France, the French, Their Newspapers and Us

Article excerpt

If France is quickly going from America's oldest ally to our most hardened enemy, as Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times a couple of months ago, nobody has told the French.

In fact, I was surprised by how little coverage of the war in Iraq I could find in French newspapers or anything about the hard feelings between the White House and Quai D'Orsay. I went to Paris during Webster University's fall break in mid-October to visit friends and especially to talk to Claude-Jean Bertrand, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Paris, and an avid reader of SJR.

A few editorials about American foreign policy appeared in the papers that week, all critical of the United States but no worse than what you'd find in the Nation. And the French I talked to all dismissed the diplomatic loggerhead between the United States and France as minor and temporary. At some point in every conversation they all said the same thing: "Next year, after you've voted Bush out of office ... "

What does preoccupy the French and their newspapers is France's growing importance in the global economy and its place in the new political and social reality that is being created in Europe.

Everyone knows that the French smoke more than Americans do, drink more and eat a lot more fat; yet they have less heart disease and a longer life expectancy. Also, everyone knows that the French have a 35-hour work week and get seven weeks of paid vacation every year, mandated by law; yet they have the world's highest index of productivity per hours worked.

What most Americans don't know is that France has taken over from Germany as the economic driving force in Europe and has become a major player on the world's financial stage. France has the fifth largest economy in the world; it's third in foreign investment; and it's the second largest exporter of food after the United States.

The French corporation Carrefour is the number two retailer in the world after Wal-Mart. France's aerospace giant Airbus has been giving Boeing a beating for years. Renault has financial control of Nissan. And France's telecommunications business is outstripping the competition in Europe, Asia and Africa. Not to mention that the French mega-conglomerate Vivendi is now a minority owner of NBC News in the United States.

And France is doing all this with 1/16th of the land area of the United States and one fifth the population.

The business advantage the United States has always held over the smaller countries of the world is its huge base domestic market. But there is a real movement within the European Union for four countries to create a federation similar to Switzerland or Canada--France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. They already have the same currency and no borders; and they have begun to give up some of their own individual sovereignty in such matters as foreign policy, criminal law and international trade agreements.

If this federation comes about, the four countries would also integrate their very sophisticated and technologically advanced armies and navies. But most importantly, the federation's base domestic market would rival that of the United States. The political and cultural barriers to this federation are high but much lower than they were even five or six years ago.

That's what fills French newspapers, both on the left and right.

The anger you once felt in France about what the French called America's "cultural imperialism" has lessened. Coca-Cola, blue jeans, American movies and McDonald's don't seem to bother them as much as they used to. When I first moved to Paris in October 1969 practically nobody spoke English--they refused to. Now it seems like almost everyone speaks at least a little English and with no hard feelings. In fact, in the cafes of my old neighborhood where once waiters were exasperated at my mangled French, they now laugh at their own mangled English. …