Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was soon to mount the speaker's platform at the United Nations and deliver a weighty address on arms control, international finance and world politics. But the French leader also found time to talk about food when I brought up one of France's two or three favorite topics.
"Traceability," he said in lightly accented English, rolling the unfamiliar but fruity word along his palate as if it were a sip of newly uncorked wine. He approved.
"The French are very concerned about traceability. They fear not knowing where the food they eat comes from in this era of global trade, of mad cow disease, of dioxin-fed chicken and other things that recall the need for food safety."
I had told Jospin about my experience in rural France this summer with a butcher's shop where the name, birthdate, address, weight and even photo of the cow -- who had given her all for the butcher's clients -- were posted on a board beside the counter.
This shop and others like it had been originally described to me by Philippe Faure, publisher of France's Gault Millau restaurant guide. He sees in establishments posting their products' curriculum vitae a profoundly French reaction to the disorientation being produced by the forces of economic and cultural globalization.
"Food in Europe is a fundamental expression of culture," Faure said in words echoed in New York this week in another context by the prime minister. "The local or national identity of food is now threatened by globalization."
To illustrate his point, Faure took me to the summer's hot new restaurant in Paris, Cafe Coste, which offers couscous from North Africa, avocado salad from California, paella from Spain, Bass ale from Britain and a bare minimum of traditional French dishes. "The point is to be able to find here what you can find anywhere -- to eat globally with imported products and styles. And these restaurants are proliferating."
Leave it to the French to make food a leading analytical tool to decode the contending forces of globalization. But an hour's conversation with Jospin on this and other issues leaves me convinced that there is much more to the French concern than a hidden protectionist agricultural agenda, as some U.S. officials charge.
Understand this about Jospin, the Socialist leader who stunned the French political class 27 months ago by upsetting the ruling conservative coalition in parliamentary elections: He cares about words as well as food, as his tasting of "traceability" suggests.
His program for meeting the challenges of global competition features tax cuts, encouragement for mergers in French industry, tight budget control and a relaxed attitude about the growing equity stake held by U.S. pension funds in French companies listed on the Paris stock exchange. About 40 percent of the shares of the 40 largest listed French companies are now owned by U.S. funds, a phenomenon that would have provoked national alarm in the days of Charles de Gaulle or Francois Mitterrand.
"We are not worried by large numbers of foreign investors who hold shares -- instead of holding direct control -- and who make decisions based on what is profitable," said the Socialist prime minister of France.
Jospin works hard to avoid dramatizing the reshaping of French capitalism that is occurring under a government he proudly defends as being genuinely of the left. "I am not the prime minister of French capitalism," he bristled when I brought up the mergers, tax cuts and other changes. "I am the prime minister of France."
But he also says that "tax cuts are not a matter of ideology to us. Taxes are too high in France. We cut them where we can. We encourage consumption where we can by giving confidence to consumers. The country believes our commitment to fighting unemployment," which continues to fall by small but politically potent amounts each month as annual growth reaches the 3 percent range.
France is already much more a player in the global economy than many abroad or in France realize. The French rank in the top five nations in exports, imports, sending investment abroad and taking it in at home. Jospin has moved with some stealth to accelerate those trends while repeatedly voicing his nation's fears of being overwhelmed by globalization in key areas -- such as food.
"We do not resist globalization," Jospin concluded as he gathered up his papers for the U.N. General Assembly. "We want to civilize globalization where we can, to harmonize it with our way of life. We don't want to be passive. We are open, but we are not masochistic."