By Jonathan Fenby

Arcade. 449 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Laurent Cartayrade

There is something wrong with France. "What else is new?" some will ask. Well, what's new is that not only hard-core francophobes but also a growing number of France's friends are now thinking and saying so. Jonathan Fenby is one of them. His highly readable description of France's current travails, full of vivid portraits and anecdotes, was written, he says, in the spirit of "a lover who entertains some fundamental worries about the object of his affection." A British journalist who has covered France for, among others, the Times and the Economist, married to a French woman, Fenby knows his subject both professionally and personally. He knows that he has a lot to worry about indeed.

As Fenby sees it, France is going through an identity crisis. It has stopped being what it wants and claims to be, and seems unable to take the measures that would alleviate the pain associated with this process. Instead, it stubbornly clings to its old ways, even though they clearly aren't working anymore. Much of the book is a description of the growing gap between France's self-image and late 20th-century reality.

The country of de Gaulle likes to think of itself as a great power with a special part to play on the international stage. But it really is at most a regional power, a supporting character actor rather than a dashing romantic lead. The country of 1789 prides itself in being a guiding light for all defenders of human rights and democracy. But everyone now knows how Vichy helped the Nazis to murder the Jews of France. More recently, the Fifth Republic set up and supported some of the worst dictators of post-colonial Africa.

In the country of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, where the unemployment rate has been for years hovering around 12 percent, long-term joblessness and impoverishment are alienating a growing number of people from mainstream society. This has led to the rise of religious fundamentalism and separatism among Muslim immigrants, and of racism among natives. Some of the former vent their despair through the riots that regularly rock the banlieues (poverty-ridden suburbs) where they are parked. A growing number of the latter vote for the Front National, which they have made the most powerful fascist party in the West. The situation of private-sector workers, threatened by downsizing and unemployment, is steadily deteriorating. Meanwhile, under the pretext of protecting all workers, the government maintains a system of tax and labor laws designed primarily to please the huge number of overprivileged and strike-happy civil servants it employs, even though these very laws, by raising the cost of labor, are a major cause of the country's chronic unemployment problem.

Perhaps because he does not want to sound overly negative, Fenby spends too much time stating the obvious, namely that France has contributed a great deal to world culture and that it is a country that still matters. We know that.

He doesn't always avoid cliches. A chapter on how the French have stopped being the baguette-carrying, beret-wearing, garlic-smelling stereotypes dear to English imaginations seems odd, to say the least. But the picture he draws of contemporary France is generally to the point and true to life. Francophiles, abruptly awakened from their Parisian and Provencal dreams, will then ask, "How did this happen?"

Fenby doesn't offer a systematic explanation of why France has stopped working and seems unable to fix itself. What he thinks, however, can be inferred from the most instructive and most entertaining chapters of his book: those devoted to the French ruling elite. As a high-flying journalist who often alludes to his private conversations with some of the elite's most distinguished members, Fenby knows them very well.

His account of French contemporary politics, and his scathing but all too accurate portraits of France's last three presidents -- Giscard d'Estaing, supercilious and ineffective; Mitterrand, cynical and probably corrupt; Chirac, mercurial and self-defeating -- would alone make the book worth reading. But Fenby knows that these three monsters are only the tip of the iceberg. Below them, a small, close-knit group of men, most of them alumni of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, runs both the French government and the French economy. Because these people are accountable to no one but each other, the French tradition of "politico-business sleaze" lives on. But in these times of crisis, the arrogance, incompetence and corruption of this elite have become difficult to ignore.

France has recently been rocked by a series of prodigious political and financial scandals -- of which the notorious Credit Lyonnais fiasco is only one -- that have undermined the country's confidence in itself and its leaders. Fenby clearly puts the blame for France's inability to deal with its problems on a ruling class both unable to overcome the deep-rooted conservatism of the French people and unwilling to look beyond its own selfish interest. The blindness and irresponsibility of these new aristocrats make the France of 1999 look rather like the France of 1788. "France on the Brink" indeed.

Laurent Cartayrade, a native of France, holds a doctorate in French history.