Where Are You Now Charles De Gaulle?

Valery Giscard d'Estaing descended into an inferno of his own making last week, a little hell called Vulcania. The vast new museum-cum-amusement-park devoted to seismic excitements is in France's nowhere land, the Auvergne, where cattle roam rolling hillsides and the last volcanic eruption was, oh, about 7,000 years ago. But in France, old politicians never quit politicking, and Giscard, president of the republic from 1974 to 1981, is now head of Auvergne's regional council. Vulcania has been his pet project for a decade: a 109 million euro extravaganza, most of which comes out of the taxpayers' pockets. He calls this tourist trap a dream come true. "Happiness is seeing something you've wished for achieved at last," he says.

Much of the French press calls it a nightmare of cost overruns imposed by Giscard's will, an underground labyrinth leading nowhere that anyone really wants to go. And what's the 76-year-old politician's next project? Europe.

This week he opens the constitutional convention in Brussels that's supposed to shape the economic and political future of 500 million people. At least since Charlemagne, French leaders have wished they could mold the Continent in their own image. They still exult in the vision of 19th-century poet and novelist Victor Hugo, who predicted "an extraordinary nation" that "would have as its capital Paris but no longer be called France: it will be called Europe... and in the centuries that follow, still further transformed, it will be called 'Humanity'.''

Ah, the grandeur. With Giscard at the helm, you'd think the French would be feeling good about themselves. In fact, they're miserable. Rarely in the past 50 years have they faced such a crisis of confidence about their role on the Continent and their place in the world. The intellectual and political elites on both the left and right have published a steady stream of books and articles about France's "malaise," its loss of potency, the threat to its very existence. Gloomy Gallic hyperbole aside, there's ample evidence that France just ain't what it used to be. One stunning statistic: of 15 members of the European Union, France ranks 12th in per capita income, just ahead of Spain, Portugal and Greece. A decade ago it ranked third, and this kind of slide seemed unthinkable. But, then, in those days European leaders thought they were all on the same track, thinking, as they used to say, with "a single mind."

Old ideals die hard. They also tell us a lot about the rush of time and events. One day they're at the center of political debate, the next they're flat, erased, forgotten. In the mid-1990s--seems so long ago now, when Giscard was merely "mature"--the phrase that summed up French and German attitudes toward the European Union was la pensee unique, the single line of thinking shared by generations of leaders. The then French President Francois Mitterrand might have been a Socialist and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl a conservative Christian Democrat, but they were of one mind on the need to build an ever more closely integrated Europe. And virtually no intellectuals or "responsible" politicians of any ideological stripe were inclined to speak against the ideal. The vision of the future was based on the horrors of the past. The alternative to monetary union and eventual political unification (however vaguely defined) was deemed to be, well, war. To criticize a pillar of union like the Common Agricultural Policy was to court the apocalypse, or so it was said.

Now, not only is there no "single mind," nobody seems to know what to think. Great gestures of unification set in motion during the era of the pensee unique are moving ineluctably forward. Twelve of the EU's 15 members now have a single currency, and the union's ranks are likely to include at least another 10. But political decisions about where all this is supposed to lead have been deferred repeatedly. The buck (or the euro, if you will) is supposed to stop at the Brussels convention. Yet the record of recent efforts to forge common approaches to foreign policy or social welfare--or anything except monetary union--has ranged from dim to dismal.

France is the great symbol of this change. The old Franco-German alliance, the core of the Union, isn't what it once was. The origins of Europe's union lay in the French-German steel-and-coal agreement of 1951, which led to the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which brought four other members into the club. Right through the fall of the Berlin wall and German unification, the two countries moved in lock step. No longer. "The relationship has been downgraded," says Dominique Moisi of the French International Relations Institute. "It has nothing to do with what it was. Germany is playing for its national interest, and it's no longer a prisoner of the past. A new generation meets a new Europe."

In a different way, the same could be said for France. The approaching elections may have great consequences for Europe. That will be less a matter of the "left" or "right" ideology of the winners than their inclination--or lack of it--to re-forge a strong central core for the Union. It's with just such ideas in mind that some of the most influential thinkers in French politics have taken on the task of writing about all that Europe could be, all that it has not yet been and France's place in it.

In an extraordinarily blunt pamphlet, "The Europe We Want," EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy and Jean Pisani-Ferry, head of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's council of economic analysts, describe "the French malaise." Having thought too long that Europe would be built in their own image, they write, "the French suffer today from not being able to recognize themselves in it." The breakdown of state authority, the promotion of competition, the challenge to state monopolies of public services--all of this calls into question what many French thought were pillars of the model government they were going to export (Paris first as capital of Europe, then la Humanite). Not to be. The expansion of the Union, which the French support, automatically lessens their weight within it. "They feel diminished, in the end, as they face a Germany that is numerically more powerful and an England that is politically more alert," the authors write, adding that the time is past when it was enough to negotiate with Germany "in order to stamp our brand on community decisions." These days, it is the height of illusion to imagine a Europe in France's image. "The EU is anything but," says Andrew Moravcsik of Harvard University. "France is centralized, presidential, partisan, fiscal, legally civil law and antijudicial. The EU is decentralized, legislative, nonpartisan, regulatory, quasi-common law and highly judicial. The two could not be more different." Trouble is, until recently, it has often seemed as though France hadn't grasped that fact.

September 11 heightened such misgivings. For 15 years the European ideal advanced around the notion of free circulation within a single market, with monetary judgments taking precedence over issues of security or defense. But in our new post-terror world, those priorities seem oddly misplaced, even parochial. At times of danger, as Lamy and Pisani-Ferry put it, "people tend to prefer security to the freedom to come and go, and turn to nation-states to reassure them." It's also a context in which a foreign policy devoted to the preservation of national perks--those enormous subsidies for French farmers--discredits both France and its larger ambitions, among them the enlargement of the Union.

It's hard to overstate the impact on France of these ideas, striking as they do at the core of national identity and role. The old left hasn't surrendered entirely to self-doubt. Rather, it's trying to seize the high ground on a battlefield where no one has taken firm control. Moreover, it realizes that the policies it considers important, including an effective social-safety net for Europeans, cannot be effected by laissez-faire economics. But here's the rub. Those who built the Union did so incrementally, concentrating on what could be achieved--like monetary union--and hoping that would spill over into political realms. Even at the height of the pensee unique, unity was maintained by not pushing too hard.

Now, however, real decisions have to be made and interests fought for. As former French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn writes in another new book, "The Flame and the Cinder," "the construction of Europe in quasi-clandestinity is behind us." Known as one of the Socialists' most business-friendly thinkers, he defends the "social solidarity" of the European welfare state as an expression of collective culture, distinct from the United States or Asia. To preserve it, he says, France and Europe must defend it.

Not all Europeans see it quite that way, perhaps most notably these days Britain and Italy. It is axiomatic that a debate that grips France must engage Brussels--yet what an improbable champion in Giscard d'Estaing. After all, it was he, an old-guard Gaullist, who helped kick off the national self-flagellation two years ago with a book reflecting on the destiny of France. Naturally he evoked the glory days of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. His "personal and almost solitary action," writes Giscard, "was to re-establish the standing of France among the great states of the world, despite its military defeat." You can almost hear the lament as France (and Europe) faces a no less challenging future: "Where have you gone, mon general?"

With France's fortunes in seeming decline, it's tempting to say the cure is for the French to quit living in the past. Even Giscard agrees they should be "asking how do we manage the world that's coming, not clinging to the lifeboat of a world that's gone?" But that's easier to preach than practice, especially for one who counts among the elites that hark back, if only spiritually, to the real glory days of the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment and Reason. That's what inspired America in 1787, and there's no shortage of French today who believe unabashedly in an "intellectual aristocracy" that can and should rise again to impose its global will. Thus Thierry de Montbrial, president of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, writes that "the enlightened part of Europe" will "pull behind it and will command the rest"--constitutionally, of course.

But what happens if the rest of Europe doesn't listen? Or when other intellec-tual, political or economic powers say, "Thanks, but it's our turn now." French intellectuals will remain amazed, frustrated, malaised. And so might other Europeans who aspire to the mantle, for surely France is not the only nation that's loath to let others lead if it cannot. Vulcania could become a metaphor for Brussels, one man's vision of a place no one else really wants to go.