Courtesy Reuters

The Trouble with France

A ROTTEN MOOD

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

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