France's Je Ne Sais Quoi

How France and the United States can strengthen each other in the future.

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The Eiffel Tower rises from behind blossoming flowers and trees in Paris, France, Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

The upcoming French national holiday of "Bastille Day" marks a good moment to examine why France matters to the United States and in the world.

The United States owes its independence to France, which provided a billion livres in financing for the Revolutionary War and which, at the decisive Battle of Yorktown, fielded three times as many soldiers and sailors as there were American colonists in the fight. America repaid that debt by sending the Doughboys in 1917 and the GIs who landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Beyond our shared history, it ought to be obvious why France matters now and will matter in the future – and perhaps it would be obvious if the French did not have such extraordinary difficulty in articulating their own strengths.

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In part their reticence stems from discretion, the taboo of self-promotion, and in part from the same awkwardness that often makes Americans unattractive around the world: both countries espouse values they deem universal, and then appear especially egocentric when they claim those values as their own.

Yet France does matter, for all the reasons you already know: history, culture, refinement and the certain "je ne sais quoi" that goes with being French. France also matters because it is an organized country. Its institutions work. The French healthcare system delivers longer life expectancies at half the U.S. cost, its early education program is admired around the world, and the functioning of its government institutions is clear-cut and provides great certainty, both for branches and levels of government interacting with each other and for the citizen vis-à-vis the state.

France's strong social safety net discourages labor mobility and job creation, yet France matters because it is home to some of the world's most successful global multinationals in cutting-edge 21st century industries: clean, safe nuclear power, which provides 85 percent of France's electricity and recycles 96 percent of its spent fuel; water management and environmental services; and infrastructure, including high-speed rail that makes France a smart logistics platform second to almost none.

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The U.S. lead in information technology or entrepreneurship does not mean Americans cannot learn from France; and Americans would do well to seek lessons not just from our adversaries but from our friends.

France also matters because it has taken steps to address its internal problems. Its own immigration reforms place significant civic responsibilities on newcomers while providing them instruction in the French language and in their duties as citizens, including gender equality in the household. France has liberalized its higher education system to make it more competitive and sought to encourage business creation through changes in its laws. Astonishingly, for Americans, France has a standing government department responsible for administrative reform and increased efficiency, which has delivered rationalizations in services and reduced the bureaucratic burden of dealing with government often well below U.S. levels of complexity.

France still counts globally. It ranks as the world's fifth largest national economy, second biggest in Europe behind Germany, is the only country in the world to possess sovereign territory on each of the five major continents and the only country to have been a founder-member of the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the European Union. Even after the cuts recommended in the latest French defense white paper, France is the only U.S. ally to muster a full-spectrum defense capability across land, air and sea, and with nuclear weapons of its own. France took the lead in Libya while the United States "led from behind."

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How can France and the United States strengthen each other in the future? Our victories in the 20th century will mean little if we do not carry our standards forward into the 21st. Yet in the absence of a global conflagration, this era will be defined more by rivalries than by enemies. We must concentrate not on achieving victory, but on attaining success. This requires a constant focus on our competitiveness, in the broadest sense: social and economic, political and military, public-sector and private-sector.

Here again, there are tremendous lessons to be learned from our comparative experiences and our complementary capabilities. There is scope for collaboration that benefits us both, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Competitiveness provides the objective and the opportunity for us to continue and renew the relationship that has served to make us each other's oldest ally – and to value why France matters in the years to come.

Nicholas Dungan is a senior fellow in the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. and a senior advisor to the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

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