The French could turn out to be heroes after all

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It has been hard to pick up a paper in recent weeks without reading shrieks of cheerful horror about the dramatic left turn in French politics.

In this newspaper on Saturday the Nobel prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was accusing the French of a fatal error, in seeking to pamper themselves with state-subsidised goodies rather than confronting the bitter sacrifices that are surely necessary in the dynamic modern world; and he hasn't been the only one. Even Blairites are crowing over their good fortune, whispering that for France to have elected Jospin is like Britain voting in Michael Foot. Fog in Channel, the headlines seem to say: France isolated.

It all sounds quite persuasive to an audience that has been through the Reagan-Thatcher austerity mill. In the Anglo-Saxon world, we pride ourselves on taking our medicine like men. A bit of social hardship is just what the doctor ordered. This doesn't even seem like a political idea any more: we think of it as simple common sense.

But what if we are wrong? Some of the pique at France's apparently reckless refusal to buy into the free-market logic of the Anglo-Saxon world seems inspired by nerves, or possibly even by envy. Some of it is historic, and relates to British snootiness at France's capitulation in the war. Yeah, yeah, we say: of course Paris is beautiful - and we all know why, don't we? It's because they didn't get blitzed, the bastards. Part of it stems from a profound gap in our moral-aesthetic approaches to life: we Anglo-Saxons are pretty convinced that life is a hard, uphill slog, not to be taken lightly; whereas the French, maddeningly, seem to believe that is should be both comfortable and fun.

But what, damn their eyes, if they are right? What if their high-spending, socially cohesive culture of fine food, long holidays, lovely trains and generous benefits can indeed be sustained? Britain and America certainly have a strong interest in hoping that this is not true: it would mean we had undertaken our own painful, on-your-bike transformations for nothing. It would mean we had been duped.

It isn't easy, in Britain, to hear anything clearly above all the eurobabble. We risk becoming fuddled by the diplomatic pieties of the debate over EMU. But it takes only a brief trip to France (which millions, this summer, will enjoy: The Michelin Red Guide to France is a reliable best-seller every July) to remind us that "Europe" is not a speculative idea, but a busy and various place that intersects at a thousand points. The planes, trains, and coaches that criss-cross the Alps aren't full of brainy technocrats carrying blueprints for federation in their laptops. They are full of restaurateurs heading for Burgundy in search of a reliable house red, engineers checking out a hydro-electric project, farmers travelling to a conference on new feeder systems, teachers on exchanges, battery salesmen doing the rounds, language students en route to Grenoble and Florence, and - most common of all - tourists like me in search of nothing more federal than sunshine, clean air, meadows vivid with blue gentians and a Matterhorn view.

One thing you can't hope noticing, if you travel (as I did) from Geneva airport to the Italian border, is that in the space of a one-hour drive you need Swiss francs, French francs and Italian lire for the motorway tolls. It makes you brood a bit on the single currency: it seems a pretty good wheeze. But otherwise, far beneath the macro-economic rhetoric of federalisation, the differences between the nations of Europe are (as everyone knows) dissolving fast.

In lounge-class Europe you can have a more-or-less-identical cappuccino wherever you are, not to mention a similar ham 'n' cheese croissant and chunk of Swiss chocolate. You can listen to James Bond themes performed on South American pan-pipes in almost any hotel between Belfast and Istanbul.

It is possible that this rapid homogenisation of international taste has hit France harder than most. Of all the countries in Europe, it has most successfully exported its lifestyle: it is one of its major products. There is hardly a sandwich bar, brassiere or department store in the West that does not advertise the huge French influence in our daily life. There is a price attached to this. Britons, at any rate, used to travel to France expecting to feel the kiss of a more refined way of life: better food, better clothes, better weather, better everything. And France still does France better than anyone else. But it also has supermarkets and muzak and out-of-town high-rises and no-go suburbs like anywhere else: it feels less singular now.

Which is why the present political experiment is so gripping. The French are determined to protect their culture. It looks foolhardy, Canuteish, even a touch reactionary: in the area of race relations, for instance, it has some unhappy ramifications. But it is a serious proposal. Isolationist reflexes have long been to the fore in the arts, though they risk seeming frayed and corny: when Jean-Luc Godard said that he needed only two ingredients to make a film - a miniskirt and a gun - he was giving the game away.

France's literature, too, is shunned by the rest of the world, to much gnashing of teeth in Paris ("ils nous boycottent"), precisely because it continues to be inspired by an ideal of introspection that other nationalities have little time for. The heroes and heroines of modern French literature tend to be neurotic and alone - the key emotion is solitude. France's quest may indeed be lonely and embattled, as it fights on alone. Wouldn't it be ironic if it ended up seeming heroic into the bargain?