Telling a single story in one article is a challenging enough journalistic task, but taking the pulse of an entire nation in one hit? That's what we aim to do this week, with the Special Report on France you now hold in your hands. Naturellement, we think we have succeeded — and the portrait of the nation we deliver in this issue contrasts sharply with the one painted in our last France Special five years ago. Says Paris bureau chief Thomas Sancton, who headed the team that produced the 30-page report: "Some of the most dramatic changes in France, particularly those driven by the Internet and the new economy, have happened just in the past few years." He and the rest of the team discovered that much of this renaissance is spontaneous. "One of the most fascinating and surprising conclusions that I've come away with," says Sancton — who is married to a Frenchwoman and has spent a total of 18 years living in France — "is how little the country's political leadership really understands or controls these transformations, and how much change is taking place at the grassroots, entrepreneurial, cultural and regional levels."
A glimpse of just how far French society has shifted comes from Paris-based reporter Nicholas Le Quesne, whose brief ranged from Islam (now the second religion in France), to hip-hop music, to Internet start-ups that are taking over a former rag trade area of the capital now known as Silicon Sentier. Le Quesne went to interview Michel Meyer, the ceo of dotcom company MultiMania. "I was introduced to a 27-year-old with an untrimmed beard, wearing jeans, sweater and a black leather jacket," says Le Quesne. "I sat opposite him and we talked for about an hour and a half. Meyer had one eye on a laptop open on his desk, and every now and then he would reach across and punch a few keys." Toward the end of the interview, Meyer was called away. And of course Le Quesne couldn't resist getting up and taking a peek at the screen. "I discovered that he had been managing his personal share portfolio using an online trading program."
London-based staffer Romesh Ratnesar, who has previously covered the Internet gold rush in Silicon Valley, found on his French travels that many of the young entrepreneurs who are fueling France's growth learned the rules of the new economy through stints in American universities and high-tech companies. "In their approach to running businesses, new entrepreneurs in Paris are no different from those in Palo Alto," Ratnesar says. "They're loose, resourceful and in a hurry. And they are not afraid to fail."
That racy, don't-waste-a-second France of the new economy is not, of course, the whole picture. Reporter Bruce Crumley found in covering topics as varied as water companies and the resurgence of Breton culture that the changes go far deeper than francs in pockets. He concluded that "the formerly unflappable, dour, difficult-to-enthuse French now dare to hope that there is at least as much opportunity as risk in the social and economic changes underway. The Gallic shrug has given over to a degree of excitement about the rapid mutations taking place."
What all the team producing this report agreed upon was that Paris, for all that it remains the world's No. 1 tourist drawcard, is no longer the hub around which France spins. Says Sancton, who interviewed economists, sociologists, politicians, pollsters, culture mavens and think-tankers, "Most of these sources agreed that the old Jacobin, Paris-centered republic is gradually giving way to a more decentralized, multipolar, entrepreneurial and multi-cultural society."
On that last note, reporter Tala Skari, a Montana native married to a Frenchman, found while investigating immigrant communities that the French remain "profoundly attached to a unique identity and republican principles." But at the same time she kept coming across "an almost passionate yearning to see France succeed in becoming a truly inclusive society."
Visually, this week's special report also reflects the new France. We use no pictures of old men in berets playing boules or women with baguette under one arm, poodle under the other. Photo editor Barbara Nagelsmith, who has been coming up with Time's photos from France for the past 22 years, says she has found "there are new photographers making different photos that are as dynamic and energetic as the new France is today."
London-based French-speaking staffers Charlotte Greensit, Aisha Labi and Kate Noble also brought their energies into capturing this new France. So did Harvard University Professor Stanley Hoffmann, who offers outside perspective in an essay that closes the Special Report. The package was designed by assistant art director Cate Warde, who should be enjoying a well-earned vacation in France at this very moment, checking out our reporting firsthand. We believe that the combined efforts of our team will give readers the flavor of a nation trying to reinvent itself.
Oh yes, and the Time team say the food's still magnifique.
, Editor, TIME Atlantic