LESSONS OF THE LOGAN

When the French voted no to the European constitution, they were rejecting the specter of a borderless world in which foreign goods, Polish plumbers and even British politicians would be handed a growing role in French society. This sentiment was expressed most clearly by incoming Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in June, when he declared: "The French know it and say it forcefully: globalization is not an ideal, it cannot be our destiny."

Yet within days, a new invader arrived in France by popular demand. It was the Logan, a boxy family sedan that Renault conceived as a "world car" to be built in the developing world, for sale in the developing world, at a price as low as 5,000 euros. A founding member of the French industrial elite that has fallen on hard times, Renault saw the Logan as critical to its future, projecting sales of 1 million a year, or 25 percent of Renault's total, by 2010. But the man who championed the Logan, Renault ex-president Louis Schweitzer, never envisioned a market for the car in Western Europe, where it's since become an unexpected cult hit, particularly in France. Just as the French bash America but flock to McDonald's, they reject globalization but embrace the world car.

Produced by Renault's Romanian subsidiary, Dacia, the Logan looks like an auto that the Soviets might have designed. The car is so bare-bones that Renault promotes headrests as standard features. A radio is optional, and innovations are of the practical type. "The side mirrors are symmetrical on the right and left," explains a Renault spokesman, "so if your driver's-side mirror breaks, you can switch them yourself until you get a replacement." One reason the car was not originally offered in Europe, analysts say, is that it is so cheap, it could cannibalize sales of used Renaults.

When word spread of a roomy, 5,000 euro five-seater on the Eastern border, however, Renault was accused of "anti-French racism" for not selling Logans at home. Tweaks made to meet European safety standards raised the price to only 7,500 euros--unthinkable in its class, and with a three-year warranty. The shock announcement at the Paris Auto Show last fall sparked giddy calls to radio talk shows. French press reviews--"not inelegant," "not vulgar," "not shameful"-- have been unanimously warm. In June, Renault released the Logan in Spain, Germany and France with little fanfare, and in limited numbers. By early August it had logged 9,900 orders in France, Spain and Germany--far outpacing expectations and supply.

Aspiring owners now crowd waitlists several months long. Only 1,000 have been delivered in France, 400 in Germany, and 300 in Spain. Professionals are buying Logans as third cars for their kids or country homes, but the main customers are young people and retirees. Philippe Vigier, 62, was one of France's first Logan owners. "I'm happy as can be," says the semi-retiree, whose local dealer had to talk him out of bicycling to Romania to buy the 5,000 euro model. "It's perfect, not a flaw. This morning, I filled up and the gas-station attendant wanted to buy it from me!"

Schweitzer, who left Renault in April, and is now the chairman of AstraZeneca, made a cause celebre of building a basic car for emerging markets. He bought Dacia for that purpose in 1999. The Logan was called a Frankenstein car, patched together from other Renault models, with costs minimized at every turn. Production has spread to Russia and Morocco, and by 2007 Renault plans to be making Logans from Brazil to Iran. Indeed Renault has big plans cooking for Iran, which faces possible European Union sanctions for its renegade nuclear-energy program. Renault plans to produce as many as 300,000 Logans a year in the untapped automarket of Iran.

No, resisting globalization won't be uncomplicated. French unions want Logans bound for Western Europe to be built in France, but even union reps admit they are torn: the foreign-built Logan may steal jobs, but appeals to unionists as budget-conscious consumers. This is the "the paradox of the outsourcing debate," says Nicolas Jabko, a European political economist at Paris think tank CERI. Workers at risk are also consumers with much to gain. Normandy retiree Jack Brunel, 57, confesses a fear of outsourcing jobs, but that's "the only problem" with the Logan, he says. Brunel ordered his last month--for delivery in June 2006. The cheap world car may not be the ideal vehicle, but for many Europeans, it is destiny. The same is likely true of globalization.

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