You simply can't make the long trip from France's northern city of Lille all the way south to the Mediterranean coast without noting an important detail. Compared to most other European countries, the French don't go out of their way to post bilingual signs in English. Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and even the Scandinavian countries all make life a good bit easier at train stations, airports, hotels, and other public places with enough alternative summaries in English to get along. France wears its French-only custom on its sleeve.
All I could think-especially after my wife and I misread the signs, boarded a wrong train, and went several hours out of our way-was: Those uppity French!
And then I tried to remember the last time, anywhere in the whole United States, that I had seen a sign in English that added a helpful translation into French.
So I apologized (to myself) for the last mean-spirited joke I had told about the French, and vowed to try to understand them better.
Now our friends in France have done something much more remarkable than my little about-face. They've elected as their new president someone who says what their retiring president, Jacques Chirac, wouldn't have said in a thousand years. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy (see related story in this week's issue), says he loves the people of the United States! He says he intends to transform his country, restore its self-respect, and reinvigorate ties with America.
If you'd reached the point where you thought the United States had no friends left anywhere-much less in France-that may sound a little unbelievable. The acrimony between our two countries over the last few years, fanned both by the war in Iraq and often by the liberal media, has been painful.
But in fact, France has in some ways simply shown itself to be a little farther down the same road that the United States is traveling. Secularism is a raging infection in both places, but here we still at least pretend to be a religious people. Immigration-particularly by Muslim populations-is more visibly advanced in France, but still a growing worry here. Paternalistic government, endless bureaucracies, and smothering red tape earn complaints in both nations, but are enough worse in France so that, among other results, unemployment is regularly twice as bad there (9 percent last week) as it is here.
So indeed, there is nothing easy about the assignments being handed now to the much more conservative government that will be headed by Sarkozy. His 53 percent to 47 percent victory over his socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, was solid by electoral standards. But when nearly half the population still expressed a preference for going down the soft, cushy path of the 35-hour work week and universal benefits of every kind, Sarkozy will have to work hard to make good on his promises to "break with the habits and behavior of the past" and "to give greater value to work, to authority, to respect, to merit."
Specifically, Mr. Sarkozy promises to cut taxes in France, reduce deficits, shrink government, and loosen labor laws-all the same kind of medicine Margaret Thatcher first applied to bring economic first aid to Britain almost a generation ago. At least a slim majority of voters apparently no longer believes the promises of the big social welfare states, and is ready for a few new disciplines.
But who would have thought it would happen in France, where we thought everyone was arrogant and exclusively Franco-focused? Who would have guessed there'd be a new president there saying on election night how eager he is to "appeal to our American friends"?
The almost improbable election of Sarkozy is a sober reminder how unexpectedly and suddenly God can turn the heart of a king-or even the president of a country that, like France, has become a virtual basket case. He is the one who sets nations up and puts them down.
So when I'm reminded that God isn't limited to dealing with the arrogance he finds in France, I think: Maybe that ought to be translated and posted on public signs in every language known to the human race.