Charles de Gaulle bequeathed the French two big ideas and the atomic bomb to see them through the sad national duty of surviving without him. The bomb is still there and probably always will be. The ideas may not be as resilient. They face severe challenge this spring.
One idea was to form a superbly educated, merit-based political elite to revitalize the defeated and demoralized nation that emerged from World War II. The cream of the intellectual crop would be chosen by rigorous examinations, educated in prestigious national schools and assigned important government jobs based on grades.
This meritocracy produced two working generations of talented, dedicated administrators who gradually moved to the top of France's business and political establishments. How you respond to "the French" depends in some measure on how you react to dealing with the smartest kid in the class, who cannot resist occasionally reminding you of that fact. You may not find that as invigorating as I (usually) do.
But the French elite -- and the system that produced it -- is on trial this spring in a Paris courtroom, where 47 political party activists and business executives stand accused of falsifying government contracts to provide France's main parties with secret campaign funds.
If these people did participate in a corrupt, long-standing conspiracy to parcel out hidden business payoffs to France's Gaullists, socialists, communists and others, the probability that the country's most important political leaders were not involved approaches zero. France's political class operates as the country's central nervous system.
Constitutional law prevents the investigation or prosecution of President Jacques Chirac in such cases. But the trial, which is expected to last four months, casts shadows on the Elysee Palace and saps the moral authority of Chirac's government, which also faces voter discontent over unfulfilled promises and a sluggish economy.
This noxious mix is creating a challenge to the other big idea, which de Gaulle adopted, reshaped and sold to the French public as a matter of national survival. That is the concept of a united Europe -- united under French intellectual leadership and political parity with Germany (which also has ideas, but does not have the bomb).
France's leaders have been stunned by recent public opinion polls that show a clear majority of the electorate intending to vote against the European Union's draft constitutional treaty in a May 29 referendum. A "non" from France would kill the treaty and open an existential crisis in the 25-nation union.
These two trials of France's elite -- the legal one in Paris, the political one of coaxing a "oui" to a more politically integrated Europe -- are merging into a policy maelstrom that swirls beyond France's borders.
As his domestic challenges mount, Chirac seeks refuge and armor in foreign policy decisions and meetings. To reassure the electorate that French rights are not threatened by the new constitution, he has been busy defying the existing procedures and powers of the union's executive arm in Brussels.
French opinion makers portray the polls as symbolic vehicles for voters to express their disillusion with the Chirac government, not with Europe. The polls are treated as a beneficial early warning: They will mobilize the elite into vigorously and lucidly campaigning, explaining Europe to the voters anew to get to "oui."
The constitution was after all drafted under the leadership of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He predicts that when the French go into the voting booth, they will put aside their national quarrels and their concern over losing influence in a body that began with six members in de Gaulle's day but jumped to 25 in 2004.
"The French people already think enlargement went too far too fast. They are probably right," Giscard said at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in New York on March 7. "Once they understand there is nothing in the constitution that permits a further enlargement" that would include Turkey, they will vote yes.
It may well be so. The odds are often with the smartest kid in class. But de Gaulle's progeny -- the French elite -- is today deeply divided over the future of the union he helped create. Chirac supports eventual Turkish membership; Giscard opposes it; Socialist Laurent Fabius believes he can regain control of his party by defeating the constitution, which normally he would be expected to support; and so on.
This suggests that instead of growing clarity, there could be growing confusion on Europe and other matters. In a Paris courtroom, acid drops daily on the bedrock of credibility and integrity that has empowered modern French rulers to govern, and to explain.