gaulle, who was influenced by the politics of the 20s and 30s . . . demonstrating why history is so vital to understand a country. 

Les Parisiennes

Anne Sebba

World War II remains quite a complex and difficult topic in France, but modern historians are breaking the silence that has surrounded certain topics for many years.

Anne Sebba's books tells the stories of women who lived in Paris through the occupation, from the heroines of the resistance to the Nazi collaborators and everyone in between.

The book features famous names such as Coco Chanel (ensconced at the Ritz with her German lover) and the author Irène Némirovsky (deported to the camps and murdered before she could finish her seminal Suite française series) but also many ordinary women faced with impossible choices as they simply tried to survive. 

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to this article - and check out the comments below for more suggestions. 

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Comments (10)

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Lindsay Davis 2023/12/19 16:48
John Julius Norwich - A History of France: From Gaul to de Gaulle. From a man who lived most of his life n France and loved it, a book written with great wit, affection and knowledge. His last book.
Brad Beck 2023/10/18 17:55
Instead of "One More Croissant for the Road" — which I couldn't finish — I'd suggest "A Bite-Sized History of France" by Stephane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell. Illustrating French history through food, like the connection between Laughing Cow cheese and World War I, in bite-sized pieces, the book is an breezy but illuminating tour through both French history and gastronomy, not surprising since it results from the collaboration of a French fromager and an American historian, married to one another.
Anonymous 2022/09/17 00:07
"1000 ways of annoying the French" by Stephen Clarke is a MUST read. Funny but historical at the same time. Hugely enjoyed by our francophile family.
Anonymous 2022/07/16 17:19
Not a book, but your question prompted me to revisit the ever-quirky, ever-demanding Jonathan Meades. The second of his three-part series on France touches on architecture, Frenchness and citizenship, laicite and religion, empire (overt or otherwise), French love of qualifications. https://vimeo.com/95196692 If you haven't come across Meades before, strap in!! :-D The programmes consist of a series of observations and commentaries at best loosely connected. 00:48 French architecture (hybrid, collisions of styles) <a href rel="nofollow ugc">11:58</a> The purpose of France's empire was to create replicas of France and replicas of French citizens. France proselytised on behalf of Frenchness. The improvement of mankind could be achieved by making people French. 15:30 comparison with British imperial approaches (French much more open) 16:30 French citizenship (lots by rote) 19:25 Religion in France (22:30 Miviludes on fringe regions) 25:20 demonstrative Islam vs self-secularisation <a href rel="nofollow ugc">26:20</a> cultural diversity of Britain compared with France 28:45 social housing and the Jacobins and the attainment of the human perfection 30:30 liberty, equality, fraternity 31:08 French citizenship is social contract, not conditional on religion or ethnicity // Front National wants citizenship to be a matter of nature. 32:32 OTOH Significant constituency of 2nd/3rd gen maghrebian and west african who are resistant to the assimilation of the French govt social contract, and embrace the "British" model of cultural separation, ethnic identification, communitarian stasis. "France was not made for this. It lacked the constitutional apparatus to deal with this" 33:29 The State is in a trap of its own making. It considers religion to be a private matter, so censuses do not include questions about religion or ethnicity. 35:00 assimilation (or not) in law 37:00 Francophonie for the promotion of the French language and continuation of empire 39:30 Canada and Quebec 40:23 Francafrique (stealth, secrecy, suitcases of money) 46:45 France offers Khomeni asylum. 49:11 political assassination 53:00 French addiction to paper qualifications and training 56:30 English loan words "Trying to keep France French, and failing to do so, is the most characteristically of French endevours"
Anonymous 2022/07/09 03:18
Great book, but by Simon Schama.
Anonymous 2022/07/08 21:42
No real disagreement with your choices but I would have gone with Talk to the Snail instead of Year in the Merde. I much prefer Clarke's non-fiction to his novels. But good choices to start to understand this maddening country.
Anonymous 2022/07/08 19:11
La France Anglaise by Diana Cooper-Richet. In French, not for the faint-hearted , fascinating snippets of information based on very thorough research. Published by Fayard histoire
Anonymous 2022/07/08 18:12
Celestine by Gillian Tindall
Anonymous 2022/07/08 17:27
Regarding Le petit prince, C.S. Lewis said that a children's story that is not also interesting to adults is not a good story. I've found this to be true when working with small children, and love a good "children's story."
Anonymous 2022/07/08 17:15
While I liked "Sixty Million Frenchman Can't Be Wrong," I thought that the same authors' book, "The Bonjour Effect" was extremely useful and smoothed the way to better interactions with French people in all walks of life: metro station agents, government workers, retail workers, waiters, bartenders, neighbors in my apartment building, bus drivers, etc., etc. I think every tourist coming to France should read this book, or at least the first few chapters, because I think Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau really do help to decode French conversation.

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