THE TWO FACES OF FRANCE:In trade, culture, and outlook, it wonders:Embrace the world or shut it out?
AT about the same time last month that France bucked world apathy toward Rwanda's horror by announcing it would mount a ``humanitarian intervention'' into the central African country, French refugee authorities turned down a Rwandan Tutsi woman's request for asylum, and Paris police ordered her out of the country.Skip to next paragraph
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The first event received substantial international attention, while the second was hardly noticed even here. What makes the two events so striking when viewed together is how each one symbolizes the state of France - or, rather, of a particular France. For in the post-Soviet, post-Berlin-Wall, and post-industrial world of 1994, there are two Frances battling to determine where the country heads as it approaches the 21st century.
One France remains open to the world and more prepared than most countries to intervene in international crises.
This is also the France that sees its position as the world's fourth-largest exporter, that takes account of the tremendous economic strides it has made over the past decade - while under Socialist rule - and is determined to face the stiff challenges of a rebalanced international economy.
Another France looks at the world of post-cold-war instability and a changing Europe led by a larger and more consequential Germany, and responds by closing in on itself, by seeking to hold the world at bay and protect what it considers a threatened identity. It sees an emerging global economy where French workers, accustomed to generous health, vacation, and retirement benefits, face job insecurity. This France pleads for the status quo.
To illustrate how strongly recent changes in Europe and fears of an enlarged Germany have rattled France, Michel Foucher, director of the European Geopolitical Observatory in Lyon, likes to cite a fictitious headline from November 1989: ``Berlin Wall falls; one death: France.''
``We can see two Frances in every essential aspect of the country's life,'' says Mr. Foucher, a specialist in Europe's evolution, ``from the domestic political scene and the economy to foreign affairs and the geopolitical dimension. In each case there is an open, outward-oriented France and a defensive France responding to mounting fears by turning inward and closing up.''
Despite its virtually single-handed intervention in Rwanda, what has stood out most dramatically about France in the '90s is its growing unease with the world. Stupefied foreigners have watched as French farmers - the biggest farm-product exporters in the world after the United States - battled police and dumped foreign produce by the bushel to protest global farm-trade liberalization.
Following close behind the farmers, students called strikes, filled city boulevards - and sometimes saw their movement degenerate into bloody confrontations with police - until a proposal to lower the minimum wage was scuttled. The move had been intended to create more jobs for youths.
Never mind that France suffers one of the industrialized world's worst youth unemployment rates (25 percent for those without higher education or qualifications), the reflex even among some youths was to reject change. Before them were striking Air France workers, whose financially troubled, nationalized airline faces extinction even before the government has a chance to privatize it; fishermen, who clashed violently early this year with agents of the same government from which they had sought protection from imported fish; and even the country's elite film industry, which battled to keep out Hollywood.
The French film industry may have won temporary haven from the American steamroller with a ``cultural exception'' to audiovisual free trade, but many observers say it will be a Pyrrhic victory once cable and satellite communications make national barriers meaningless.
Signs have grown that the government as well has succumbed to a defensive protection from the outside world. Since conservatives took the reins of power under Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in May 1993, lawmakers have approved a set of laws that in effect targets foreigners as a threat to the country's security and economic well-being.
The tone of the laws, inspired by law-and-order Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, has washed over local authorities and made for an antiforeigner tone: Mixed-nationality marriages are suspect, and many accounts have surfaced of couples forcibly separated when one spouse is ordered to leave the country.
French children of mixed-nationality parentage have been refused access to some public schools. Newspapers have chronicled a new, rougher treatment for foreign youths, mostly African or Arab, at the hands of police.