PARIS -- French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's brief visit to Washington at the end of the week was preceded by the usual flurry of complacent and condescending American appreciations of France's backwardness and of the bad character of the French.
This kind of thing has been the thin gruel of American and British appraisals of France since the time of Napoleon, when British mothers warned their children that if they misbehaved, "Boney" would get them. It is interesting chiefly for the persistence of national stereotypes in the popular imaginations of nations.
Stereotypes can also be symbiotic. Pessimism and dismay about the nation is considered in France evidence of intellectual seriousness, in contrast to the vulgar national boasting thought characteristic of Americans.
The novelist Albert Camus wrote about the French capacity for loathing political opponents to the point of favoring the foreigner. This was true of the Stalinist left in the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years the French right has been eager to tell foreign reporters how dreadful successive Socialist governments have been, and how awful their policies. This is faithfully relayed back to France by American newsmagazines and British Sunday papers.
The current Anglo-American indictment accuses France of instigating a wider European effort to resist the globalized capitalist order, assumed by current American and British economic ideology to express the laws of nature. Everyone in the end will have to conform, it is said.
This is the latest version of fruitless controversies that have gone on for years. For a half-century Americans have rebuked France for anti-American neutralism or vainglorious Gaullism. Western Europe as a whole has in the last 30 years been accused by Washington of Eurocommunism, "Eurosclerosis," and Europessimism, all of them supposedly degenerative conditions resulting from an unwillingness to adapt economically. Every one of these baleful diagnoses of Europe has proven to be wrong.
Along the way there was also Fortress Europe, the perceived threat that the European Community would put up a wall of protectionism against America's free economy. This would also doom the continent to decline, it is said, but would nonetheless ++ cause a lot of nuisance to the United States. This scenario is reemerging in connection with Europe's adoption of a single currency, the euro.
The United States in 1945 was on top of the world. Europe was in ruins. France in 1945 was a predominantly agricultural country, its industry mostly wrecked. Will Clayton of the State Department toured Europe during the winter of 1945 and briefed Washington that damage was much worse than had been reported, with widespread hunger and a threat of revolutionary political disorder, especially in France. That was the genesis of the Marshall Plan.
A half-century later, the fifteen members of the European Union have an aggregate gross domestic product 20 percent larger than that of the United States ($8.577.3 billion, compared with $6,954.8 billion). GDP growth for the EU between 1985 and 1995 was higher than for the United States, and after several stagnant years is once again picking up, with unemployment beginning to fall in the continental economies.
According to the latest available OECD figures, France's gross domestic product now is second in Europe, and nearly a quarter that of the United States, in a population only a fifth as large as the United States'. France is the fourth-ranking world economy, the third-ranking in inward investment (the United States invests more in France than in any other country). It is the fourth-ranking world trading power, with a trade surplus equivalent to more than one percent of GNP, compared with America's persisting trade deficits. Europe and France must have been doing some things right.
France also is second to the United States in commercial and military aircraft production, aerospace, and the production of nuclear energy, and is considered (on obviously non-objective criteria, but few are likely to argue) the leading country in Europe for "quality of life."
The challenge France (and Germany) currently make to American economic doctrine is ethical and political in origin, arguing that maximizing profits is not the purpose of existence, even economic existence. Since this was a belief also held by many "Anglo-Saxon" economists as recently as 30 or 40 years ago, it is not wholly bizarre.
Another Harvard professor, Joseph Weiler, in a recent interview offered a different American opinion of France. He congratulated it for having invented and led the unification of Europe, a freely chosen integration of autonomous nations, "an experiment without precedent in the history of ideas." He said that this has produced a political construction of a kind which the world has never before known.
He compared the accomplishment with the creation of the Roman Empire -- only better, because peaceful.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 6/22/98