- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

(Editor’s note: France is a key player in international politics and business, but it also has a long history of setting itself apart from the rest of the world. AP correspondent Joseph Coleman recorded some of his impressions of the “French paradox” after an 18-month assignment in Paris.)

COMINES, France — This northern corner of France is deep in the global melting pot.

The town of Comines is split by the border between France and Belgium, but it’s not much of a division: Townspeople freely cross an iron-girdered bridge over the river La Lys to shop, worship and party. Three bus lines carry commuters back and forth across the frontier.

“Before, it was French country on one side and Belgian country on the other,” said Dominique Allart, the owner of Au Chat, a bar on the Belgian side. “Now, it’s a border that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Comines has seen enough of Europe’s troubled history: It was split by the border in a 1713 treaty that ended one phase of Europe’s wars, and lies near the bloody battlefields of another — World War I. But now the border posts are gone, and the town stands as a symbol of a new France that is slowly blending into a greater Europe.

Except on Sundays, when stores are shut on the French side.

In decentralized Belgium, towns such as Comines make their own rules. In heavily centralized France, the shopping laws are made in Paris. It may seem a mundane example of the French doing it their own way, but it’s the kind of thing that matters more and more as the European Union moves to merge its member states under a single constitution, and France comes under increasing pressure to conform.

The result, for France, is a paradox of colliding impulses that I’ve been able to witness firsthand during 18 months on assignment here — a monumental tug of war between old France and the new European Union, the diplomatic battles between France and longtime ally the United States, the warm handshake of a nation eager to assimilate the outside world, and the cold shoulder of its dismissal of foreign ways.

In a world increasingly ruled by markets, French workers still protect their generous benefits with constant strikes and little protest from the public. In an increasingly borderless, multilingual world, foreign applicants for residency permits must display their command of basic French in an interview at the Interior Ministry.

More than 50 years have passed since two Frenchmen — Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet — created the six-nation European Coal and Steel Community and set in motion a union that will soon number 25 countries.

The new France is linked by rail tunnel to England, the baguette of French bread has become a worldwide fast food, and the region around Comines — like other border areas — is caught up in a push for firmer cross-frontier links on everything from joint schools and job training to urban zoning.

But France’s welcome to the outer world is rife with uncertainty and contradiction, and the country is still just as much defined by the shuttered Sunday storefronts of Comines as by the wide-open bridge to Belgium.

“We have nothing against Americans,” insisted Marie-Claire Labbe, a cafe owner in Evian, where the industrial powers held their annual summit last June. To make her point, she and some co-workers showed me a display of flags of participating nations, taking out the Stars and Stripes and giving it a little wave.

“People think we’re anti-American, that we don’t drink Coke,” Mrs. Labbe complained, pointing to the soda machine that did, in fact, serve Coke. Then, displaying how many French sound anti-American, she added: “It’s like the United States is trying to tell the rest of the world what to do.”

If any single international relationship illustrates France’s paradoxical position in the world, it’s the one with the United States — especially in the year America went to war in Iraq despite France’s strenuous objections.

For an American arriving here and expecting the French to be dismissive of cultural imports from across the Atlantic, turning on the television was an eye-opener: “Ally McBeal” dubbed in perfect French; the American sitcom “Friends” with legions of devoted fans.

Yankees are tolerated, not just on television. In a gracious, heartfelt gesture in 2002, Paris and its fire department hosted the families of New York firefighters who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks; they were given guided tours and front-row seats at the Bastille Day parade.

More than at any other time in its history, France is permeated by the outside world. Crowds pack the McDonald’s — “Mac-Doe” in French slang — on the Champs Elysees, one of its 900-plus outlets in France. Nearby is the Disney Store. Starbucks just opened its first coffee shop in Paris.

Even the English language, so often resisted as a “cultural invasion,” is gaining acceptance. Time and again, confronted with my mangled French, people would defy stereotypes by offering to switch to English.

At the same time, the French work hard to maintain cultural and diplomatic pre-eminence. They hold the annual Cannes Film Festival to pass judgment on the world’s movies (the American film “Elephant” took top honors last year). As a former colonial power in Asia, Africa and the Americas, France hosts a biannual summit of French-speaking countries.

France claims intellectual authorship of the European Union — a former French president heads the drafting of a European constitution — and is a vocal booster of a European military. France has troops in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan.

The nation of 60 million has a long tradition of political asylum. It has the European Union’s largest Muslim population and was home to 3.27 million foreigners in 2000, second only to Germany, according to official EU figures. Many of its companies have been sold off to foreigners, and France is one of the world’s largest host countries for foreign direct investment. It is among the world’s top five economies and one of its top investors.

Yet in many ways, even as it races to embrace the outside world, France often behaves as though threatened by it.

Take the national debate about whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear head scarves to school. While Americans might see it as a civil liberties issue, many French sense a mortal threat to their prized separation of church and state. Girls have been expelled from schools, and pending legislation would ban religious symbols in public buildings.

Coupled with these fears is the knowledge that “Les trente glorieuses” — the 30 years of unparalleled economic growth after World War II — have been followed by a much more subdued era of high unemployment: 9.7 percent in October and rising. The budget deficit hovers around 4 percent of gross domestic product, a whole percentage point above the EU limit.

France, like most of its European partners, is discovering that low birthrates threaten to leave it without enough taxpayers to finance its lavish welfare programs. The land of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” was stunned in 2002 by the gains of the anti-immigrant nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential election. Last year’s best-seller lists were dominated by leading intellectuals writing of a France in long-term decline.

While economies worldwide are growing leaner and more competitive, France’s national health system, cozy pensions, 35-hour work week and monthlong vacation maintain a culture where lives are not defined by work.

So it seems natural to many French to fight to keep what they’ve got. And fight they do, going on strike with clockwork regularity: teachers, transport workers, public employees, stagehands, archaeologists.

Because of strikes, my physical exam to qualify for residency was canceled twice and I didn’t get my permit until I was about to leave France. And that’s nothing compared with what the unwieldy bureaucracy did to others during last summer’s heat wave, which killed some 15,000 people, according to official figures. Much of the blame fell on poorly coordinated health services and the absence of many doctors on vacation.

None of this means France is about to switch to untrammeled capitalism. There remains a widespread conviction here that for all its faults, the French way is preferable to being sold to the highest bidder in a market-driven world.

At bottom, France’s quandary is the same as that of many countries: How to retain a cultural and political identity in a world increasingly permeated with what the French would call “Anglo-Saxon” systems of governance and economics.

The French have managed with considerable success — so far — to play both games, to join in the global economic competition, and at the same time to stave off influences that would radically change its landscape.

This is an industrial power with mom-and-pop stores and a Soviet-style bureaucracy; a champion of European integration that rebuffs EU rules to keep its tiny, inefficient farms in business; a fiercely secular state that keeps the stores closed on Sunday.

But there’s a price: France’s rule-breaking preserves cherished old ways but has alienated some EU partners. Its Iraq stance raised its diplomatic profile, but divided Europe. Strong unions have fended off some harsher business practices, but regular strikes hinder the economy and make French life creak rather than hum.

Still, those problems have not obscured the graces of French life.

France is not a place to rush through — and the French don’t. Cashiers in crowded markets take time to chat with shoppers, while the others in line wait patiently. Diners unhurriedly converse, even if the waiter takes an eternity to get them a menu.

Eventually, you learn the French art of slowing down and savoring the moment. I’ll always remember the morning I heard a woman behind me on the No. 9 subway speaking the most melodious French I’d ever heard. For the first time, I felt how every inflection was just right, the pauses and rhythms worthy of a poet.

No wonder so many generations of artists, writers and thinkers have drawn inspiration from France and its people.

“You can’t escape the past in Paris,” American poet Allen Ginsberg once said, “and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.”

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