France: La joie de vivre

Mention France and what comes to many people's minds is Manet's image of lovers picnicking in the middle of a verdant and peaceful countryside. Or a Cartier-Bresson photo of a bereted man sitting in an intimate neighborhood cafe, enjoying a leisurely moment.

Come to France and you find it is true - the French specialize in savoring life.

But alongside this traditional France, typified in Paris's ornate buildings on fashionable boulevards and in villages of ancient houses clustered around a church, another France is taking shape.

It is the France of La Defense's skyscrapers on Paris's outskirts, nuclear power plants, and telecommunications satellites.

These are the two most prominent faces of modern France, and keeping them together in harmony is a preoccupation for the Socialists just as much as it was for previous governments.

The French have too much pride to accept being second-rate by rejecting the modern world. At the same time, though, they remain too traditional to let industrial innovations destroy their timeless world of pate, cheese, and the famous, long loaves of bread called ''baguettes.''

Although the country is a full generation into industrialization, it remains in large part a nation of shopkeepers and artisans. Small farms still dominate much of the land.

There are large supermarkets, but every neighborhood and village has an open market as well as small shops specializing in cheese, meat, or vegatables. There are more than 40,000 bakeries, alhough the best French bread these days is found only in the family-run operations in the country.

Fashion, perfume, and other luxury industries remain pillars of the country's economic strength. But companies such as Chanel, Dior, and Cartier today combine craftsmanship and fine taste with modern mass marketing techniques.

Over the past two decades, the French have translated their reputation for quality in luxury goods into high technology. Take the telephones. Only a decade ago, they didn't work. Getting a call through to the United States was difficult - except perhaps from the broken phone at the train station. Today the phones work. And the old train station phones have been replaced by new machines that operate only on personally coded magnetized credit cards.

The French, in fact, have become world leaders in telecommunications and one of the world's largest exporters of telecommunications materiel. In all, France has achieved postwar growth second only to Japan. By the start of the 1980s France had become the world's fourth largest exporter.

Despite a recent loss of international competitiveness and high inflation, France continues to excel in such areas as train and subway equipment, aerospace , nuclear energy, and advanced military hardware.

In embracing the modern, there have been changes in traditional ways of doing things. Fast-food outlets, for instance, are to a certain extent replacing the neighborhood bistro. Cheap and quick, they are practical for pressed office workers and a fad for the young. But their success worries many Frenchmen concerned with quality.

''Hordes of unidentified foul objects are showing up on France's plates,'' the gastronomic guru, Christian Millau, said recently over an exquisite nouvelle cuisine meal. ''We have to chase the enemy away.''

But fast food has not yet driven the small family-run bistro out of business.

Madame Germaine has been running a hole-in-the-wall in Paris's fashionable seventh arrondissement (district). Workmen and company presidents eat at the same table and for about $5 enjoy a solid, three-course meal.

''I haven't changed one thing in all these years,'' the motherly Madame Germaine says. ''The same people come, the same people work for me, and I make the same food - good food.''

As Madame Germaine testifies, in modernizing, the French have refused to take on projects that would mortally threaten their cherished good life.

To the Frenchman, the good life has several meanings. It means adequate vacations. It means a two-hour lunch if the mood strikes. Or it means working hard during the week and grabbing a bite at McDonald's to preserve his weekend with his family in the country, enjoying good food and drink.

This attitude may seem provincial to an outsider. But to the Frenchman, modernity at the expense of the good life could never be considered progress.

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