The Impact of France on the World
France occupies an exclusive place in the world, and could accept nothing less. It is, its President declares, a beacon for the human race. The nation and its people may be loved or hated, but they can never be ignored. This, after all, is the land which gave the planet Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, Charles de Gaulle and Gérard Depardieu, the Musketeers, Madame Bovary and Cyrano de Bergerac, Brigitte Bardot and Joan of Arc, claret and the cinema, the Cancan, denim and champagne, the theory of deconstruction and Édith Piaf, the Statue of Liberty and the modern totalitarian revolution, liposuction and the vegetable mixer, the sardine can, striped bathing costumes, the Impressionists, disposable razors and babies' feeding bottles. In 1998, its soccer team beat the odds to win the World Cup. Who could ask for anything more from a nation — and who could deny its uniqueness? The French have a term for their particular position — l'exception française. In case anybody should be tempted to miss the point, the country's Head of State had a mother-of-pearl button sewn on his suit jackets to attract the eye when he stood in group photographs with other world leaders.
France is central to the future of Europe, and, it sincerely believes, to the globe as a whole. With the fourth biggest economy, nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it can claim to rank behind only Washington in international reach and ambition. Since General de Gaulle restored the country's faith in itself after 1958, the national psyche has sprouted a self-confidence which is not always becoming, but which leaves no doubt that it offers the rest of the world something out of the ordinary.
Not for the French the small opt-outs or grey compromises which satisfy others; they wield vetoes and strut the stage with a panache rare in the late twentieth century. Their vision of history is unabashedly Francocentric. The supreme monarch, Louis XIV, didn't win many wars, but no European doubted that his Sun King court at Versailles was the centre of the Universe — and just imagine what would have happened if his successors hadn't made a hash of the Anglo-French wars of the mid-eighteenth century and had emerged dominant in North America. The most famous Corsican of all time may have ended up in poisoned exile on an island in the Atlantic, and become an overblown inspiration to dictators and press barons alike, but Bonaparte could still appear to Hegel as the master of the world, inspire an estimated 45,000 books and set Beethoven to write the `Eroica' Symphony, even if the composer did withhold the dedication in what may have been the awakening of the Romantic movement to reality. Charles de Gaulle could be, in the words of an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, `one of the biggest sons-of-bitches that ever straddled a pot', yet his style of national leadership equalled Napoléon's in coining a new adjective for...