La Belle France Beset by Criticism, Self-Doubt

Associated Press Writer

It's an age-old lament: French grandeur is fading.

These days, it isn't Americans bad-mouthing France over Iraq, but France's own Cassandras who are churning out best sellers suggesting that the country is in economic and political decline.

They point to a host of warning signs: high deficits, intractable unemployment, stunted economic growth, diplomatic setbacks. They worry about France's increasingly alienated Muslim minority and the resurgence of attacks on its Jewish minority. Even the killer heat wave over the summer has fed the feeling of malaise.

Navel-gazing is never out of vogue in France, and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has dismissed the latest bout as intellectual rabble-rousing. President Jacques Chirac, asked about it on television, took the opportunity to deliver a short pep talk to the nation.

"I'm surprised to see how in moments of a little difficulty, this movement comes back in such a powerful way," Chirac said. "We can overcome all difficulties."

Measuring "decline" is far from an exact science. For every negative statistic pointing to doom and gloom, others show that France is not so badly off.

Its universal health care system is widely praised, and its military and intelligence services are playing an important role in the war on terrorism.

Today's France is more than baguettes, berets, chateaux and wine; it's a nuclear power and one of the world's five largest economies. It makes Airbus planes and 180-mph passenger trains. Long before the world embraced the Web, France's Minitel system was offering the average household everything from directory information to school grades and bank account data online.

Despite periodic flare-ups of indignation over the encroachments of English, the language of France is still spoken by 129 million people globally.

Yet to glance in bookstores and see titles referring variously to French arrogance, decline or disarray, one might think that no one has a good word to say about la belle France. The biggest best seller is "La France Qui Tombe" ("France Is Falling"), a withering critique by lawyer and economist Nicolas Baverez.

In his book, subtitled "A Clinical Report of French Decline," Baverez argues that the French work ethic has weakened, the best scientific and entrepreneurial minds are fleeing, the French own too few home computers and are too apt to go on strike at the first whiff of belt-tightening.

Gripped by bureaucratic rigidity, France failed to liberalize its economy and is becoming "an industrial and entrepreneurial desert," Baverez writes. He cites figures showing that new business creation has fallen 2% a year since the late 1980s, and that last year, the country of 60 million people had more bankruptcies than the United States, about five times as populous.

The discontent he expresses is in large part about the economy. The troubles are social too.

The crisis of confidence heightened in August when, according to the government, nearly 15,000 people died in a heat wave. Many blamed government ineptitude for the failure of health services to cope.

The growth of a largely alienated Muslim minority and the stunning gains of Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme nationalist, anti-immigrant party last year further dampened the mood.

France, 90% Roman Catholic, has Western Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish minorities. It is accused of failing to come to terms with its World War II government's collaboration with the Nazis and of denying the Muslim population of 5 million its rightful place in French society.

Several best sellers track the rise of Islamic militancy in France, while Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French Jewish scholar, explores the fears of France's 600,000 Jews who feel besieged by an upsurge in anti-Semitic violence and intellectual hostility. In a book subtitled "Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism," he writes: "Jews have a heavy heart and, for the first time since the war, they are afraid."

The French economy isn't the only one in trouble in Europe. Germany has similar problems. Hans-Werner Sinn, head of Germany's influential Ifo economic research institute, recently published a 500-page plea for reforms under the ominous title "Can Germany Still Be Saved?"

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is pushing aggressive welfare reforms to revive Germany's economy, Europe's largest, and France's government says it also is getting the economic house in order, fostering job creation through tax cuts and getting the government off French backs.

But a poll in Paris Match magazine indicates 59% of the French expect the economy to worsen and only 18% foresee an improvement. Meanwhile, a World Economic Forum study ranks France only 26th in the league of growth markets, behind Portugal.

Some say the downturn is all cyclical -- that France is forever seesawing from Napoleonic gloire and the grandeur of Charles de Gaulle to the humiliations of military defeat and loss of empire.

France has not been behaving like a declining power. It went toe-to-toe with the U.S. over Iraq; injected its army into the civil war in Ivory Coast, pride of its former African empire, and claims a leading role in the prosperous European Union.

But the Americans went ahead with the war in Iraq, and France's troubled economy weakens its claim to preeminence in Europe.

While many French feel gratitude for GIs' sacrifices on French battlefields in the two world wars, anti-American sentiment -- part jealousy, part visceral distaste for U.S. policies and culture -- remains an undercurrent.

"The obsession about status, the hatred of decline, the worry about grandeur: These are the guiding principles of French foreign policy.... But when there aren't the means to back it up, it's just ridiculous," write Romain Gubert and Emmanuel Saint-Martin in "French Arrogance," another best seller.

And in "Adieu to a Departing France," cultural scholar Jean-Marie Rouart wonders how France, "a guiding light" throughout European history, will cope when it becomes just one of 25 member nations, present and future, in the expanding European Union.

Will France, which so cherishes liberte, egalite, fraternite, "regret finding herself on a par with countries that don't see themselves as the bearers of a universal message?" he wrote.

Some French, on the other hand, may share the exasperation of Raffarin at this latest wave of soul-searching.

In Parliament last month, Raffarin denounced "this frozen thought that every 20 years is dug up by people who are supposedly grand intellectuals."

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