France matters: Don't mess with Texas-sized state

During the recent summit of G-8 countries in the French city of Evian, American and French officials worked hard to get over the bad blood between the two countries since France launched a diplomatic barrage against the invasion of Iraq last winter.

The French have been an easy target for American sneering, but the U.S. cannot afford to dispense with the République. The fact is, France matters on the world stage, and for reasons often overlooked.

 

France remains a great economic power.

It is the greatest of the French paradoxes: in spite of high taxes, a bloated civil service, a huge national debt, an over-regulated economy, over-the-top red tape, double-digit unemployment, and low incentives for entrepreneurs, France remains the world's fourth greatest economic power. It ranks after the US, Japan, and Germany and just before Great Britain– depending on the exchange rate of the pound and the euro.

The statistics say it all. France is one of the most productive OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries in terms of economic output per hour of labor. It is the world's second biggest food exporter next to the US.

Its economy is more diversified than the UK's. French multinationals do business all over the world. Yes, France has double-digit unemployment. But one of the reasons is that the French don't encourage part-time work.

The French pay a lot of taxes: 45 percent of their GDP, compared to 30 percent in the US. But the State provides healthcare and pensions in France, which together account for most of the difference in the two countries' tax burdens.

As far as healthcare goes, the French spend proportionately 33 percent less than Americans, yet their health system is ranked number one in the world by the World Health Organization, while the US system ranks 37th. It is true that the French have made some bad economic choices in recent decades, most notably the excessive nationalizations of the 1980s. But the French do some things very well: They run a world-class high-speed passenger train service, have an outstanding aviation industry, and produce the cheapest energy in Europe, among other things.

 

France has global clout.

The Anglo-American press often dismisses France as a medium-sized power, but it's only medium with respect to the United States. France's seat at the UN Security Council is no more an aberration than Britain's. France maintains one of the world's biggest armies. It has been a nuclear power since 1961. For that matter, the French don't ask the US for permission to pursue their own interests abroad.

Because of its overseas territories (Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, St-Pierre, and Miquelon, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Reunion), France is a neighbor of Canada, Brazil, the United States, Australia, and Madagascar.

France has several military bases in foreign countries. With the US, it's one of the world's top exporters of weapons. Agencé France-Presse is the only major news wire agency that publishes in Arabic. France has maintained a free-trade zone in West Africa. It heads its own commonwealth of French-speaking nations (la Francophonie), which tends to vote en bloc on many issues at the UN.

France's army certainly isn't what it used to be, but the French know they can't have their cake and it eat it, too. A smaller military capacity was the price to pay for creating peace in Europe, after 1500 years of almost continual warfare. Europe's wars have drawn in Americans since the 17th century, so the world should be thankful that France and its neighbors have gone as far as they have in establishing peaceful relations.

 

France is very much the new  Europe.

 The French all but invented the modern nation-state. They now sit at the forefront of a gigantic experiment in statecraft called Europe, which will require them to dissolve most of their own national institutions in order to create a federation.

Observers are surprised at the boldness of the present European convention– headed by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing– that is drafting the first European Constitution. The European Union still does not have a shared military or diplomacy, but who can predict the future? After all, the Europe we're seeing today was considered a utopia just 60 years ago.

American observers have tended to overlook the importance of a new feature of the European Union: the so-called right for "reinforced cooperation." This would allow member countries to seek further integration with other member countries without the consent of all. The creation of the euro, from which Britain, Sweden, and Denmark have abstained, is an example. The present discussions between Belgium, Germany, and France over common defense is another.

It well may be that in 20 years, France will be a mere province of a federal Europe. But it will be a French-accented Europe.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau is the co-author of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, a study of the French (Sourcebooks)