WALKING away from the afternoon train that had just brought me from Brussels to Paris, my thoughts were vaguely focused on getting to the subway and home when suddenly someone blocked my path and thrust a leather-framed identification card in my face.
Caught short by the intrusion, I at first assumed the woman in front of me was looking for change for some charity. I blurted a ``Not today,'' and tried to move on. At that the woman grabbed my arm and called to some nearby colleagues, one of whom came running over, walkie-talkie in hand.
``What is this?'' I demanded, although I had come to realize full well what was happening: The two plain-clothed officers now flanking me - a kind of Mod Squad a deux, the woman in stylish casual wear and her black male colleague in jeans and denim shirt -
were with the customs police. They were charged with safeguarding France from an onslaught of foreigners and things foreign, and I was the suspect of the moment.
I was ordered back on the train, where my bags were searched and my identity questioned. The episode lasted perhaps 10 minutes, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Something sad and disquieting is happening to the France that I, as a foreigner at home here, have come to love.
A country that for so long has projected to the world with confidence and style ``a certain idea of itself,'' to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle - and has done so to a degree out of proportion to its relative international weight - is slipping ingloriously into an introverted and xenophobic retreat from the world.
Signs of this rejection of the foreign and retrenchment to the comfortably local and familiar - what the far-right National Front calls ``national preference'' - can be seen at many levels:
r New laws based on a desire, stated by the government, to achieve ``zero immigration.''
r Attempts to restrict France's historic vocation as a refuge for the politically oppressed.
r A souring of the French toward Europe.
r And a diabolizing by the government of on-going international trade liberalization negotiations, known and jeered by average French simply as ``GATT'' (for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the international body directing the talks).
French farmers attack trucks bringing produce and meat products from Spain or Denmark, even though France itself is the world's second-largest exporter of agriculture products, and 70 percent of France's farm exports go to the European Community. Indeed, in the unending row over farm trade liberalization, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe tells his European colleagues that, ``Between a European crisis and a French crisis, I prefer a European crisis.''
Polls show that the French would now solidly reject the EC's Maastricht Treaty for closer European Union - an evolution some analysts say was encouraged by the government. ``By pulling deliberately on old jingoistic strings, the government undoubtedly is flattering public opinion,'' says Le Monde political editor Jean-Marie Colombani, ``but at the same time it encourages and develops an anti-European attitude.''
Interior Minister Charles Pasqua has whipped up fears of a flooding wave of immigrants and refugees, thus winning solid support for his antiforeigner laws, even though statistics show that immigration is down, as is the number of asylum seekers. Refugees from the former Yugoslavia never have poured into France -
in part, French officials will tell you, because France does not have the reputation of a welcoming destination.
Now a sainted alliance of the government, filmmakers, actors, and television executives has formed to protect France from yet another foreign menace: American movies and television. The French have a point: American movies already cover 60 percent of the movie market, and anyone who has lived here can see the effect this has on language, fashion, and even eating habits. But that point is lost when actor Gerard Depardieu calls American movie-making ``warfare'' but the French industry ``culture,'' or when voices are raised to solve the problem by heavily taxing satellite dishes, or - as the identity-traumatized Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria would do - banning them altogether.
``I am troubled, I admit, by the conjunction in a few months, under the free-market tutelage of laws [backed by Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur] that close out and systems of protection against whatever comes to us from outside, men or goods, films or satellites; by the inflation of limits, quotas, exception clauses, conditions for entry,'' wrote filmmaker Jean-Louis Comolli in the Paris daily Liberation recently, ``as if our only desire were to remain by ourselves, among the French.''
BACK on the train, my briefcase and luggage thoroughly rifled, the atmosphere strangely relaxed when I mumbled that ``the agents of Monsieur Pasqua should have better things to do than to harass foreigners.'' The woman officer insisted they were not targeting foreigners (the new law says they cannot). But the platform of an international train is a good place to find them.
I wanted to say that I think France has better things to do: There is a reason it is the world's fourth-largest exporter, why its cheeses and perfumes and silks, yes, but also its fast trains and airliners and satellite launchers, are known and purchased around the world. It has nothing to do with closing out and retreating from whatever is foreign.
That night at home, we watched a television broadcast of Louis Malle's ``Au revoir les enfants,'' the warm but inevitably tragic tale of a Catholic boys school that tries to protect clandestine Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of France.
In one scene a local French policeman, checking identifications in a village restaurant, orders an elderly ``Mr. Meyer'' to leave, reminding him that the restaurant is off limits to Jews. The other patrons respond angrily to the scene, one even telling the officer he does not have the right. But above the commotion one woman commends the policeman's actions, and suggests Mr. Meyer go back where he came from.
I wondered if that is the voice France wants speaking for it today.