No . . . to boule and Pastis

Europe - Don't write the obituaries yet. A new France could put Britain on the sidelines

The gleeful obituaries are piling up, not just for the EU constitution, but for the country that torpedoed it. France is in a mess, we read; its politics are paralysed, its economy is over-regulated and it just can't accommodate itself to globalisation with an Anglo-Saxon face.

But before we gorge on schadenfreude we should consider an alternative view: that the French vote was a vote for change. It is too early to say exactly what the No voters wanted, but I find it hard to believe that the cheering young people at the Bastille whose votes disproportionately swelled the No camp were voting for a life of boule and Pastis. For many, it was less a cry to stop the world and let France off than a vote to free France from Chirac and his cabal of out-of-touch enarques.

Judging by this view, the vote could be France's Black Wednesday, a European crisis that frees it from a time-serving government and opens the door to a younger, hungrier leader. Just as Black Wednesday paved the way for Blair, the Non opens the way for a Sarkozy presidency in 2007 that could turn European politics on its head - and make things uncomfortable for the UK.

Although many see France's approach to globalisation through the prism of Jose Bove - the former farmer and occasional arsonist of McDonald's restaurants - the truth is that many French people have already said "oui" to the global economy. This was brought home to me when I was living in Washington, DC last year. The US is full of Frenchmen and women who have crossed the Atlantic to claim a piece of the American capitalist action. They run 2,500 subsidiaries of French companies in the US, with 580,000 employees and a combined turnover of $200bn (£110bn). Addressing them on a visit to the US, Nicolas Sarkozy cut through the jokes about freedom fries to speak of privatisations, sell-offs of government property, and reform. His message was simple: I am like you - modern, go-getting and a winner.

No doubt he says the same on trips to London, where 300,000 French citizens work, often for subsidiaries of companies such as Orange, Axa or Lafarge, or elsewhere in the City. They have changed the face of south-west London, colonising entire neighbourhoods (the Maison Blanc patisserie in South Kensington won't serve you if you don't speak French). People such as these have had the same effect on France's industry that Sarko has on its politics. Take Carlos Ghosn, the Franco-Lebanese who six years ago was put in charge of the ailing Nissan when Renault bought a 44 per cent stake. He turned it into the world's most profitable mass vehicle-maker and is now head of Renault. And if you want to know whose heavy industry is coping better with globalisation, compare Renault with Rover.

It is easy to forget how global the French economy has become. According to some measures, it is the fourth-biggest in the world - a whisker ahead of the UK's. France attracts three times as much inward investment as Britain and 50 per cent more than the US. And it is reforming rapidly. At the Centre for European Reform, Alasdair Murray and Aurore Wanlin have ranked EU countries according to the progress they have made on the so-called "Lisbon reforms". France comes fourth if you look at advances made since 1999.

This brings me back to Black Wednesday. Britain had already mentally moved on from Thatcherism, and the slow goodbye to John Major was a period of national malaise. But behind the facade another reality was stirring, of creativity in fashion, architecture, science and technology, of multiculturalism and economic revival. It took a new government for the slouching British bulldog to turn into a greyhound.

France may be in a similar position. The underlying reality of French life is attractive: where would you rather catch a train, have a heart transplant operation, go for a meal? And a glance at the cultural realm shows how vibrant and globalised France is: Faudel, Agnes Jaoui, Luc Besson, Michel Houellebecq, Bernard-Henri Levy and Tariq Ramadan all soar above the plodding parochialism of their British counterparts. France's productivity is high; its demographics are healthy and its public services strong. It has given up some of its lost causes: Minitel has surrendered to the internet; the Academie Francaise has given up challenging English and decided to promote multilingualism; Ena-ocracy is losing its grip.

So far, these changes have not been embraced by the political class, and I have a feeling that if French politics can gain a sense of self-confidence and a feeling that not all reform is bad, the country's position will be transformed. French history in the 20th century has been a series of crises: Algeria in 1958; the evenements of 1968; the collapse of Mitterrand's hardline socialism in 1981; the near-No to Maastricht in 1992. A new order was born each time. There is no certainty that Sarko will be able to get the unions behind the reforms needed to lower unemployment - his time as finance minister was stronger on rhetoric than delivery - but everyone has underestimated his energy and his guts.

That is why we should avoid complacency. Old Europe will be back. Sarko knows that France cannot lead Europe by being anti-American, anti-enlargement and anti-reform. A forward-looking France that combines the rhetoric of social Europe with a reformist, integrationist agenda will be a formidable force. If that happens, it could again be Britain that finds itself on the sidelines, apologising for its negativity and being obituarised in Le Monde.

Mark Leonard (www.markleonard.net) is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform and author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (Fourth Estate, £8.99)