Richard Reeves

Cycling Into a French Sunset

PARIS -- Each morning at 7:30, a nun in a light-blue habit flies by below my window on a bicycle, going to prayer at St. Sulpice or to nursing in the hospital around the corner.

The weather has been sunnier and brighter than usual this spring, which may account for the impression that there are many more bicycles on the streets. Beautiful women of perfect carriage speed along the old streets, silk dresses and scarves and silky hair flying along with them. Young fathers come along, their children holding on, stopping at schools or at government-subsidized child-care centers.

Or maybe they are pedaling because they just can't afford gas at these prices -- more than $6 a gallon.

Once more, Europe is on its charming bottom. The votes in France and the Netherlands turning down the European constitution mean it will be at least another decade or two before Europe gets itself together, if it ever does. The soft superpower is even softer than anyone in power guessed.

"The deconstruction of Europe has begun, a catastrophe," said Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor and publisher of the great newspaper Le Monde, in conversation with American journalists. "We are becoming a country that doesn't believe in the future. One of four of our young people are unemployed."

Exit polls, another of those American innovations that annoy the French, indicate that young people voted against the constitution -- or the idea of change -- in much greater numbers than their parents, to say nothing of their grandparents. The old people know what a divided, nationalistic Europe can be: They remember World War II and still remember family stories of World War I. They are also among the most entitled people on Earth, the chief beneficiaries of the pensions, the free health care and the shorter work weeks of the "French Model" -- a civilized welfare state, as good as they get.

Old and young both don't much care for the "American Model," which they see as cutthroat competition giving people the freedom to work themselves to lonely deaths. In the question-and-answer session after I gave a little speech here, a couple of Americans used the phrase "the cutting edge." It took me back to another conversation years ago in which I used that phrase, and a French writer said: "The cutting edge, cut and cut. Don't Americans ever polish anything?"

We are very different from each other, the polished French and the hustling Americans, and that goes way back before George W. Bush was president. The French don't like Bush, and they certainly believe the chaos in Iraq proved they were right about that all along. But their struggle to save France from the power of "the Anglo-Saxons" has been going on for a long time.

The important thing about France and its neighbors is that everything has been going on for a long time. They don't welcome change, and "Europe" is a euphemism for change. The amazing thing is not that they are now rebelling against the idea of some kind of political unification, but that they have come or been dragged so far in the economic unification represented by open borders and a common currency.

In a conversation about America and France taped 20 years ago, a French president, Francois Mitterrand, a socialist, described us this way:

"The American people are vibrant, powerful, full of energy, imagination and character. Their continent is rich with extraordinary resources. They have an excellent university system. Put all these elements together, and you have a great nation. ...

"What first strikes one about the United States is the immensity of the territory it still has to explore, to develop, to farm. When you fly from New York to Los Angeles, you spend more than an hour over the red and white sands of the desert, cut here and there by the blue lines of rivers. You feel that the journey west has just begun, that we are still at the dawn of time. For the people below, each step is like a conquest."

The French, wonderfully polished, may be ending a journey, cycling in a sunset of time. When Colombani was asked the meaning of the anti-Europe votes in his country and the Netherlands, he answered: "The 21st century will be an Asian century." Maybe. Americans in SUVs are well aware of the rise of Asia, but are still determined that this be a second American Century.

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