Bastille Day, 1988: France at peace with itself

ONE year in advance of the 200th anniversary of the bloody French Revolution, Bastille Day, 1988, finds France paradoxically at peace with itself. Last month's parliamentary elections, which left the French National Assembly almost precisely balanced between left and right, confirmed the political maturity of a nation skeptical of ideological adventures. In fact, today, perhaps more than at any time in modern French history, the old demons of division - religious, economic, political - seem to have been exorcised from the French body politic.

In the sort of historical irony that the French relish, President Fran,cois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the quintessential leftist, has managed to transform himself into a benevolent, almost apolitical father figure. If he is not quite Charles de Gaulle, Mr. Mitterrand has still come a long way from the opportunist of the 1950s or the bitter opposition leader of the 1960s. His recent campaign reelection portrait, bathed in soft blue light with the legend ``United France,'' spoke volumes about both the man and the nation over which he presides.

When Mitterrand takes the salute in the traditional military parade down the Champs 'Elys'ees, some wags will recall his pointed attacks on Gaullist defense spending two decades ago. But once in power, Mitterrand was swept along by the French defense consensus, telling the public, ``Nuclear dissuasion, it's me!'' in the same manner Louis XIV said, ``The state, it's me!'' In any event, French pacifists - an exotic species - are not much in evidence either left or right of the political spectrum.

This is a demonstration not only of Gallic consensus politics, but also a comfort for American defense planners, so long critical of prickly French independence vis-`a-vis NATO. At the level of popular opinion, the trendy anti-Americanism of the 1960s has become distinctly d'emod'e, and the generally good opinion of the United States held by the French public contrasts sharply with America's declining image in Britain and West Germany.

What is most striking, though, about French public opinion in 1988 is that national unity extends not only to foreign and defense policy, but also to economic matters. Fierce rhetoric aside, there is relatively little beyond traditional symbolism that divides Mitterrand's Socialists from the opposition neo-Gaullist/centrist alliance. Both left and right recognize that France's room for economic maneuver is limited, a point confirmed in 1981-83, when Mitterrand's first Cabinet made a dash for growth while the rest of Europe was retrenching. The result was an economy that sucked in imports as France's trading competitiveness declined.

Now, by contrast, the Socialist government is led by Premier Michel Rocard, who believes traditional state socialism to be a disastrous option, and by a finance minister, Pierre B'er'egovoy, who began the liberalization of French financial markets in 1985. The universal obsession of the political elite is 1992, when French firms will have to compete on the national territory on equal terms with the 11 other European Community members.

But if France's uneasy marriage with its neighbors looms in the distance, there remains a deep nostalgia for the Gaullist days, when Paris assumed a larger role on the world stage. When Mitterrand recently announced that France was forgiving one-third of the debt owed it by the poorest nations, it was a reminder of Paris's continued preeminent role in Africa. The Quai d'Orsay's adept and unchanging diplomacy - contrasting sometimes with the US foreign policy establishment's stop-go policies - ensures that this Gallic role will continue to be rather greater than simply that of a medium-size European country.

Indeed, the central issue facing the new French government is the same as that which will dominate Washington next January: how to maximize world influence at a time when real political and economic power is becoming more and more diffuse.

Just as Americans worry about the competitiveness not only of Japan, but newer industrial powers such as South Korea, the French, too, suddenly find themselves competing for contracts with new industrial powers such as Israel and Brazil.

Americans consumed by introspection over whether the US is ``declining'' as a world power would be struck by the similarity of French worries. As France is a much older country, most people here recognize that this bout of pessimism, too, will pass. Only a decade ago, for instance, both French and Americans tended to see Britain in a state of perhaps irreversible economic decline. Today, many on both sides of the Atlantic have been surprised and heartened by the reversal of Britain's economic fortunes.

But if such an economic revival is not yet manifest here, in this land of 11 percent unemployment, the French remain confident. Bastille Day is a time for remembering where France has been - through world wars that left 2 million dead, for instance - and that if the future is not entirely colored in the Socialist Party's rose, it nevertheless looks a lot better than in 1940, or even in 1958.

In the late 1950s, one read in a child's textbook that the French were not so wealthy as Americans, but that ``France is rich in the love of the French for their country.'' Years later, this love does not seem to have diminished, and it remains a more powerful weapon than all the military might on parade.

Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American free-lance writer.

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