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Véndrinism: France's Global Ambition

by Chris Caldwell
Sunday, October 1, 2000

French foreign minister Hubert Védrine was an architect of NATO’s Kosovo invasion, but he made his biggest impression on American France-watchers last June in Warsaw. There, at the close of a "democracy summit," he alone refused to sign a final statement, put forward by U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, which set out what she saw as the West’s vision for encouraging emerging democracies. It was a toothless, rather anodyne document — filled with platitudes about promoting a free press and respecting labor rights — so there wasn’t much constructive reason to vote for it. But there wasn’t much reason to vote against it, either — aside from France’s anger that, at a time when the rules of the world are being redrafted, the United States gets to do all the redrafting. Védrine didn’t beat around the bush about his motivations. As he said last spring, shortly before the conference, he is intent on a redefinition of French-American relations. The Cold War is over. In negotiations with the United States, France must stand up for France. On international panels (as in Warsaw), France’s value-added comes from its difference. It must thus move "from a grumpy oui to a respectful non."

In turn, France’s aggressively confident posture has resuscitated American francophobia, particularly among conservatives. But the vision of France that appears in American business newspapers like the Wall Street Journal — involuted, fixated on its past, an economic archaism, reflexively anti-American — is drifting farther and farther from reality. France is up to something bigger. It remains true that France is overregulated by American standards (although it is a considerably freer country in such lifestyle matters as smoking and accommodating pets). The country is still very bureaucratized (despite good-faith efforts by conservative Gaullist president Jacques Chirac to cut red tape). It is still arrogantly insistent on its global stature.

But France’s claims to that stature are now stronger than they have been for decades. France remains the No. 4 economic power in the world, and in the three years since the election of Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin, it has been transformed from the Sick Man of Europe into the world’s healthiest economy — outside of the United States. Its rate of job creation is the second highest of any western economy (the U.S., again, leads), and its rate of high-tech job creation is tops. Measured by hours on the job, it has the hardest-working labor force in Europe. Its victory in the World Cup in 1998 started a process of national self-esteem-boosting: For Bastille Day this year, the popular weekly Marianne ran an outsized issue listing the dozens of ways in which France was still the world’s leading country. Campaigning politicians (not to mention a growing caste of high-tech startup entrepreneurs who give motivation lectures) speak constantly of la France qui gagne ("a France that wins"). And France now leads Europe formally, holding the European Union’s rotating presidency through the end of the year.

Most important, France’s intellectual and business classes have come together behind a national mission that looks as if it will provide the country with a principle of political organization and even an ideology over the coming decades. All of France’s politics is, fairly explicitly, about globalization. Walk through a French bookstore and it seems half the volumes on the bestseller wall have the word mondialisation in the title. The French think dialectically; they carved out an important global role for themselves in the bipolar world of the Cold War. France spent the conflict as a steady American ally, but an exceedingly high-maintenance one, wringing gestures of respect from the West by standing at its leftmost edge and feigning irresolution. To understand what France is thinking now, one must remember how badly the French were punished by the dislocations wrought by the global economy in the past decade, particularly from 1993 to 1997. Now they want to use their hard-won experience of globalization to seize a more ambitious role: as the second pole in a new bipolar world that is all-capitalist.

French policy makers often hint that the late anti-communist Annie Kriegel’s idea of a "Global USSR System" has a parallel — an imperfect one, they’ll grant — in today’s global Anglophone system. Globalization may not be an American invention, but it favors those who speak its lingua franca, and develops institutionally along those countries’ lines. The expression Europeans use is "le soft power," a coinage of Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. The phrase can be found in almost any of that wallfull of books on mondialisation.

France is to be the country that "humanizes" or "tames" what Védrine and others call the "savage capitalism" that is practiced in America and Britain. Since this unregulated capitalism is the norm in Western firms’ dealings with their Third World labor pool, what is at stake is a new battle for humanity’s hearts and minds. Of course, France doesn’t have the means to wage such a battle alone. The European Union, however, in which France retains the leading role, potentially does. And France’s big project of the coming decades will be to transform Europe into a new kind of superpower: a collective one that has France at its intellectual and moral center. Hence a paradoxical politics that leads Jacques Julliard, editor in chief of the influential Nouvel Observateur, to say, "Today’s French patriots are Europeans." Védrine is more confrontational. "The adventure of globalization," he says, "will also be ours, and will carry our mark. All our foreign policy must revolve around this idea."

France’s economic windfall

This much is a matter of surprising consensus. But France’s ability to call the tune of the global economy rests on its ability to compete in that economy. So far its success has been splendid. To begin with, French economic failure after les trente glorieuses (the 30 prosperous years that followed World War II) has always been exaggerated. Half the flats in Paris lacked running water in 1970, and the country’s annual growth rate since the high-water mark of 1974 has been an impressive 2.3 percent.

Over the past three years, France has seemingly had remarkable success in arriving at its present economic health on its own terms. In November 1995, conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s un-French urging of (mild) austerity and (mild) welfare state reforms provoked the biggest demonstrations since the riots of May 1968. The gimmick with which Jospin won the 1997 elections was the réduction du temps du travail (RTT), which stipulated a 35-hour workweek in order to reduce unemployment. By this fall, over half of firms with 20 employees or more had switched over to it, and unemployment had indeed fallen — from a high of 13 percent in 1997 to its current 9 percent level. France remains the most centralized of major economies, with 56 percent of its gross domestic product taken up by state spending,

And yet France has not been punished for its statism the way economic modelers predicted it would be in the mid-1990s. On the contrary. The European Space Agency (ESA), a largely French initiative based in French Guiana, has proved more commercially successful than NASA, and accounts for 60 percent of world satellite launches. Airbus Industrie, of which the French own 38 percent, is developing a new super-jumbo jet that aims to take over the long-haul traffic from Boeing’s 747. And a disproportionate number of French boomtowns have been seeded with startup investment from Paris. The Breton village of Lannion, 20 years ago an impoverished and crumbling backwater of 20,000 souls, was envisioned by successive French governments as a mini-Silicon Valley for telecommunications. Now it is one. It is as Bobo as anything on America’s West Coast, with a massive Alcatel lab, three-star Michelin restaurants, a dozen bookstores, cybercafés, and regular flights to Paris from its new airport.

The truth, too, is that even in the computer age pure capitalist countries can’t control their cutting-edge advantage forever. Once technology levels off and becomes broadly disseminated, countries pit their labor forces against one another to make use of it. And, industry by industry, Europe will take its share of global production, much as it did after World War II. (It’s not as if Germany invented the coffeemaker, or Japan the compact car.) Now there are plenty of dot-com companies and website designers who can do — in French — the work that American companies had to be called in to do half a decade ago. Kalisto Entertainemt in Bordeaux, a company that didn’t even exist at the start of the 1990s, has become one of the world’s largest makers of video games.

Still, France’s dirty fiscal secret is that, for all its rhetoric about taming capitalism and charting its own course, it understands perfectly that it is playing in a capitalist world. On closer examination, it is the very global economy that French economists and politicians want to "tame" that has provided France with the foundations of its present prosperity. As Julliard says: "The leftist criticism of globalization is very useful when it points out the arrogance of the great powers. But that doesn’t mean it represents an alternative."

In Europe, many political phenomena have the opposite ideological implications that they do in the United States. For instance, President François Mitterrand launched two decades ago a program of decentralization, devolution, and local control that in America would be considered right-wing, even Gingrichian — but it has had little concrete effect except to open the door to radical leftists in the Corsican nationalist movement. More important for present purposes, membership in international bodies has had right-wing effects in France. It was the need to comply with the European Union’s Maastricht "convergence" criteria that gave Juppé the political leeway to push through at least some of his austerity measures, and Jospin’s three finance ministers, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Christian Sautter, and Laurent Fabius, have been fiercely opposed to throwing the budget out of whack with big new spending programs. In his two years in office, Strauss-Kahn (working for a supposedly old-line socialist government) held discretionary spending increases to half the rate of those budgeted by Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown (working for a supposedly crypto-Thatcherite government).

Globalization has saved France from its worst side. It has given the country’s technocratic political class an excuse to do things it wanted to do anyway, at least since 1983, when the devoted socialist Mitterrand retreated from his program of massive privatizations and inflation. All France’s banks (except Crédit Lyonnais, ignominiously rescued from bankruptcy by a Chrysler-style national government bailout) have been privatized or reprivatized in the past decade and a half. Jospin himself has privatized both Air France and France Télécom, and offered a broad tax cut in 1999. And accidents have helped: A strong dollar has strengthened France’s export position and left it with huge trade surpluses.

What’s not certain is whether France’s very success will Anglo-Saxonize its elites. There are now 350,000 Frenchmen in Britain, and while about the same number of Britons live in France, the Brits tend to be retirees and waiters, while the French tend to be bankers and executives. There are 40,000 Frenchmen registered at the country’s consulate in San Francisco (most of them Silicon Valley workers). More than 1,000 French companies have established headquarters in England. Over a third of the stocks traded on the French bourse are owned by foreigners, and such people have a financial interest in seeing that France’s traditionally secretive practices where government and business intersect — which tend to be the preserve of a tight-knit elite from the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the École Polytechnique (X), and other "grands écoles" — are opened up. One sign that change is coming to France’s ruling class is that papers have been full since last spring of articles touting an "identity crisis" of ENA and X grads, faced with a competition for prestige from Internet entrepreneurs. France may find it harder and harder to have American-style prosperity without American-style social organization.

Védrinism in theory

No one has thought more seriously about what France can do vis-à-vis America than Védrine, a Mitterrand protégé who is a product of the elite Conseil d’État. Védrine sees the entire world of institutions — political, economic, social — as totally in flux, due to globalization. He sounds almost indignant when he says: "No people has asked for it, yet it is imposed on all." Védrine has often said that "we need a new Montesquieu who can think everything over again starting from zero." In a series of interviews last spring and summer with Le Monde, Le Figaro, and the journalist and policy analyst Dominique Moïsi (collected in a superb volume called Les cartes de la France a l’heure de la mondialisation, and published by Fayard in Paris), Védrine outlined a fairly comprehensive picture of an emerging French ideology.

The cornerstone of his new thinking is the collection of non-governmental political activists who increasingly move politics around the world — feminists, tax protesters, World Trade Organization paranoids, runners of privatized social services. He also keeps an eye on the crypto-governmental powers of the mass media and an activist judiciary. (Suffice it to say that France, like other Western countries, has one. But unlike in the United States, where judicial activism is the preserve of liberals legislating from the bench, in France it has been taken up by juges d’instruction from the Generation of 1968, who have used their position to wage a class war against the political establishment of party regulars.)

Védrine calls these institutions "international civil society." In describing them, he sounds like a cross between the Montesquieu he dreams of and the Machiavelli he is. He recognizes that this civil society is "for now, less codified, less regulated, less transparent than traditional powers." On one hand that makes it more free. On the other, that makes it less democratic, as well as culturally imperialistic, since "the most influential civil societies are necessarily those of the most powerful countries." No matter: International civil society will be the tool France uses to "civilize" or "humanize" globalism.

There used to be a sharp argument in France about whether Europe was a Trojan horse for American-style (free-market) government and society, or a potential European counterbalance to it. That argument is over. With the end of the superpower rivalry, the United States has become, to use the term that is Védrine’s contribution to the French language, an hyperpuissance, or "hyperpower." Védrine nowadays never uses the word without adding that, in French, the prefix hyper- lacks the associations it has in English with disease (really big French supermarkets are called hypermarchés), but that doesn’t mean that the term is used in a friendly way. Védrine is absolutely explicit about turning Europe into a second "pole" to counter American influence. France may not be a hyperpower, but it is one of seven countries Védrine identifies as "powers of global influence" — the others are Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, and (maybe) India. The three big European states could provide plausible competition for the United States.

In theory, there’s nothing anti-American about Védrine’s wish to see Europe play a larger role on the world’s stage, particularly its cultural stage.

But the idea that NATO used to proclaim of a "Euro-Atlantic world" strikes him as bunk. The differences between the States and Europe are wider than ever, he thinks, and these differences will lend France’s language, culture, and political institutions a "seduction effect" in the eyes of those sated with American products — provided his countrymen can hang in there and guard their cultural independence. "The fear of uniformity," he says, "will reinforce a need for diversity, and thus, among other things, a need for French." Védrine admits — even lauds — the strength of American culture. He grants that the "quasi-monopoly conquered by American cultural industries [was] obtained through a vitality that none will deny, a creativity that everyone recognizes and admires." But he adds, "That rhetoric doesn’t oblige us to be swamped by a cultural tidal wave."

This is not for domestic consumption only. It’s an appeal to all the world’s cultures to accept French leadership in a global cultural battle. Védrine claims that democratization will be more effective if it’s not perceived merely as Westernization or Americanization, and he finds Albright’s conflation of the concepts crass. "To demand perfect democracy right away is to think in religious terms," Védrine says. "If you think that way — dogmatically — you’re logically led to think in terms of sanctions, punishments, excommunications and anathemas. That’s not my style." Furthermore, France cannot afford to think religiously about democracy. "If we’re only allowed to associate with friends who are comme il faut," Védrine continues, "who think like us, we might as well renounce the possibility of acting on any problem at all, of resolving the slightest crisis — and leave the field to the United States." We now have a clear idea of why France was willing to stand alone against Albright to reject that democracy statement in Warsaw. There is an idealistic side to Védrine’s democracy theorizing — under his foreign policy leadership, for instance, France has been far tougher than the U.S. on what he calls Russia’s "Potemkin democracy." But there is a pragmatic side to Védrinism, too. France cannot compete against America if the battle for Third World hearts and minds is carried out through rubber-stamped U.S. conferences, aid packages, heavily staffed embassies, and projection of military power.

Védrinism in practice

There are several practical ways in which Védrinism can be brought into existence. One is global régulation. It must be understood that in French, régulation is a synonym for ground rules, for order — not for government meddling. The French word for the latter is réglémentation. Traffic lights are régulation; anti-smoking laws are réglémentation. Most French people consider the United States more réglémenté, less free, than France. (In a rather startling development, France’s 1991 "Évin laws," which established non-smoking zones in public spaces, seemed as recently as a year ago to be leading the country at a creeping pace towards an American-style smoke-free public square. In just the past year, however, such laws have begun to be flagrantly disobeyed. More than one Frenchman describes the reaction as one against "American" values.)

But that doesn’t mean the United States should be comfortable with calls for régulation. President Chirac stresses the need for new global bodies, with enforcement powers. So does Védrine. Jospin in all his international speeches talks about "progress in régulation." The entire French government advocates international criminal courts (and approved of the Anglo-Spanish Pinochet proceedings), the Kosovo operation, new U.N. agencies, expanded European ties. In so doing, they are setting the stage for la France qui gagne—contre les États-Unis.

Wherever the battle for influence between France and the United States becomes a matter of international negotiation, or arbitration by an international judiciary, France has a better chance of winning. They’re simply very good at this game. Other countries in Europe have been frustrated by France’s ability to carve waivers out of onerous eu laws. France has had an easier time protecting its Margaux vineyards from buyouts than Germany had protecting its beer from eu rules that would have declared its centuries-old purity law an unfair trade practice. France was able to overturn a Brussels fiat that its farmers use pasteurized milk in their Camembert, far more easily than Britain has been able to get even its safest beef products back onto the European market after its mad-cow disease epidemic. It was able to muscle the European Central Bank into agreeing to cut in half the planned eight-year chairmanship of Dutch banker Wim Duisenberg in a way that would guarantee Bank of France governor Jean-Claude Trichet an eight-year tenure four years from now. It has thus far managed at world trade negotiations to keep steep walls of protection around its movies, music, and other cultural products.

The French left, to which Védrine and Jospin still belong, and towards which Chirac can be extremely conciliatory, particularly on foreign policy, is abrim with ideas on how to use transnational régulation to favor France’s global aims. At the top of the list is the "Tobin tax," first devised by the Yale economist and Kennedy adviser James Tobin to counter currency speculation. It provides for a .05 percent tax on all currency transactions — negligible to the tourist landing in an airport, but a wholesale deterrent to traders of the George Soros variety, who may flip currencies 50 times in a day. The idea was relaunched by Le Monde Diplomatique, the left-wing international affairs weekly (not affiliated with the daily Le Monde). It has since been taken up so full-throatedly by French patriots that, in July, the left-wing economist Charles Wyplosz called it "an obligatory reference point wherever left-wing people meet."

What’s curious is how modern the Tobin tax’s constituency is. Wyplosz, who loves it, thinks it a welcome substitute for "Marxism, with its old-fogey themes of class-war and hatred of concentrated capital." New leftists like himself are beyond all that: "They’ve grown up with jeans, Coca-Cola, Star Wars and the Internet, and they love MacDo [McDonald’s—a questionable assertion]. They’re globalized!" These globalized leftists seem to be gravitating towards inequality and anti-Americanism as favored themes. And note that the shocks the Tobin tax is designed to avoid have taken place far from France, which has not had a currency collapse along the lines of Mexico, Russia, Southeast Asia — or even Britain in 1992. These globalized activists go farther than Tobin, and that’s because there’s something in it for France. Following the United Nations Program for Development (UNPD) and the 100,000- member ATTAC organization, set up in France to lobby for the Tobin tax, they envision a .1 percent levy, administered by UNPD, that could used to provide $150 billion in annual aid to the Third World. That’s a budget that would dwarf, by a factor of dozens, the carrot-dangling wherewithal of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The key regulatory task for France is capturing and holding Europe. This is a global project. As Mitterrand said in the mid-1990s, "Never separate the grandeur of France from the building of Europe. This is our new dimension." Ingenious politicians in both parties, including France’s intelligent European minister Pierre Moscovici, work bilaterally with other countries to keep France at what Jacques Delors used to call the "hard core" of Europe. Germany’s reunification, of course, makes this project harder. As the political scientist Pierre Manent says, "Whether or not Germany succeeds in liberating itself from its history — and whether or not it wants to — it will probably feel a need to liberate itself from France."

France’s agenda for its European Union presidency contains Russian and Balkan relations, tariff fights with the United States over bananas, and EU enlargement. It also contains two priorities that one would associate with a country seeking global influence: discussions on integration of European defense and a European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

An independent European defense arm has been a priority since Kosovo, when European countries felt they were being dragged along with no veto power by an American leadership whose priorities didn’t necessarily jibe with their own. These defense plans, in which Britain and France have taken the lead, were hatched by Védrine, but they have thus far been underfunded.

It’s hard to tell just how seriously Védrine and Chirac take this initiative. On one hand, France seems to be putting its defense interests on the back burner. Chirac’s plan to end mandatory military service will come into effect in 2002 (and will further augment France’s annual "peace dividend" of 20 billion francs). Meanwhile, General Jean-Pierre Kelche, chief of staff of the French army, estimates that the use of a large contingent of French troops in Kosovo and the deployment of the army to fight disastrous oil spills in Brittany has put France’s armed forces — once formidable, but now shrunken to 300,000 troops — at the limits of their capacity.

On the other hand, there are signs that France, and Europe, are ready to make a bold move towards defense independence. French policy makers are fascinated by America’s debate on creating a nuclear shield against "rogue states" with weapons of mass destruction. This fascination cannot stem from real outrage. While the U.S. has its GPALS system, other countries think missile defense is a good idea, too: Russia is developing its S-300, Israel its Arrow, France and Italy their (considerably more modest) Aster 30. But the preoccupation with missile defense becomes more explicable if one looks at Madeline Albright’s warnings on European defense, which she summed up as the "3Ds": (1) no decoupling (creating a military force independent of NATO); (2) no duplication (building weapons that make NATO’s unnecessary); and (3) no discrimination (providing eu members with more security than non-EU ones).

Védrine treats America’s rogue-state theory with scorn. ("Can one seriously think that if the leaders of these countries seek an arms buildup, it’s to threaten the western countries, which have at their disposal the most formidable arsenal ever built and overwhelming capacity for retaliation?") And he warns that American reconsideration of the anti-ballistic missile treaty constitutes decoupling in itself (since both he and Jospin fear it would create "unequal zones of security"). If a well-armed Europe sought to break its defense link to the United States years or decades down the line, it would not lack for pretexts. The long-term vision of French politicians on both left and right seems to be to move France’s defense resources out of its atrophied national army and into the defense force of a unified European superpower.

France’s own soft power

But no one expects such a move in the short term. For now, the centerpiece of Védrine’s vision, tactically speaking, is using NGOs — those flexible, private sector-style organizations, so suitable to an Internet age — to win over foreigners. France voted against Albright in Warsaw because it understood her model of democratization favors nations that have the resources to fill every country in the world with military and political advisers and shower them with USAID money.

Védrine’s preoccupation with NGOs shows another one of those diametrical ideological differences between France and the United States. In the U.S. it is the beneficiaries of globalization who proclaim the end of the nation-state, which the left suspects is merely a way for corporations to say, "don’t tax us." The American left, meanwhile, sees no other recourse than the nation (welfare) state, saying, in effect, that any weakening of it harms the poor. Védrine is aware that non-governmental organizations are often mere ventriloquists for the poor, and transnational bodies are often representative of nothing at all. Still, the former are in the French political tradition, and the latter are venues in which the French have become consummately skilled through their membership in the European Union. As France readies itself to do battle for the allegiance of the global economy’s losers, Védrine is willing to use them. This is a battle that will resemble the Cold War not in the slightest. It will pit not the CIA vs. the KGB but the colorless bureaucrats of the State Department against the flexible, charismatic, and mammothly funded Médecins sans Frontières.

France’s choice of the old soixante-huitard and founder of Médecins sans Frontières, Bernard Kouchner, to head the NATO occupation in Kosovo is emblematic of the new kudos that NGOs enjoy. But for a practical example of how they’d work in Védrine’s vision, José Bové is more instructive. Bové is the farmer in rural Millau who has campaigned against American tariffs on the Roquefort cheese he makes, who has given consciousness-raising lectures on genetically modified food, and who is now standing trial for having vandalized a McDonald’s a year ago, an act for which he became a national hero.

Bové has been condemned as a faux paysan — a phony peasant and mediagenic demagogue, whose real ties are to leftism rather than farming. Those who make this claim are on solid ground. Three years after participating in the 1968 riots, Bové led a group of agricultural and Occitan activists in a protest against the French army, whose plans to expand its Larzac firing range would have displaced a hundred sheep farmers. His primary ties are international, to the Honduras-based Via Campesina movement that has long sought land reform in Latin America.

But that’s exactly the point. A France that plans to do battle for the sympathies of the Third World can use such free lancers, much as the British Empire made enterprising use of its buccaneers and scallywags. Bové, who spent part of his childhood in Berkeley (where his parents held research posts) and speaks fluent English, claims not to be anti-American. But in a country where the majority of the intellectual classes describe American "soft power" as resembling that of Rome, and compare French resistance to globalization to the resistance of the Gallo-Romans to the Roman empire, Bové sports a moustache patterned on that of Astérix, the French comic-book hero who is the nation’s treasured symbol of anti-Roman revolt. On a recent visit to Colombia, Bové won big crowds and wild approval for speaking out about three things: First, he backed a Colombian request for $900 million in aid from the EU, which would reduce its fealty to the United States in the drug war. Second, he opposed President Clinton’s $1.3 billion Colombia plan, which would eradicate cocaine with the pesticide fusarium oxysporum. Third, he opposed drilling by Occidental Petroleum near lands occupied by the 5,000-strong U’wa tribe, which has threatened a collective hunger strike if drilling continues. He called the planned drilling a "liquidation of the civilization of the U’wa to profit a multinational." Yet Bové is not on record as having attacked the interests of any French multinationals, many of which do business in the Colombian rain forest, and many of which are considerably larger than Occidental Petroleum.

Anti-Americanism or nationalism?

So are we in the presence of a recrudescent French anti-Americanism here? Or at least of a new nationalism? Nouvel Observateur editor Julliard dismisses any talk of a nationalist revival. For one thing, France’s focus is on Europe — whose increasing unification is, if not wildly or universally popular, at least coming to be seen as inevitable. The 1992 Maastricht referendum that tightened the countries’ formal union passed by only 51-49 in France, one of the narrowest margins on the continent, but approval for Europe has rocketed about 20 points higher since then. While there are still some intellectuals on the left who make nationalistic claims — the Napoleon biographer Max Gallo, for example, and the former Che Guevara associate and current NATO gadfly Régis Debray — they’re increasingly isolated. In politics, even the Communist Party, under its leader Robert Hue, has gradually been reconciled to it. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the last hard-nationalist leftist in premier Lionel Jospin’s cabinet, who devoted much of his energy over the past three years to getting children to learn to sing "La Marseillaise," resigned recently over the government’s Corsica program. Chirac, meanwhile, has done for the right what Mitterrand did for the left: He has given it a frankly pro-European cast, at a moment when nationalistic forces in his own party have splintered off to found squabbling small parties.

But France cannot brag about its patriotism by referring to Europe at the same time it dismisses worries about its nationalism by referring to France. According to Manent, old-style French nationalism is gone. "La France qui gagne is not la France seule," he notes, citing in the latter case Charles Maurras’s old rallying cry. Nonetheless, the pro-American Manent believes the new French patriotism seeks to build a self-awareness of Europeans as Europeans. Certain issues are used to stoke a keen sense of Europeans’ differentness from the rest of the Occident, i.e., from America — issues like capital punishment, which France abolished only in 1981, and genetically modified foods. These are positive forces pushing the countries into conflict, in "heightening the contradictions," but there are negative ones, too. With the end of the Cold War, there is simply less need for sympathetic Frenchmen to be pro-American. To take just a sampling of Americanophiles, the late political scientist Raymond Aron, the art critic and Sovietologist Alain Besançon, the editor and intellectual Jean-Claude Casanova, the late historians François Furet and Annie Kriegel — these were all French patriots who felt a need, faced with the Soviet threat, to put a lot of their eggs in the basket of the American way. There’s no such need at present. Contemporary French pro-Americanism is directed less towards the country or its citizens than towards its business practices.

Meanwhile, there is anti-Americanism in France, and much as intellectuals are inclined to say otherwise, it is not confined to the elites. According to the former London Times Paris correspondent John Ardagh, the whole populace is growing a bit more mistrustful. Between 1988 and 1996, a Sofres poll found, Frenchmen who saw America "with sympathy" fell from 54 percent to 35 percent. Seventy percent "judge American cultural influence in France ‘excessive.’"

The second universal nation

But at the end of the day, the two countries come into conflict not because of France’s anti-Americanism but because of France’s American-ness (or America’s Frenchness). To discuss the two countries is to discuss the only two countries in the world whose national self-understanding and political self-definition are wrapped up in the sense that they are bearers of universal truths. In this belief, none is more French than Hubert Védrine, who notes: "A big part of French opinion thinks that France’s particular role is to intervene abroad for the good of others. This is something very old and rather specific to France." And to one other country.

Julliard says, "France will take the lead in Europe, will dominate Europe — but not by military means this time. France will dominate Europe by the power of its universalist ideas." This is a mission complicated by France’s decades-long sublimation of much of its own recent history. The country is living through a searing reexamination of its collaboration with Nazism during the Vichy years. So France’s desire to sell Europe on its admirable universalist values is made the more passionate by a felt need to permanently anchor France in them as well. Hence the priority it sets on passing a European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Hence Chirac’s willingness to burn bridges within the EU itself, organizing a boycott of Austria after it admitted the right-winger Jörg Haider into a coalition government (which led Haider to dismiss Chirac as "a pocket Napoleon").

As Julliard says, "Every time I go to the U.S., I’m struck by how much the two countries resemble one another." He’s right. Pace Ben Wattenberg, the columnist who has described the United States as "the first universal nation," France, with its 3.6 million foreigners and 4 million French citizens born abroad, is proportionately every bit as "universal." And it may become more so. The consultant Ali Magoudi, who co-authored a book on Europe with Chirac’s oldest political ally, Jerome Monod, advises executives in some of France’s largest multinationals. One CEO told Magoudi last summer that he was making his business plans based on the assumption that Europe would receive 100 million immigrants over the next 20 years. Magoudi nods at that and says: "C’est nous qui sommes le nouveau monde, mon ami." ("It’s we who are the new world, pal.")

Magoudi has a point. France was the archaic country of popular cliché as recently as three years ago, but that archaism has become a paradoxical source of modernity. Because France was so badly pummeled during what practically everyone calls the période de pessimisme of 1993-97, its search for solutions has been more dogged. And in France, the global economy’s losers (or, more accurately put, those elites of the global economy who claim to represent them) have come up with a more sophisticated politics, a means that what’s left of the left can use to harness the nation-state to its own ends. France has become the first country to look at a global economy built to American specifications and say: Two can play at that game.


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