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CULTURE

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

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.

12 books that tell you (almost) everything you need to know about France
Looking for something to read on the beach this summer? Photo by BRUCE BENNETT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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.

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 2019, 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.

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

Sophie Pedder

Love him or hate him, but 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.

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; 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. 

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to this article. Did we miss one? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.

Member comments

  1. 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.”

  2. 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

  3. 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.

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For members

MONEY

Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

The French government has capped electricity prices rises at four percent - but as with many French rules, there are certain exceptions.

Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

Question: I read in the media that electricity prices in France are capped at four percent, but I just got a letter from EDF telling me that my bill is going up by almost 20 percent – is this a mistake?

The French government’s bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield), froze gas prices at 2021 levels and capped electricity price hikes to four percent – it remain in place until at least the end of 2022.

However, there are some customers who will see increases to their bills of more than that – here’s why: 

The regulated tariff rate

The French government involvement in price-setting doesn’t just happen during periods of energy crisis, normally regulated tariff prices are updated twice a year: usually on February 1st and August 1st.

Typically, this value is calculated by the CRE (commission de régulation de l’énergie) and it is based on several different factors, which are explained on this government website. These tariffs proposed by the CRE are then subject to approval by the ministers in charge of energy and the economy.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

These affect the state-owned Engie (formerly Gaz de France), the mostly state-owned EDF and some local distribution companies. Around 70 percent of people in France get their electricity from EDF but other suppliers do exist in the market.

These alternative suppliers, like Direct-Énergie, Total Spring or Antargaz, are free to charge more – but don’t usually charge much above the EDF rates for obvious commercial reasons.

Basic rate

The government-set limit in price rises refers only to the basic rate (option base) for electricity.

This plan represents over 80 percent of the 32 million households connected to the electricity grid in France. So, there is a good chance you might be subscribed to this without even realising it. 

If you are on the basic tariff rate, your bill will not increase by more than four percent this year.

Other tariff options

However, other options for electricity bills do exist, including off-peak rates, green deals and fixed energy prices for a certain period.

Typically people who sign up for these will have been paying less for their electricity in the preceding months than those on the base rate.

However, there are certain special deals that are not covered by the four percent cap, and some users will find that their deal period has come to an end, they are then shifted onto the base rate – which is likely to represent a price increase for them of more than four percent.

It’s little consolation when faced with rising bills, but you will likely have been paying significantly less than customers who have been in the base rate for the past few years.

READ MORE: French government to continue energy price freeze until at least 2023

Kilowatt price

Because most electricity price plans are bafflingly complicated, the easiest way to compare is to look at the price per kilowatt-hour.

Your electricity bill consists of a fixed part, the monthly subscription (abonnement) and the variable part, which depends on the quantity of electricity consumed (in euro per kilowatt-hour, kWh). The latter part is what is concerned by the tariff shield of four percent.

Here is an example of what that might look like:

The mid-August base rate price per kilowatt-hour is €0.1740/ kWh, so if you’re with EDF they cannot charge you more than this rate.

Other EDF plans charge significantly less than that – for example the Vert Electrique Weekend deal has been charging €0.1080/kWh on weekends and €0.1434/kWh on weekdays. 

Bill rises

With the tariff shield, the average resident customer on the base rate will see a €38 rise on their bill this year, while professional customers will see an average of €60 rise. 

Without the tariff shield, electricity prices per residential (non-business) customer would likely have increased an average of €330 a year, according to the CRE.

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