THE French have a reputation for placing themselves at the center of the universe, even at times when they are most conspicuously on the sidelines.
That's why it's all the more curious that the opposite is happening at a time when France has a legitimate claim to sitting at the center of the world - or at least a certain vision of it.
For 10 days France is playing host to a medium that interprets our world from behind the camera's eye, and, more each year it seems, influences how we respond to it. The medium is the cinema; the event is the Cannes Film Festival.
With a mammoth national library under construction along the banks of the Seine, the already enormous Louvre national museum undergoing an astonishing expansion, and the government staunchly behind a gestating European response to the US-based Cable News Network, France might be expected to play in big colors its claim as international cultural capital during the world's best-known film festival.
Yet the French, despite a flurry of interest in the festival's premiere, are now wrapped up in domestic events: from the aftermath of last week's tragic collapse of a soccer stadium's temporary grandstand in Bastia, Corsica, to the parliamentary debate over national sovereignty and European integration.
What makes Cannes worth noting is not so much the parade of stars and would-be stars, the endless dining and dealmaking, or the hotel suites that cost more per night than the poor in developing countries see in years. The importance of Cannes derives more from the growing influence of the camera: be it a lightweight, hand-held video recorder or the cinematographer's boom-mounted model.
Through the growing pervasiveness of the lens, we have witnessed the delirium of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ignominy of the end of Romania's Ceausescus, the destruction of Croatian villages, and the summary executions of Bosnian Muslims.
Most ironic, and perhaps most troubling for the dreammakers of Cannes, we watched as flames engulfed Hollywood's own backyard in the aftermath of an event captured on videotape.
In this setting, the world as seen from Cannes takes on more importance than that deserved by a festival of mere entertainment. The "global" vision presented this year is one in which much of the world seems not to count, and where the part that remains looks increasingly violent.
It is a world dominated by America - America the violent - and where the developing world is almost absent.
"The 45th festival will be violent," shouted the kicker on the front page of Paris's daily Liberation, over the boldface headline: "Cannes: the American fist." Those words referred not just to the overarching theme of the American movies present - the festival opened with the bloody "Basic Instinct" - but to the fact that out of 21 movies, one-third are American.
With only one film from Africa, two from South America, and none from Asia (not even India or Japan), one critic for Le Monde called the competition a "strange Yalta" with "on one side America and its demons, on the other Europe and its ghosts."
Unlike the talks at Yalta, however, the films at Cannes do not proceed from a vision of global security.
At a press conference titled "Sarajevo-Los Angeles, enough!" called by American director Spike Lee and Bosnian director Emir Kusturica (now working in the United States), Mali's Souleymane Cisse noted: "That such events, that such interethnic struggles take place in Europe and the US continues to surprise Africans. We ... thought these were pure specialties of our continent."