What follows is not an anthropometric description of France, but neither does it reflect the fancy of the author: It is what one can see of France from a certain distance, which blurs the finer details but allows the main features to stand out. When looking at the Great Wall of China from a certain altitude, one fails to make out the cracks in the mortar, but clearly grasps the rationale of its apparently aimless meandering.
Where to start is not difficult to ascertain. The French Revolution constitutes the great divide in the history of the country: Before, there was a France that was a kingdom—one that had taken 40 kings of the same blood ten centuries to forge—and after, maturing slowly, a new France arising on top of the ruins of the preceding one. For the Revolution did not cease with Napoleon: Its spirit kept creeping under the mantle of seemingly adverse events, until it gave birth to contemporary France.
Before the Revolution, France had somehow a triple identity, which taken together made for a carnal entity, an actual person.
She had a physical identity that was the land the successive kings had managed to bring under their domain. Though nominally belonging to the king, each parcel of that land was owned by an individual whose bond to it was vital. This was true of the lowly plowman (whom his lord had no right to expel at will from his field, nor to deprive...