Same-sex weddings would be an unacceptable "parody of marriage," the president said dismissively. No, not that president. The speaker this time was Jacques Chirac of France.

I confess to some surprise. I thought the French elite would treat our periodic controversy over gay marriage as one more target in its war on American cultural yahooism. But as Henry Higgins said in "My Fair Lady," they don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it correctly."

But Lerner & Loewe's national stereotyping of the French did not hold up when Bastille Day rolled around last week.

Asked by a television interviewer about legalizing homosexual marriage in France, Chirac batted the question away in terms that sounded almost George W.-ish. The echoes were clear enough to raise the thought that NATO might be salvaged after all. If not Iraq, how about defending heterosexual matrimony together?

Bush and Chirac have much more in common personally than the recent bitter political arguments over the Middle East, the Kyoto Protocol and the rest suggest. I'll tell that story another day.

But their reflexive defense of conventional marriage shows one major official similarity: Both lead societies that are responding unevenly and uncertainly to the pressures of swirling cultural change and confusion.

The arguments here and abroad over gay marriage form only one small sliver of controversy about how we live and don't let live in the global era. Immigration, travel, communication, financial flows and technology erase the borders of nations, neighborhoods and lifestyles. New forms of contact are constant, intimate and often friction-filled rather than harmonious.

Social scientists, politicians and even economists once predicted that cultural convergence would occur as differing societies and peoples rubbed up against each other. But those expectations are rapidly withering on the vine. To know you is actually to loathe you, it turns out.

Or so it seems at times in the acrimonious wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Iraq, the poisonous but abiding Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the open animosities that have developed between Europe's Muslim ghettoes and their secular or Christian hosts.

That social brittleness was much on Chirac's mind and lips as he gave the French president's annual July 14 television interview, which has become a State of the Summer address to the French as they prepare to sink collectively into les vacances, a languid month of Sundays.

Sounding almost as if he were running on this side of the Atlantic this year, Chirac was careful to link his "parody" slam against gay unionizing to support for full legal benefits for gays living together. "I want the existing arrangements improved," he said. (In another rare bit of concord with American politicians, Chirac also lavished praise on Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for cutting interest rates at the right time, in contrast to Europe's central bankers.)

By coincidence, Chirac spoke a few hours before a Bush-supported move for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage failed in the U.S. Senate last Wednesday.

Neither the French president's interview nor the Senate debate cast much light on the merits and demerits of same-sex weddings. But both events did underline the deepening mood of cultural defensiveness in two countries that pride themselves more than most on their global cultural reach and attraction.

Religion is at the core of French culture, but not of its politics, which are traditionally and determinedly secular. Chirac's rejection of gay marriage -- and this is a difference with both Bush and same-sex activists -- is rooted in a determination to keep church sacraments out of party politics, especially when the French have so many other explosive cultural identity issues to confront.

Both the culture and the political system in France are under intense pressure from a rising clash of religious communities there, as Islamic immigrants reject cultural assimilation, anti-Arab racism gallops in public acceptance and French Jews document a sharp increase in anti-Semitic violence.

"We reject all forms of identity politics," Chirac said Wednesday, sounding a little like King Canute ordering the waves to cease. He announced an urgent new emphasis on teaching civic responsibility and mutual respect in grammar school -- after the national closing that occurs in August ends.

The news is not that France is facing cultural upheaval unlike anything it has seen since the traumatic 1968 student protests or that it is having difficulty coping with it. The new Cultural Revolution that is underway is a global sport, and we all get to play.