British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S President Bill Clinton, and French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace, 1997
Reuters / Blake Sell


To Americans, France is a beautiful country, home to that most elegant of cities, Paris, the seductive tones of the French language, and some of the world's finest wines, which makes it all the more difficult for them to understand how such a charming nation could be so irritating an ally. The French always seem to be opposing the United States on some issue or other, whether it is in the realm of international diplomacy, where between the lines of France's carefully worded diplomatic statements one can discern a distinct distaste for America's oft-proclaimed sole-superpower status, or on matters of culture, where France is always the first to denounce American "cultural imperialism." Lately, Franco-American friction has manifested itself most visibly in the Persian Gulf, where France's interests—in Iraq and Iran—seem to clash with America's security needs. Many Americans ascribe France's prickliness to the legacy of "Gaullism," the conservative, nationalist inheritance bequeathed by that country's greatest twentieth-century leader. But in France nobody even knows what Gaullism means anymore, apart from being able to say no to the United States.

In fact, the annoying behavior coming out of Paris is best explained by the fact that the country is, quite simply, in a bad mood, unsure of its place and status in a new world. The less confident France is, the more difficult it is to deal with. On the eve of the 21st century, France faces four major challenges, which are together the source of its melancholy. The first is globalization, which is often blamed for the erosion of France's culture and its depressingly high levels of unemployment. (Last year, one of Paris' biggest bestsellers was a tract titled The Economic Horror—a bitter philippic against globalization's ills.) The second is the unipolar nature of the international system, in which the United States leads and a once-proud France is grudgingly forced to follow. The third is the merger of Europe, which threatens to drown out France's voice. The fourth, and by far the toughest, challenge is France itself. The nation must overcome its economic, social, political, moral, and cultural shortcomings if it is to successfully face its other challenges. The rise of Jean-Marie LePen's extreme right National Front is symptomatic of France's internal difficulties. To combat them, France must, in essence, transcend itself.


All men are equal, but some are more equal than others. In the age of globalization, size matters. If small is beautiful and big is powerful, then medium is problematic. The Internet, information technology, and other trappings of the global economy can reinforce the centrality of the United States or multiply the strength of a small city-state like Singapore, but they often penalize middle-size countries like France. France's special strengths are its culture and its heritage, and these are being worn away, replaced by a "universal culture" that looks strangely American. If France were a young state, less set in its ways, less burdened by the weight of old traditions or images from the past, it might be able to adapt. But France is an ancient country. It cannot forget its history, and in trying to reconcile it with elements of the modern world ends up merely superimposing it upon them, creating a hodgepodge that is true to neither. Tellingly, France's most popular computer game today is not a high-tech, outer space adventure, but a thriller called "Versailles," which takes place amid the grandeur of the court of Louis XIV.

Consider the difference between France and the United States. America is not only big and young; it is, above all, open. French society remains closed and rigid—incapable of attracting the best talent from other countries while unwittingly supplying its own to America. For example, Dr. Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, now teaches and conducts research in the United States because he reached mandatory retirement age at the Institut Pasteur. Contrast the essential message of Hollywood—if you want to make a difference you can—with the classical archetype of the French movie: A loves B, who loves C, who loves D, all of whom end up in despair. America's flexibility can be seen in the success of its melting pot, which, in an age of globalization, is exported worldwide. Today, the sounds of the world are essentially African-American, everybody eats Italian-American pizza at least once a week, and children the world over delight in films by an Eastern European, Jewish American named Steven Spielberg. The American-accented brand of English is the closest thing we have to a universal language, while the French, obsessed with defending "Francophonie" and dreaming of a world united by their tongue, erect protective linguistic barriers, not understanding that this isolates them instead of preserving their culture. What France should seek to preserve—once it has conceded defeat in the language battle—is the context and originality of its message, not its medium.

France's struggle with globalization is complicated by its people's high quality of life. Most of the French feel they have little to gain and much to lose from globalization—the space and beautiful diversity of their countryside, the quality of their food and wine, and the respect for tradition. Why risk all these unique pleasures for the sake of an uncertain competition in a global world? The temptation for many Frenchmen is to retreat into the protective bubble of the good life.


The end of the Cold War only reinforced French envy of America. They resent the global reach of America's power and Washington's presumption to speak in the name of the international community. Unlike the pragmatic British or the historically guilt-ridden Germans, the French feel that they, like the United States, carry a universal message. Remember that France, like the United States, is the font of ideas about "the rights of man," liberty, equality, and fraternity. French frustrations are exacerbated by the mixture of benign neglect, sheer indifference, and mild irritation with which Washington considers Paris' initiatives. In the absence of the unifying threat posed by the Soviet Union, Franco-American tensions can be eased only by shared interests. In the short run, France's jealousy of America will be muted by the political constraints imposed on it by a united Europe, the other members of which do not share France's feelings. The French know all too well that their secret dream—to build a Europe that will challenge the United States—is the nightmare of their continental partners. By openly expressing its differences with America, over the Middle East for example, Paris more often than not isolates itself from London and Bonn, not to mention the rest of the European Union. There are, however, subtle issues on which France can tilt Europe against America. If France is alone in supporting Iraq, for example, on Iran the rest of Europe is on its side and against the United States.

On security matters, Paris and Washington are at once allies and competitors. France's ambition to create a genuine European foreign and security policy, although formally welcomed by Washington, clashes with the United States' inclination to take the lead. France well knows that its long-term European ambitions will require it to rejoin NATO and give up on trying to attain some special status. France understands that more Europe tomorrow means more NATO today—a bitter pill, since expanding the alliance could reinforce the U.S. monopoly on security. But there is no alternative, since Europe lacks the political will to take on such a large commitment alone. In fact, the French have come to see any expansion of NATO without a corresponding widening of the European Union as an American attempt to preclude any specifically European initiatives in the security field.

In Paris, the peaceful end to the most recent crisis in the Persian Gulf was considered a triumph of French diplomacy over American belligerence. But it was a cosmetic victory, since Saddam Hussein's receptiveness to diplomacy was certainly the result of his fear of being bombed by America. The neat division of labor that France and the United States enjoyed in the Middle East in the 1970s—France in Baghdad, America in Tehran—did not exist this time around. U.S. and French policies over Iraq are antithetical—the French eschew military options, and the Americans show little faith in diplomacy. This essential difference will not disappear and could rebound at the first opportunity—most probably when Saddam takes his next adventure.

Exploiting its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, France can present itself as an alternative Western voice to the nations of the Third World. In the Middle East, for example, Benjamin Netanyahu's election and the resulting stall in the peace process has given a new legitimacy to Europe's and in particular France's role as an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis. Not content with merely bankrolling a peace process led by others, France intends to play a more active role, political as well as economic, complementing the United States but not replacing it. But the French cannot afford to balance America's pro-Israeli position simply by being pro-Arab. France must demonstrate that it is serious about peace. It has certain advantages: unlike the United States, it is not a prisoner of domestic politics. If Paris cannot make peace, it can at least facilitate it.

On the African continent, the French must admit that they need Washington's clout, just as Washington must admit that it needs France's experience and presence. Africa brings out the best and the worst in the French. France is per capita the largest donor of foreign aid in the world after Japan, and well ahead of most European countries. But French money has gone more to regimes and leaders than to the African people. Rivals in economic terms, Paris and Washington are necessary geopolitical partners in this area. The United States has been keen to reassure the French that America has no secret agenda, no ambition to become Africa's gendarme. In fact, the French are starting to realize that their views on the continent's future converge with those of the Americans. Both fear regional destabilization, as in the new Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.


Although "Europe" does not yet exist in security and diplomatic terms, it is very real in economic and commercial terms, an actor whose power and influence will be strengthened by the coming of the euro. This is the only hope for the Europeans to balance America—only in the monetary field does a new bipolarity seem within reach. There is an irony here: The only card with which France can challenge American hegemony is Europe, and to play it, Paris must abandon much of its sovereignty.

For the Germans, European unification has been, together with their participation in NATO, the way to sever their links with their Nazi past, to erase the grim legacy of that dark period. For the Italians, always in search of domestic stability and a way to overcome their low self-esteem, Europe provides legitimacy, allowing them to triumph over their doubts about themselves and the credibility of their nation-state. For France, however, Europe—in its various forms, from the confederal model favored by de Gaulle to the federal one preferred by Francois Mitterrand—has been at the very heart of the French nationalist project, a way to pursue France's past glory and power by multiplying its influence. For France to remain France, it must become Europe. Leaders of the left and the right, once in power, have strictly adhered to the European credo. France's allegiance to the cause of Europe is now focused on the achievement of a common currency. To create a common European identity, to strengthen the voice of Europe in the world, to forge a new economic power, there is only one answer: the euro.

Yet for all of France's devotion to the European ideal, one can sense its apprehensions. Beyond their fear of having created a technocratic monster, too intrusive for some, too impotent for others, the French worry about their country's place within this new and enlarged Europe. In 1992, the debate about the Maastricht referendum was really a debate about Germany. Did the treaty offer the best guarantee against the potential threat of a reunited and powerful Germany, or would it lead to German supremacy in Europe? Does France run the danger of being squeezed between an economically dynamic Britain and an ever more powerful Germany? The city of London has recovered its old financial power, bursting with energy and activity. Berlin, once torn, will soon become not just the capital of the new Germany, but the capital of the new Europe. But Paris, some French fear, is in danger of becoming a new Rome, a pleasant and beautiful metropolis but one that is mainly a museum of its own past.

For now it seems that France's best option is to continue to pay lip service to a united Europe and promote the Euro, while taking advantage of the lack of a diplomatic and military "Europe" to pursue an independent French foreign policy. This is the kind of Janus-faced exercise for which France certainly has the cunning and skill but which could prove dangerous for the future of Europe—if France were to be imitated by the Germans, for example.

Hesitant about their influence within an enlarged Europe, with a strong Germany at its center, the French are also anxious about the applicability of France's model of state centralization to the requirements of a new Europe. There is a nagging fear in France that Britain's laissez-faire economic model, built by Margaret Thatcher and largely preserved by Tony Blair's New Labour, and Germany's form of decentralized government are more modern than France's old-fashioned statist recipe—a fear bolstered by the number of young French who are heading to Britain to find jobs in that dynamic economy. The state, once the pride of France, is now the main obstacle to adjustment and change.


The French behave toward their state the same way that adolescents behave toward their parents: with a mixture of rebellion and submission. They criticize its heavy-handedness and inefficiency, but they appreciate its reassuring presence and protection. The spring 1997 legislative elections, which brought the Socialists to power, perfectly demonstrated this contradictory attitude. Socialist leader Lionel Jospin's triumph showed that, on a moral and political level, the majority of the French want a less corrupt and more accountable government. At the same time, the electorate wants the state to protect the weakest, poorest elements of society and regulate the effects of the market. For example, Jospin's plan to cut the maximum working week from 39 to 35 hours, against the wishes of many employers, may not make sense economically but is in tune with the feelings of most Frenchmen, who want to be protected by the state from long working hours. It does not matter to them if the idea that governments can create jobs better than market forces is outdated. France is a conservative society—its majority clings to the status quo.

The centrality of the French state is compounded by the society's rigidity. France's work force, for example, is decidedly less mobile than Britain's. Too many people prefer to remain unemployed instead of moving to new towns or villages to fill jobs. This may contribute to family stability or the harmony of social life—which means that French families can always have Sunday lunch at grandma's—but certainly not to the dynamism of the economy.

Criticisms of the state extend to those who incarnate it at the highest levels. The prestigious but stiflingly conformist civil service training school, the National School of Administration, is the focus of most complaints about the administration and political class, since its graduates have long monopolized the corridors of power. The French often accuse their civil servants of knowing neither the importance of social dialogue nor the way to govern in a genuinely democratic environment in which all citizens expect to be treated as equals. These attacks are almost reminiscent of their ancestors' challenge to the nobility at the end of the ancien regime. If those who embody the state at the highest level cannot find an answer to unemployment and social injustice, the French ask, why should these mandarins enjoy virtual immunity from accountability?

Since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville, France has been described as a country forced into revolution by its inability to reform. Although today's France is not about to revolt, it is suffering from a lack of hope for the future, which in large part explains the success of rightist groups like the National Front. The French economy is actually doing far better than the unemployment figures suggest: French industry is increasingly competitive, the trade balance is positive, inflation is down, and the franc is strong. Nevertheless, the French are morose. Their country is slowly and painfully transforming itself from a welfare state into a modern one, learning to live within its means. France has not chosen the easiest path to its goals and certainly not the most direct one.


Europe's attempt to transcend its fratricidal quarrels by integrating its resources, economies, currencies, and political institutions into a quasi-federal state will serve it well in the global era. Regionalization is the best way to meet the challenges of globalization, because it makes states bigger, and bigger is better. But globalization reinforces the likelihood of fragmentation. Today, the need to express one's difference in a global world leads to a desperate search for identity that can end in peaceful divorce between some nation-states and jingoistic tensions and bloody conflicts between others.

France is a perfect example of this identity dilemma. For decades the French have oscillated between celebrating their exceptionalism and proclaiming its end. Today France is torn more than ever between the desire to be a modern, normal country and the reflex to cling to the belief that France is not like other nations. The first choice presupposes openness, flexibility, and a secure sense of one's identity. The second opposes globalization, is wary of a more unified Europe, and embraces anti-Americanism. But the second choice is no choice at all; protectionism would lead to isolation and decay.

France is probably sicker politically than is generally thought. The fact that large numbers of the French have thrown their support behind LePen's National Front, which is highly represented in the country's regional assemblies, indicates that the people of France have reached the end of their tether. Gripped by despair over their country's high unemployment rate and declining importance in the world, they have begun to cast their lot with the exceptionalists, in a wistful but dangerous attempt to recapture France's past glory. The moderate right is falling by the wayside, incapable of producing a message that will resonate with the masses like LePen's and increasingly co-opted by it. The left and the Socialists, though in power, must contend with the fragility of their own coalitions. Corruption—and the threat that it will be exposed—hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of politicians on both sides. All of this combines to coarsen France's political life and plunge the country further into its depression.

Yet despite the weaknesses, there is hope for France. The exceptionalists may be making gains, but for the time being, they are in the minority. Indeed, the National Front has lost its only seat in Parliament. And the more successfully France's internal problems, particularly its unemployment, are tackled, the less political and social discontent men like LePen will have to exploit.

France has surmounted crises worse than this current crisis of confidence. Its long history will ultimately guarantee its stability. The land of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite will not soon cede all of that for an imaginary kingdom of French supremacy, for its citizens know the despair that would bring. The French will come to realize that globalization, that most feared bogeyman on the streets of Paris, will not bring France's demise but rather force it to hone its skills and refurbish its message. A more unified Europe will not smother it but in fact give it new purpose, allowing it to determine its own destiny in the world far better than it could do alone. The depression will subside. In the end, France will endure.

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  • DOMINIQUE MOÏSI is Deputy Director of the French Institute for International Relations and Editor in Chief of Politique Etrangere.
  • More By Dominique Moisi