The yogurt kings of France succeeded this week while the barons of bicycle racing and les artistes du striptease failed the nation. Or perhaps it is the other way around. The inimitable French respond to the rising tides of foreign challenge and globalization by saying no, and yes, almost in the same breath.
The no came from Groupe Danone, which noisily refused to be taken over by rampant American capitalism. French politicians then rushed to defend the yogurt and bottled-water company with a ferocity matching the American legislators who vow to block the Chinese purchase of the U.S. energy company Unocal.
Each nation has its own definition of "strategic" -- one man's yogurt is another man's petroleum, perhaps -- and its own phobias and strengths that surface when it feels threatened by external forces, be they military, economic or cultural. One size does not fit all in real life, not even when it comes to globalization, as we call the greatly accelerated flow of goods, people, technology and capital across borders.
Patience. We will get back to the French strippers and bikers shortly. As Snoopy habitually promised the readers of "Peanuts," in Chapter Two, I tie all this together.
National character is far from an exhausted force, despite the European Union's spreading of its grasp over the continent, and the Clinton-Bush-era certitude that capital markets know best and will level the world into a rational, largely American-inspired image if they are just left undisturbed.
The reaction by different countries to that view of globalization is in fact much more uneven -- and much more vulnerable to political manipulation in secular societies and angry religious backlash in others -- than we are being told. The illusion of uniformity, even within the same country, promises to exact a heavy price eventually in broken confidence and dreams.
Nations express their fears of others, and their fears of themselves, in these reactions. American legislators seem to assume that China will pursue strategic and economic advantage inside U.S. borders with the same determination and skill that Americans have shown in bringing other countries into the U.S. sphere of economic influence. That fear powers the drive to keep China's government-owned oil company from buying Unocal.
Leftist German politicians have responded to a recent wave of American hedge fund purchases of German assets by denouncing foreign capitalists as "locusts" who are picking the country clean. Fighting locusts is presumably easier than dealing with the threatening reality that German businessmen are in effect giving up on the future of Europe's largest economy and selling out to move companies elsewhere.
The case of Danone (its products are Anglicized as Dannon in foreign markets) illustrates another economic reality clouded by politics. This medium-size company has progressively closed down its factories in France -- which today accounts for about one-fifth of Danone's business and 15 percent of its employees -- to serve markets abroad.
France's most dynamic companies today are in fact its multinationals and export-oriented manufacturers. Yet when rumors swept the French stock market that PepsiCo was considering a hostile bid to take over Danone -- sending the company's shares soaring -- France's politicians rushed to prevent this "national champion" from being Americanized. The uproar forced a denial from PepsiCo that it was preparing a bid, a statement that sparked political high-fiving in Paris even as Danone's stock retreated.
"One France accepts and contributes to globalization -- notably Airbus, high-speed trains and other high-tech products," says Philippe Labro, a leading French novelist who is also a communications company executive. "The other France wants to stay as an oyster in a purely French shell. It is not clear which France will prevail. But it is clear that arrogance is a luxury, not a policy."
Against that backdrop the warm public acceptance of Lance Armstrong's seventh Tour de France victory -- a "yes" by any measure -- appears even more gracious. Armstrong's manifest valor and dedication to a European sport helped enormously. He has probably done more for America's image in France than 10 public diplomacy campaigns.
Another yes to globalization came from the owners of Le Crazy Horse, arguably the world's most sophisticated strip joint, who announced on Monday that they had sold the famed nightclub to foreign buyers.
In tones reminiscent of the passing of a national figure, the daily Le Monde reported that Le Crazy "is no longer French." But it hastened to add that the new owners, who are Belgian, have promised to keep "the French touch" on the art of "le nu feminin." Some things not even globalization can change.