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France at the Turning Point

Jean-Marie Messier and Jean-Marie Le Pen could hardly be more different. Messier, 45, is a globetrotter who runs media conglomerate Vivendi Universal (V). Le Pen, 73, is a crude-talking ex-paratrooper who is France's leading xenophobe.

In recent days, both men have stirred great controversy in France. Messier was the target of angry demonstrations after he fired Pierre Lescure, the head of Vivendi's popular but money-losing pay-TV unit, Canal+. A few days later, the French poured into the streets again after Le Pen upset Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to win a spot in the May 5 runoff against President Jacques Chirac.

Both Messier and Le Pen raise a serious question that France must confront. Is the country prepared to fully join the global economy as a major economic force or does it want to turn inward into a "Little France," preoccupied with provincial concerns at best or, worse, nativisim and racism?

Messier offers France the chance to prove itself. True there are a number of corporations such as L'Or?al, Danone, and Michelin that already hold their own in global competition. But Messier is trying to build a genuinely multinational organization, with operations and managers around the world, that subordinates French cultural needs to the global reach of the corporation. This is the way all global corporations operate. As the anti-Messier protests showed, the French still have trouble with the idea that a global company such as Vivendi is in business to make money, not to defend French cultural icons at any cost.

Le Pen represents one strand of French political narrowness expressed over the centuries in anger toward minorities, be they Arabs or Jews. He is against the European Union, against globalization, against the modern world.

France's tragedy is that it can't decide whether to go backward or forward. The hundreds of thousands of young French working in the U.S. and Britain have already made that decision. Now the rest of the country must follow.

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