Editors' note: In an effort to encourage internationalization in the MUS and higher education generally, we are pleased to publish this address by the French Ambassador. Even if american perceptions of the events he discusses differ from his, the address should give us pause to reflect on our own interpretations of the various stages of our history. We hope to include in future issues speeches or essays by representatives of other nations.
All Nations are special, and each one of them tends to believe that it is more special than the others. The French certainly think that the French Nation is most exceptional.
Very deep in our hearts lies the feeling that we are, in some way, quite different, but also that, as a Nation, we bring others a contribution which is of value to them, and indeed of value to the whole universe.
We are not the only ones in the world to praise ourselves in such a way. Many other peoples think they are special and that they bear a message of universal value.
The Americans for their part are convinced that the aim of their Nation is to sustain certain fundamental values, which are right, not only for them, but for all the Nations. And when they are engaged in a great fight like the forty-five year-long dispute with Communism, they believe that their camp is the camp of Good, and the opposing camp the camp of Evil.
We feel a bit the same way. Fortunately, when there is a big fight, we are always in the same camp. So you and we can agree that it is the camp of good.
What are the reasons that make the French feel different? The first reason is very simple: France is a very old Nation. Of course, not as old as China Japan, Iran or Egypt. But certainly the oldest in Europe, the oldest among the countries of the West. A nation started to exist more than a thousand years ago in the space which corresponds approximately to the present borders of our country. This nation was made up by Celtic people, the Gauls, transformed by the Roman colonization, and a number of elements of German origin.
A popular symbol of the French is this famous character of our comics, Astérix, who, with his friends in a small Gaul village, are the last not to have surrendered to the Roman occupants, and who display an indomitable capacity to resist. This amusing and congenial character is a popular transcription of Vercingetorix, who led the fight against Caesar. But the fierce and inspired warrior who stands for the defense of France against the invader, often in circumstances in which the regular authorities of the land have given up, and who is able to mobilize the remaining energies of the Nation because he or she has a profound spiritual contact with the French people, is a recurrent figure in French history: it is Jeanne d'Arc, who drives out the British during the One Hundred Years War, it is De Gaulle, who holds high the fallen sword of France after the defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940.
France is a country of very small villages. When you look at the names of many of these villages and when you study their history, you see that they have continued, without interruption, for two thousand years, at the exact place where there used to be a Roman villa or farm. Some of the vineyards or the orchards in the southern part of France have been constantly cultivated since that time.
The main defining element of the French Nation is the link with the soil. In a sense, you can use this as a definition of the French: he is French who lives in a French village.
In the past, the French used to consider the land as the true wealth. A man would live on a piece of land, and, if he had to leave it, he would come back to it, possibly toward the end of his life. This is why the French did not use to establish themselves abroad much. Quite less than the British, the Germans or the Italians. When they went away, to the colonies, very frequently, they liked to find, there too, a piece of land to cultivate. French colonials were more often settlers than tradesmen.
The traditional French model was a model inspired by the notion of balance. No excesses in any way. Industrial development was not rejected, of course, but there was no great desire to let it go to the point at which it would call into question the rural basis of French Society. The idea of a certain proportion between industrial employment and agricultural employment, between rural life and life in the big cities, was generally accepted.
France is not limited by natural borders. Often the Kings have tried to extend their territory to the Rhine, so as to be better protected against invasion from Germany. But they never succeeded in a durable way. On the other hand, they tried at various moments of history to set foot in Italy, which is, obviously, located beyond any natural borders the French could reasonably dream of. In fact, the territory of France extended to all the places where the policy of its Kings could push it without jeopardizing their project of organizing this territory into a unified space and the inhabitants into a cohesive group.
The French Nation has nothing to do with ethnic characteristics. There is no such thing as a French race. From the start, we are a mix of Celts, Germans and Romans. The language itself is a mix of Latin and German with a predominance of Latin, with some elements coming from the Celts.
Being French has a lot to do with the French language. The space which we call France today was not homogenous. It took the work of many centuries to unify it, and one of the most important aspects of that work was to develop the use of the French language at the expense of the regional tongues, as, for example, in Britanny The idea is that all French must speak French.
Making France a unified and homogenous country was a constant effort, pursued by the central Government. The Kings first, for a short period Napoleon, and finally the Republic, sought to create throughout France a single space, not only from the point of view of language, but also legally, culturally, economically, politically, trying to curb the regional powers, the particular traditions and institutions of the Provinces. In this history, the Revolution of 1789 was a crucial step. France has been made by the Kings. Its birth, its development, owe nothing to the ideas of democracy. But the monarchy, with its remnants of feudalism, was unable to carry on the unifying effort beyond a certain point. The Revolution set forth the principle of self-determination and the idea of the Sovereignty of the People, establishing the ideological basis from which the French could go on with the creation of a centralized national State.
So, long before the American melting pot, there was at work a French melting pot transforming the peoples of the various provinces, which used to speak each its own language, into French people. But our melting pot as yours, did also transform immigrants into French. More than one third of our population are descendants of immigrants of first, second or third generation. The XIXth century saw many people from Eastern Europe, including a number of Jews, come to France for safety and a better life. After that came the Italians, the Portuguese. Before and after the Second World War came the Arabs from North Africa and the Africans. The population of France at the present time includes 1.5 million people of North African origin, who came to France after their birth and who became French citizens. In a population of 56 million, there are 3.6 million foreigners, among which almost one half is African or North African. This does not include illegal Immigration.
The functioning of the "melting pot" is more difficult now, under these circumstances, than it was before, and numerous problems have to be solved in order to assimilate the newcomers without hurting their feelings and their sense of identity. But it still works.
It is because being French has nothing to do with any ethnic characteristics that the French consider that the ideals that they adopt as their own guidelines are valid for the other peoples.
As the Americans happen to think also that their values and ideals are valid for the whole world, you have there one of the sources of the recurring misunderstandings between you and us. Indeed nobody is more convinced than the French of the universal character of their ideas. They think that they can teach these ideas to the other Nations, and that, if they can do it, they should do it. As Victor Hugo has put it, "the French Revolution has stipulated for the Universe. It is not a Revolution of the French Nation, but a Revolution of Humanity. The French Revolution is a Mother-Revolution".
In the definition of what the French think they are, the role of the intellectuals has been very great. They have played an important part in the political life of the country. Châteaubriand and Lamartine, two great writers, were both Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Malraux, Minister of Culture of De Gaulle, held for eleven years the highest rank in the hierarchy of the Cabinet, immediately after the Prime Minister. This tradition of proximity between the intellectuals and the politicians is anterior to the French Revolution. Writers and thinkers have always been in relation with the political power, be it monarchical or Republican. This power of the intellectuals is not without relation to another typical French trait, the existence of a state cultural policy, exemplified by the role of the Ministry of Culture. All that contributes to maintain, in the minds of the French people, a high idea of France and of its role in the world.
Another key to the tendency of the French to think that they are called upon to expand their political creed outside of their borders is the considerable weight which France has had in the past. Let us not forget that, at the time of the birth of the ideas of freedom, that is to say, from 1 750 to 1800, the material power of France and its intellectual influence were exceptional. The military and political supremacy of France was challenged with some success by the British during the whole of the 1 8th century. But the intellectual hegemony of France was still untouched. In the invention of the ideas of political freedom, the role of the English thinkers was greater than that of the French, but as a propagator of these ideas, Voltaire was more efficient. The French language was the undisputed idiom of the political and cultural establishment in all countries of the European continent.
Until Napoleon's defeat in 1815, France had been, for two centuries, the leading country of the world. There is a memory which does not disappear easily.
Is this memory of glorious times relevant in some way today, or is it just a cumbersome nostalgia? Do the French insist on continuing to be different in a world of rapid change, where nobody can afford to live in isolation?
In a rapidly evolving world in quick evolution, the French are changing quickly, they are adjusting with great energy to new situations. But they have no intention to abandon what they have inherited from a long history, and which makes them different. The problem which we have to solve is how to reconcile these two imperatives: to adjust to change and to keep our difference.
One way of adjusting to change has been for us to adhere to the project of a united Europe. Two terrible wars, in this century, have left us with a world in which the traditional European Nation-States, France, Germany and Great Britain, were no longer able to play the role to which they had been accustomed. The United States, and the Soviet Union up to a recent date, were in a superior category. Japan and China emerged not far from the first rank. In view of this situation, the Europeans, led by France, took the historic decision to embark upon a course of reconciliation and union, and to shape, little by little, the European Union. And we have been navigating on this course, with some success, finding our way between the reefs, since the nineteen fifties. We still have a long way to go, but we know where we are heading.
How is France's uniqueness affected by the process of building a European Union? Is there not a contradiction between adhering to a European project and remaining attached to our particular French ways? It is evidently a valid question. In some fields, the contradiction does not exist, because the process of European Union does not encompass all aspects of public life. Nobody is suggesting that the Europeans should speak a single language. Nobody proposes to merge the fifteen countries of the E.C. into a single federal State, or to suppress their citizenships. But there will be, in the field of culture, more common action. Cultural cooperation can be pushed as far as one may wish, it will do no harm to the cultural identity of the countries which cooperate. One of the truly progressive ideas of the recent years, was the creation of a France-German cultural television network, which broadcasts the same programs to France and to Germany. I do not think that such a venture can harm the cultural specificity of either France or Germany, quite the contrary.
We have to defend our cultural industries, our book industry, our film industry, against foreign competition. Cultural production is part of economic life, but it is different because it is linked to the spiritual life of a Nation. You can admit that your machine tool industry should be wiped out by international competition if your factories cannot produce machine tools at a competitive price. But you cannot accept that your film industry should disappear. Maybe some countries can accept it, but we French cannot. Cultural activities are a legitimate exception to the rules of free trade. There subsidies, quotas, are admissible.
Before the Second World War and right after it, France was relatively isolated in terms of international business. Most industries were producing for the domestic market. Exporting was an adventure. Now exports represent more than 20% of our national product, and we are the world's fourth largest exporter, after the U.S., Germany and Japan. Almost half of these exports are manufactured products with high technological content, such as jet engines, planes, helicopters, auto components, electronic equipment, while the traditional exports (wine, agricultural products, champagne, perfume and so on) are only 12 to 15 % of the total. France is one of the greatest exporters of capital assets, and for several years in a row it has been the biggest foreign investor in the United States.
You can imagine the immense economic and social transformation that has made this change of performance possible. In older days, life in France had a particular flavor. One could enjoy a somewhat slower pace, more refinement than elsewhere, an art de vivre. The problem, in this century of rigid transformation, was to modernize while keeping at least a part of this art de vivre.
The desired model, for the French of today, is a combination of the new industrial capacities and of the ancient virtue. Vineyards of Burgundy, are more easily visited when we take a high speed train at 185 mph. I think personally that the vision of the Renaissance Chateaux of the Loire Valley or of the beautiful landscapes of the Rhone area is not damaged when we discover in the midst of these beauties the huge and simple architecture of our nuclear power plants!
Agriculture has been part of this transformation. As the productivity of our farms has grown, the number of people engaged in agricultural activities has gone down tremendously. Just before the war, there were in France as many people working in agriculture as in industry. It was the balanced proportion which the French of other generations used to like so much. Now only 6% of the total work force is employed in agriculture. You can say a lot of things concerning the current dispute between France and some others, including the U.S., on agriculture. But one thing that cannot be said is that the French are refusing change in agriculture. We accept change, even the most painful, and it is humanly painful to see those country places which had been active since the time of Caesar--and Astérix--empty themselves of their inhabitants. We accept change, but we want to remain the masters of the rhythm and the modalities of that change. We do not want this change to be imposed on us from outside. Basically the dispute about agriculture in the framework of the GATT talks was about that.
The restructuring of our industry has occurred, to some severe cost in terms of unemployment. This is the only weak point in a picture which includes low inflation, rising productivity, growth of exports, improvement of the financial situation of the companies.
In the last ten years, as the process of globalization of world economy was accelerating, France stepped up its effort to become a fully integrated partner of the global village. We realized that it was no longer possible for a country to select an economic policy and to pursue it in isolation. We played fully the game of opening to a Community which we conceive of as being itself widely open toward the partners of the outside world. We were instrumental in completing the creation, between the 12, and now the 15, members of the European Union of an open space without internal borders, which is today completely implemented. We supported the Treaty of Maastricht, which provides for integrating our economic and monetary policies, and finally for creating a single currency for all countries of the European Union. Breaking with a tradition of protectionism which dates back to the time of the Kings, we decided to let the market be the final arbiter of the competitivity of our products, of the strength of our currency.
There are critics against this opening of the borders, not only in France, but elsewhere in Europe. It has to do with the economic crisis, with the uncertainties about the future. When there are difficulties, people tend to blame them on their neighbor. When there is anguish about the future, people tend to fall back on their national identity, and they are afraid lest the process of European integration should lead them to lose that identity. There is a debate about all this in France today. But the majority of the French are convinced by the arguments of those who believe that the opening is indispensable, that it will allow France to display its best qualities, that indeed France cannot really be itself in isolation.
If the French proposed the creation of the European Union, it was because they thought that only by forming a large grouping could the Europeans be heard in the world of today. A European Union, for us, must be strong and cohesive. It must be able to defend itself in the world, by the means of diplomacy, and also by military means. This implies that, in the end of a probably long process, the countries of the European Union should put in common their military assets to form some sort of collective European defense, which will have, of course, to be closely linked with the United States in a renovated NATO Alliance.
We think the success of this project is essential, not only for us, but also for the United States and, indeed, for the whole world. The present world is very unstable, there are serious risks everywhere, a successful and united Europe is very necessary, not only as a space of stability in the proximity of the zones of tension--the Balkans, the Middle East, the Mediterranean--but also because a strong and cohesive European Union, with the leverage of its economic relations with these areas, and with the historic experience that the Europeans have of them, can play a decisive role in the resolution of conflicts and the promotion of peace.
To put it in other words, the French today have not lost their ambition for France. For them, now, to be ambitious for France is to be ambitious for Europe.