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Industrial Power : France at 200: Tres Moderne

Times Staff Writer

Two hundred years ago this Friday, a mob of Parisians that included wine merchants, cabinet makers, a brewer, a laundress and an 8-year-old boy sparked the French Revolution by storming the Bastille Prison.

Today, the site is marked for eternity by a plaque above La Divine pizzeria in the Place de la Bastille: “Seized by the people on July 14, 1789, and demolished the same year.”

For its part, the pizza parlor is getting into the spirit of things with a $50 special menu that concludes with “Bicentennial sherbet.”

The French government, meanwhile, will combine its huge Bastille Day party this year with the annual Group of Seven summit meeting. President Francois Mitterrand hopes to dazzle the leaders from the world’s leading industrial democracies, including President Bush, with a stunning presentation of futuristic architecture and a $15-million parade.

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Tonight, the leaders are invited to the inaugural concert in the glass-sheathed, $400-million Bastille Opera, the world’s most technologically advanced musical theater. On Friday, they meet to open the summit at the new $300-million addition to the Louvre museum. On Saturday, they convene to discuss the world economy in the new $500-million, marble-and-glass Arc de La Defense that rises above a forest of skyscrapers on the edge of Paris in a direct line with the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

The message is clear: The Bourbon kings and the Napoleonic Age had their monuments. We have ours. Move over, Ozymandias. Look on our works, ye mighty, and . . . marvel.

The downtrodden postwar France of myth and movie--represented by a mustachioed man on a bicycle, wearing a beret and carrying a long loaf of bread under his arm--no longer exists. Neither does the mythical France of style without substance, an elegant land of haute couture where the phones do not work.

Tremendous Changes

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“Many people,” said Bernard Vernier-Palliez, a former French ambassador to the United States, “still have the view of France that was based on the discoveries made by the American GIs in 1944. To them, France was a country of good food and les petites femmes, a highly cultured country but with really antiquated industry and no high tech. They don’t understand how tremendously France has changed.”

“The French are no longer French,” Oxford University historian Theodore Zeldin observed wryly in a recent interview.

Since World War II, few countries have advanced more rapidly and dramatically than France. Until the first oil crisis in 1973, its postwar growth rate was second only to Japan’s. In 50 years, it has converted from a largely agricultural nation where 45% of the population lived on farms to an industrial and service economy where only 7% of the people still live in the countryside.

For 10 years after the oil crisis, from 1973 to 1983, French growth lagged behind its European neighbors and the United States. But after the Socialist government abandoned its experimentation with traditional leftist economic policies in 1983, the economy has again been on the rebound.

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Today, the French economy is second in Europe, nearly 80% the size of powerful West Germany’s and fifth in the world.

Sprawling French suburban developments are now barely distinguishable from those in California or Texas, boasting giant shopping centers with McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets flanking the parking lots. One large French retailer, Carrefour, has even started exporting its “hypermarkets” to the United States, building a store in a Philadelphia suburb.

According to recent surveys, more French now buy their food from these American-style markets than from the little shopkeepers with stained aprons that figure so prominently in the standard image of France.

Naval, Nuclear Power

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The new France is also an independent nuclear power with the world’s third-largest navy. France is a world leader in fusion and medical research, computer software and weapons development.

It is also increasingly a multi-ethnic, multi-religious France.

Many new Frenchmen are named Mohammed or Sharif, speak Arabic as a first language and live in the depressing suburban cites outside Paris, Marseilles or Lyon. In predominantly North African Arab communities such as Les Minguettes near Lyon, France faces major religious and ethnic divisions for the first time in its long history of absorbing immigrants.

“It is an explosive situation,” said Arezki Dahmani, an ethnic North African economist who is president of an Arab political action organization, France Plus. “We don’t have the outbreaks of violence yet like you had in black communities of the United States. But we are starting to have completely isolated ghettos where unemployment is 80% and where generations are excluded from French society.”

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With typical French eclat , the French government has attempted to attack this emerging ethnic problem by spending millions on accelerated education programs and job training programs in troubled areas like Les Minguettes.

Residents in the community say the programs are working. “Les Minguettes is more beautiful than ever before,” said an Arab teen-ager interviewed on a recent afternoon as he stood next to an empty 14-story apartment building, one of eight abandoned apartment towers in a section of the community named Democracy Square.

Evocative of U.S. Failures

A few years ago the Democracy Square towers, so evocative of similar high-rise failures in St. Louis and other American cities, were nests of crime and despair. By moving families to less concentrated housing and increasing police protection, the government was able to empty the towers without transferring the problem to other parts of the community.

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Sometime next month, in the context of the summer-long celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the community plans to have demolition experts implode the Democracy Square towers at the conclusion of a concert by French jazz composer-musician Jean-Michel Jarre.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in France has been the evolution in French attitudes toward money and making money.

“The most interesting change,” said Prof. Stanley Hoffmann, chairman of Harvard University’s Center of European Studies, “is the transformation of the French business community, which previously was so terribly uncompetitive, anti-social and elitist.”

Bernard Vernier-Palliez said he first noticed the huge change in his country when he returned home in 1984, after his three years as French ambassador to the United States.

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“I had never spent such a continuous period away from France before,” the retired diplomat and former chief executive of the Renault automobile company recalled. “Coming back, can you imagine my shock when I found a country that had completely changed? Contrary to what was in fashion in the late 1970s, free enterprise had become something absolutely important.”

Vernier-Palliez was amazed to find that flashy businessman Bernard Tapie had become a hero to the French people. Tapie is a square-jawed, self-made Parisian millionaire who never saw the inside of one of the half a dozen elite schools that are the usual incubators for the French establishment.

Father Was a Mechanic

Tapie proudly points out that his grandmother was a maid in a school. His father was a mechanic.

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His rags-to-riches autobiography, “To Win,” was a runaway best seller. So were the romans fric-- cash novels--of French author Paul Loup Sulitzer, complete with their brash English titles: “Money” (1983), “Cash” (1983) and “Fortune” (1984). The foreign best-seller list was headed by Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca’s celebrated autobiography, which French Left Bank intellectuals began to discuss with the solemnity and respect previously reserved for the works of William Faulkner or James Baldwin.

Nearly a century after Americans embraced the same thing, La Belle France --a solidly Roman Catholic country where striving for money was considered sinful and where ambition was to land a safe job with one of the giant state industries--was having a torrid love affair with Horatio Alger.

All of a sudden, wrote French sociologist Gerard Mermet in his 1989 book on French social trends, “money doesn’t smell bad any more.”

“To have an entrepreneur as a hero was something unimaginable before,” Vernier-Palliez said.

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“In another time,” agreed Tapie, who recently began a political career after his lopsided election to the French Parliament from a working-class quarter of Marseilles, “it would not have been possible for me to become famous.”

Open-shirted, tough-talking Tapie is a polar opposite to button-down, refined Vernier-Palliez. Tapie hosted a television show entitled “Ambition.”

In Vernier-Palliez’s world, ambition, like money, was something seldom mentioned aloud. Ambition was vulgar. It smacked of competition, obsession and greed, things the French usually prefer to pursue in private.

Changes at Schools

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No wonder the returning diplomat was stunned when he saw what had happened at his distinguished alma mater, Les Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), from which he graduated in 1937. HEC is one of the half a dozen grandes ecoles that have traditionally produced the French elite. In the past, mere acceptance at HEC meant a guaranteed comfortable future in business or government, usually with one of the huge, state-owned industries such as Renault.

Upon his return, however, Vernier-Palliez discovered that a new “entrepreneur section” had been created at the school for students who wanted to bypass the guaranteed job track and create their own business. The first assignment for students in the new section is to parachute out of an airplane--a test of courage and a measure of their willingness to confront the unknown.

Some of the students, like 22-year-old Anne-Sophie Maisonrouge, paralyzed with fear, had to be pushed out of the airplane by their instructors.

“But he pushed me too far, and I landed in a field with a bull. Then I was really scared,” Maisonrouge, now a graduate of HEC, recalled recently.

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Most astonishing to many Americans and other visitors who come to France are the major technological advances that have arrived here. Only a few years ago, the French telephone system was one of the worst in Western Europe. French comedian Fernand Reynaud had a whole routine based on the telephone, which always included the line of how it was easier to telephone faraway New York than the “22 exchange” in the Paris suburb of Asnieres.

Computer Mania

Today, the Reynaud routine would fall flat. France has one of the best phone systems in the world and is a leader in fiber-optics communications. It is also the home of the astonishing minitel, small computer terminals distributed free by the French national telephone company.

“When France makes up her mind to change,” Harvard’s Hoffmann said, “it can happen very, very fast.”

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Hoffmann, who was born in Vienna and raised in France, likes to tell the story of his return to Boston after a year’s sabbatical in Paris during 1983-84.

“People asked my impressions of the difference between living in the States and living in France,” he said. “I told them that public services and practically everything else worked better in France--even the phones.”

According to France Telecom, more than 4.5 million of the bread-box-size minitel terminals have been installed in French households since 1984. In addition to educating entire families in basic computer use, the minitels permit the French to order groceries, make train reservations, buy opera tickets, monitor news developments, play dozens of video games, hail taxis, check schedules, leave messages and even have erotic electronic conversations, as well as a dizzying array of other options that multiply nearly every day.

France is also the land of the world’s fastest passenger trains, the trains a grande vitesse (TGV), that have revolutionized European rail travel and made trains competitive with airplanes. The trains are comfortable and remarkably smooth, powered by electricity produced from France’s 50 nuclear power plants.

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Riding the TGV, a businessman can travel from the center of Paris to the center of Lyon, a distance of 270 miles, in two hours--less time than it would take him to drive to a Paris airport, hop an airplane and drive into the center of Lyon. The high-speed trains have become a major factor in decentralizing France.

“There has been a significant revival of provincial life,” Hoffmann said. “Paris is still Paris, but it doesn’t pump the rest of France the way it used to.”

In the fall, the French state railroad company will launch its new Atlantic line with trains that travel at more than 180 miles per hour on a route that will eventually hook up with Nantes, capital of Brittany.

Dream of European Network

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In the future, French engineers dream of wrapping all of Western Europe in a network of high-speed rail lines that will propel passengers from Paris to London, for example, in only three hours by 1993.

In aviation and aerospace, French companies hold 58% interest in the European satellite launching consortium Ariane. Ariane, using a rocket that is a generation ahead of its American counterparts, recently surpassed its goal of capturing more than 50% of the world market. At the beginning of June, Ariane had orders to launch 34 satellites, worth nearly $2.5 billion in revenue.

France has also been the major mover behind the European Airbus Industries, which has emerged as the major direct competition for the American giant Boeing. French engineers developed the “fly by wire” guidance system safe enough for commercial aircraft, solving a problem that had eluded American engineers for decades.

Mostly because of Airbus, which has orders or commitments for more than 800 aircraft lasting well into the next century, Toulouse, a charming, Spanish-flavored town in southwest France’s Garonne Valley, has become the undisputed aerospace capital of Europe, populated by one of the world’s densest concentrations of scientists and engineers.

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Despite the impressive technological achievements in this country of 55.6 million people, the general image of France remains rooted in the past.

A Gallup International poll conducted for the Franco-American Foundation in 1986 showed that only 30% of Americans considered France “among the leading industrial countries in the world.” Only 21% of the 1,006 Americans contacted for telephone interviews considered France a “serious competitor of the United States” in aerospace. Only 20% of the Americans considered France a country with “a strong nuclear force of its own.”

To many foreigners, particularly Americans, France is a mainly rural land of good food, fine perfume and rude waiters.

“Americans still think of France as an agricultural land that knows how to produce wine, Camembert cheese and not much else,” said Jacques Maisonrouge, 64, a French engineer who was the first foreigner to sit on the board of directors and the top management committee of IBM. He is also the father of reluctant parachutist Anne-Sophie.

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“They don’t know that France is second behind the United States in the development of computer software,” he continued. “They don’t know about our airplanes and our medical research. Behind the U.S., France is the second-ranked developer of new molecules for drugs.”

Entrepreneur Tapie fumed in an animated interview at his Paris headquarters: “Americans take us for complete fools. They still imagine us with a baguette of bread under our arm, slippers on our feet and Camembert in our string bags.”

“The image people have is very old,” said Oxford’s Zeldin, author of an extensive series of books on modern French history and considered, even in France, one of the premier foreign interpreters of French life.

“The French feel underestimated, devalued,” Zeldin said. “I think it is the main reason for the reputation they have for being difficult. They would not be so difficult if they felt they were being understood.

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“The greatest enemies to France,” he continued, “are those Francophiles who want to keep the French petrified as they were in the 1920s or 1930s, to love them as sort of historical monuments. Indeed, the Francophiles resent it if you even talk about the future because they feel you are denying that aspect of France with which they had grown up, which represented their youth--and which they don’t want to change.”


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