BOOKS - THE FRENCH RESISTANCE - In this age of globalisation, Mark Leonard says that exceptionalism should no longer be the grand projet of the French establishment.
The French Exception. France - Still So Special?
By Andrew Jack, Profile Books £16.99
With a Gaullist president working closely with NATO over Kosovo, a centre-left government linking Jospin, Schroder and Blair, and Euro Disney appearing on every child's wish list, Andrew Jack's question could hardly be more timely. The former Paris correspondent of the Financial Times casts an informed outside eye over the French scene in a fluent and enjoyable book. But The French Exception ultimately delivers a bit less than promised.
The book is best at anecdotes and details - political parachutages into top public-sector jobs, or the lowdown on the Credit Lyonnais bail-out - rather than at the big picture. Readers who follow France closely may learn little that is new, while a 'state of the Republic' account of how France might deal with the social, political and economic challenges of the next century never seems to materialise.
Jack is always balanced but concentrates on the problems France faces - especially how the relatively impressive French social meritocracy is marred by elitism. The super-elite of ENA graduates collides and colludes in politics, business and finance, hampering proper regulation and losing touch with the people it is meant to serve.
The same applies to culture. It is the French people who eat at McDonald's who endanger the grand projet of maintaining cultural exceptionalism. Meanwhile, the Academie Francaise's ninth edition of its authoritative dictionary, 64 years in the making, has reached the letter 'm'.
This age of globalisation exacerbates the traditional French love-hate relationship with the US. A country with de Gaulle's '246 varieties of cheese' should not feel its cultural identity is under threat. But the French have never seen globalisation as an opportunity to increase diversity.
As a result, even French cuisine seems to be complacent.
An inquiry into French exceptionalism needs a comparative context, but this is largely missing. The book would be better if Jack discussed whether microeconomic reform will be harder in France, or whether political sleaze or corporate collusion is worse than elsewhere.
In fact, France has a fairly typical European economy - albeit more prone to soul-searching than most. Its rhetorical resistance to an 'ultra-liberal' approach is not rare in Europe. But the differences between Blair's Britain and Jospin's France have been overstated for domestic audiences on both sides. A senior French politician told me recently that 'the 'third way' works in practice, but it is terrible in theory' - which shows that the differences are totally psychological. In terms of policy, there is little to separate them. Jospin has privatised more than any other French premier. His unemployment strategies were lifted from the New Labour manifesto.
And if Blair were the Thatcherite neo-liberal that the French Left loves to rail against, he would not have introduced the minimum wage.
Even on a rhetorical level, Jospin's famous soundbite, at his Foreign Policy Centre lecture in London, 'Yes to the market economy, no to the market society' is the most succinct statement of the third way so far.
Blair could have used it, had he thought of it first. The third way is about seeking a society which can be prosperous and civilised at the same time, and adopting a pragmatism in favour of what works.
And, of course, the starting points are different. France has not had a Thatcherite revolution. The public sector still attracts the brightest graduates. Coalition politics will need a broad consensus for reform.
Jack suggests that maintaining French quality of life means the end of exaggerated exceptionalism as a political project. Economic globalisation, political expediency and stubborn unemployment all point the same way.
When the Academie Francaise gets to z in the dictionary, the world - and France with it - will have moved on.
Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre.