FRANCE makes a good touchstone for America's future policies. The political system of the French republic is not incomparably different from ours. Recently France has been governed by politicians who, no matter what they have called themselves, have been basically careful and rather traditional. France has fought two disastrous postcolonial wars, in Vietnam and in Algeria, which gained it nothing but a vast number of new immigrants whom it is now trying to absorb in the teeth of increasing local hostility and racism. But France's view of what national politics will be about in the years ahead seems about as far removed from ours as is possible between two Western nations.
I spent much of last spring in France, talking to a variety of people whose jobs made them experts in one field or another. Many of them were professionally involved in the presidential campaign, a few of them to the point where the future of their jobs depended on its outcome. Yet they were to a surprising degree detached from the personalities and politics of the main candidates, Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin, Edouard Balladur, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Robert Hue.
Most of them were fonctionnaires at the highest level of civil service, men and women who actually make policy. This is a class of people of whom the United States has very few. Their views of the future had a considerable unity, which made it somewhat pointless after a meeting to wonder if the views aired had been leftist, centrist, or rightist. They were also blessedly free of political rhetoric. Hubert Astier, the former directeur de cabinet for the Minister of Culture, for instance, did not mention the person of his minister at all in a two-hour conversation, and when, toward the end, I finally brought the minister up as a subject, it became quite clear that that man was not highly relevant to the future of the policies we had been discussing.