FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER Hubert Vedrine 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. Vedrine 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, F rance 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 antiAmerican - 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 Europ e 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. …