The French Exception

Courtesy Reuters


The biggest celebrity in France last year was neither an entrepreneur, nor a sports figure, nor even an entertainment personality. It was the sheep farmer José Bové, whose claim to fame was his destruction of a French McDonald's last August. He followed that with a triumphant trip to the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), bringing along 400 pounds of smuggled Roquefort cheese. Bové's protests against American-style globalization and U.S. trade retaliation against European products resonated strongly with the French public and politicians of all stripes. Indeed, in a nearly unanimous show of national support, France is now taking the international lead in the outcry against globalization.

Some might find it paradoxical that one of Europe's most successful economies would attack globalization so forcefully. France's unfolding conversion to market liberalism is partly a conscious effort by policymakers and partly an unintended byproduct of European integration. Despite France's dirigiste past, the recent wave of mergers, hostile takeovers, and shareholder capitalism has actually met general public acquiescence. Economic growth is strong, unemployment is finally going down, and the French "malaise" is now officially over. So one might expect that France would break free from the protectionist demands of traditional special-interest groups and fully embrace its globalized future. But the dominant political debate raging in France today is over how much control the nation should retain over its borders. Intellectuals, interest groups, and even mainstream politicians have all joined the bandwagon denouncing the negative effects of globalization, homogenization, and Americanization for the sake of preserving the "French exception."

The reason for this disjuncture is that France feels that nothing short of its national identity is at stake. Rather than being framed as a question of free trade versus protectionism, the trade debate has been recast as "Anglo-Saxon globalization" versus the preservation of France's national and cultural values. As all of French society joins in the fight to preserve its uniqueness, this debate increasingly transcends traditional cleavages. The French

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