Just a rumor of plans by American food conglomerate PepsiCo to gobble up a French icon of health-consciousness -- the Danone yogurt and Evian water empire -- was enough to send many French politicians into a patriotic fervor this summer.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a likely contender for the presidency in 2007, declared Danone to be one of the country's "industrial treasures" and launched a campaign to keep it and other famous French corporate names in local hands.
"He has to pander to the masses in the same way George Bush does in the United States," said Christopher Mesnooh, an international trade attorney in the Paris office of Hughes, Hubbard and Reed. "But in this country they don't talk about religion and God. They talk about keeping certain precious assets in the hands of the French."
In an era of globalization, few Western countries are more torn between protecting their national heritage and joining the single world market than France is. In the 3 1/2 months since French voters chastened their political leaders by rejecting a proposed European constitution, the country has placed itself increasingly at odds with neighbors who are more eager to open Europe to international competition.
Some of the sentiment stems from suspicion of the United States. "Globalization is seen as another word for Americanization," Mesnooh said. "All the big multinational brands in Paris are American."
Within the last two months, two more of France's most venerable cultural symbols have slipped into foreign hands or moved production out of its borders.
Starwood Capital Group, a U.S. property investment company, bought the luxury Taittinger champagne label this summer.
And Altadis, the manufacturer of the potent Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes -- the smokes favored by the likes of actress Brigitte Bardot, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and generations of French laborers -- shut down its French factory and moved its assembly line of distinctive blue Gauloises packs with the trademark helmet of a Gallic warrior to Spain, where labor costs are cheaper.
"I am against anything leaving France to go abroad," declared Michel Machado, a 72-year-old retired factory worker who said he smoked 15 or 16 Gauloises a day and had the yellowed fingers to prove it. "It only leads to more unemployment."
The famed French singer Serge Gainsbourg was so enamored of his Gitanes that he once described his life as "an equilateral triangle of girls, Gitanes and alcoholism" and ordered that packs of the cigarettes be scattered on his grave when he died.
"It's over for these brands," said Jacky Mijnucci, 56, an unemployed taxi driver who was spending his afternoon playing a game of petanque, tossing baseball-sized silver balls onto a dirt path in a Parisian park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. "The new generations smoke Marlboro."
As unemployment hovers near 10 percent -- one of the highest levels in Western Europe -- views such as Machado's help explain a decree the French government is scheduled to publish in coming weeks, which would give it power to veto takeovers in fields ranging from military weapons to casinos to biotechnology. The government says the law is aimed at protecting industries vital to national security. It would not apply to companies such as Danone or Taittinger.
European Union officials argue that the law smacks of anti-competition and have threatened to take France to court. The E.U. internal market commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, recently warned he would "vigorously pursue" any breaches of E.U. law in anti-takeover regulations.
The French cultural and political commentator Jean-Claude Casanova said he believed politicians were capitalizing on French insecurities that were fed by last year's enlargement of the European Union to 25 countries, the growing influence of high-volume exporters such as China, and the political and economic dominance of the United States.
"There's a feeling everything's changing in France," said Casanova, who writes a column in the magazine Commentaire. "There's a general feeling of the decreasing importance of France in the world." As a result, he said, French people are clinging tighter than ever to a heritage they fear they are in danger of losing.
The potential sale of Danone, which markets yogurt under the name Dannon in the United States, to Pepsi, a company synonymous in French minds with junk food and overweight Americans, raised a particularly vitriolic cry from the country's politicians.
When rumors of a takeover surfaced anew on Friday, the company's stock temporarily jumped 4.7 percent.
Even as people in France decry possible American takeovers, French companies own or control some of the United States' most beloved institutions. The French media firm Vivendi Universal, for instance, not only owns Motown Records but one of its subsidiaries publishes the American Heritage Dictionary.
"Like everybody, the French are schizophrenically trying to embrace change and seize new opportunities and trying to protect what you have, knowing the two are not compatible," said Paul Swaim, a Paris-based economist for the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development, a grouping of 30 affluent countries.
Despite distrust on both sides of the Atlantic, some officials suggest accord may be coming. After more than two decades of haggling, the United States and the European Union on Thursday announced a tentative agreement on the product that is France's most cherished patrimony -- wine.
The two sides agreed that only France could use its regional appellations such as Champagne or Chablis, unless a U.S. wine-grower was already using the name. Any future American wine producer would be barred from using any specifically European geographic names, such as France's Burgundy or Bordeaux or Italy's Chianti.
In return, American producers will be able to use "E.U. traditional descriptions" such as "chateau," "noble" and "superior" on their labels, however distasteful to the French.