THE TWO FACES OF FRANCE:In trade, culture, and outlook, it wonders:Embrace the world or shut it out?
PARIS — 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.
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.
Even Culture Minister Jacques Toubon's French First (read: anti-English) law, adopted this year, strikes many as reflecting a bunker mentality. The law seeks - with the threat of heavy fines - to weed out such Anglicisms as ``cheeseburger'' from print, the airwaves, and advertising, and to curtail the use of English in international conferences here.
``It's a stupid, defensive law,'' says Alain Costes, director of the internationally renowned LAAS microelectronic and robotics research laboratory in Toulouse, ``and whenever you become defensive, you are already the loser.'' Worried that the law will make France less attractive as a host country for the international conferences that help keep his business in the vanguard of high-tech research, Mr. Costes says, ``I simply won't adhere to this law.''
He's not alone.
A company manager for Car Rental is asked if his company's name will change to respect the new law: ``France is finished,'' he quips. ``We now live in Europe - though some people don't seem to know it.''
Yet despite the picture of an increasingly protectionist France, another France, rich in what sociologist Michel Crozier calls ``considerable advantages in a post-industrial era favoring human resources, conceptual capacities, and a spirit of research and innovation,'' is flourishing.
This is the France where production per worker outstrips Germany, Japan, and Britain; where foreign investment remains high despite an unsure international economic picture; where products as well-known as the TGV ultrafast railroad and some of the world's best software continue to draw international envy.
Toulouse, a southwestern city targeted in the 1960s to become a high-tech center, is an example of this progressive, future-oriented France.
At the Toulouse plant of Aerospatiale - the French partner in the European Airbus consortium - new A330 and A340 planes are assembled in a cavernous assembly hangar where the human presence seems curiously sparse. Robots work in a circle around a new plane's fuselage, quietly piercing the metal frame and attaching thousands of rivets. Aerospatiale has abandoned the traditional assembly line for a ``workshop'' approach that calls on workers, parts, and machines to move around as needed, and not the aircraft.
``This facilitates the kind of customizing today's clients want,'' says Dominique Berger, Aerospatiale's deputy technical director.
French aviation had its ``cultural revolution'' two decades ago, Mr. Berger says, when it embraced the imperatives of the international marketplace. Now Toulouse has also broken free of the traditional image of the French provincial city to embrace the world.
``Here, we are in Europe,'' Berger says, gesturing beyond the aeronautics plant to the city beyond. ``We started building Europe before others were thinking about it.'' He emphasizes that Airbus is an alliance of aviation companies, not of governments - an innovation for the traditionally state-oriented French, but a key to the consortium's success.
International companies - some as well known as Motorola, others as little known as Storagetek (a Colorado-based world leader in information storage and retrieval systems) - continue to set up R&D units in Toulouse.
``When Storagetek saw what our researchers were coming up with, they forgot their interest in places in Germany or [Britain],'' says Alain Ayache, a professor at Toulouse's ENSEEIGHT engineering school. (ENSEEIGHT developed the world's smallest camera, an understandable attraction for a data-storage company.)
Hopes and fears for future
Despite the city's success, Mayor Dominique Baudis - who led the French center-right in recent European Parliament elections - says his city is subject to the same mix of hopes and fears for the future as the rest of France.
The vote on the European Union's Maastricht Treaty in September 1992 ``showed us that indeed there are two Frances,'' Mayor Baudis says, ``one made up of those who are confident in the country's future, and those who aren't - who are afraid of the future, afraid of change, afraid of competition.''
A certain France, shaken by economic and geopolitical changes in the world, ``tells itself, `If we circle the wagons we'll be able to save ourselves,' '' he says.
But Baudis doesn't see the fearful France growing appreciably. He says France's need - and indeed the key to determining which France ultimately carries the day - is to modernize the democratic process that gives citizens the information they need to understand national challenges, make informed decisions, and develop confidence in the country's advantages.
Among these advantages, Baudis says, are a well-educated population, strong research institutions, and well-developed traditional and organizational infrastructures.
But, he adds, ``After decades of talk and projects, France remains too centralized.'' That centralization stymies citizens' involvement in their own affairs, and encourages the centuries-old tendency to depend on the very central government from which one seeks to break free.
``France is suffering a crisis in its political structures,'' Foucher says, one that is even deeper than the political crises of such neighbors as Germany.
An older, rural, traditional France ``that no longer exists'' is better represented in many institutions than its younger, working, urban equivalent, he says. ``This leaves the country exposed to the the kind of social turmoil we're already experiencing.''Mr. Crozier agrees. Well-known for his work chronicling the blocages (strikes) in France in 1970, Crozier says that while French society today is ``tremendously modernized, much more open'' than it was 25 years ago, the country's political and administrative structures have not evolved to serve a very different France.
``What is broken in France is the state,'' he says - a devastating conclusion in a country where the state has been a central element of national identity for centuries.
Crozier cites the case of Air France, the once-proud flagship of national public administration. He notes that an initial rescue plan, presented in traditional French fashion of top-down imposition, led to a catastrophic strike and the plan's withdrawal - along with the firing of Air France's president.
But a second rescue plan, even more severe than the first, was accepted in a referendum earlier this year by 80 percent of the employees. ``The difference was the way it was generated and the way it was presented,'' says Crozier, whose consulting firm, SMG, was contracted by Air France to help develop employee involvement in decisionmaking.
Perhaps most noticeable for lower-echelon employees especially is a drastic reduction in the number of administrative levels in the company: from a staggering 21 to seven.
Priority on jobs
Perhaps the best indicator of what will come out of the country's current malaise will be how the French address their staggering problem of nearly 13 percent unemployment.
``The truth is that France has never made the jobs battle its No.-1 priority,'' Baudis says. The reason is that the vast majority benefits from a nearly unequaled system of social protection that -
along with a marvelous cuisine and varied, temperate natural beauty - has made France synonymous with good living.
The global economy has changed. Will a French majority arguably more coddled and comfortable than any in the world's history make the sacrifices necessary to allow more of their countrymen - especially youths - to work?
Baudis is sanguine about the prospects. ``The advantages of the system were developed for those with a job, and they [job-holders] expect it to stay that way,'' he says. He recalls how he recently tried to adjust municipal pay raises to help create jobs for local youths. City employees refused.
One necessity will be a rebuilding of trust between the French and their leaders, he says, adding that the process probably can't begin until after the country's presidential elections next spring.
Others observers say the French will be ready to make the necessary sacrifices if the reasons are explained - and if those sacrifices are equitably shared.
``People sense that the acquired benefits of our system are threatened, and they're right,'' says Nicole Belaud, a marketing professor in Toulouse.
Pointing to the country's operation in Rwanda, she says a commitment to what the average French see as ``universal values'' made intervention a ``humanitarian imperative.''
The same kind of priority on values like social equality can work to address the unemployment problem, she says, so long as leaders get beyond ``managing'' a frightened society to explaining, working with people, and acting with courage.
Finessing that expanded sense of values just might indicate that France - despite the global changes that have shaken it up and set its right hand battling its left - is still the France of ``The Rights of Man.''