10 April 2006

France is stifling itself

I don't usually cover topics around politics and economics, but then we Brits tend to love any opportunity to take a dig at our gallic neighbours. So, here goes!

Today, President Chirac announced that the new youth employment law that has sparked widespread protests across France would be scrapped. This is yet another big mistake and shows that neither politicians nor the country itself are willing to grasp the problems it most certainly has. It is ironic that it is many of the people who objected most strongly who stood to gain the most - at least in the medium to long term.

There was an excellent article in the Guardian today by Ashley Seager that sums up many of the issues. I'll let you read that as it covers the situation far better than I could. This article also references one from the weekend in which it was suggested as many as 400,000 French might be living in the UK today. Unlike the Brits in France (a high number but more often older or even retired people) most of these are young people who have come here to make the most of their education. This is a serious indictment of the situation there.

Increasingly France resembles much that was bad about the UK 30 years ago. Certainly the number of public sector strikes seems to be very high - and air traffic control, transport workers etc have an effect on many people outside of France. It does not help France's case in the world at large - whether for inward investment or for tourism. I would not be surprised if it might even have caused one or two votes to go against it when selecting the 2012 Olympics - and as it turned out those votes were crucial.

But who is to blame? The people or the politicians? Well, perhaps you get what you deserve in a democracy. But I think this story from the BBC recently in which Chirac stormed out of an EU session when a French business leader had the audacity to address the summit in English, shows that there is failure of leadership at the top to convince a nation it needs to change.

Sure, French is a wonderful language, and much of French culture is incredibly rich and valuable to the world. But if you try to avoid change when the world is changing around you, your influence will decline and, worse, your economic performance will drop off relative to those around you who try to embrace the new. France is avoiding the hard choices it needs to be making. It is inward focused and losing it's influence on World politics.

Of course, we write (slightly) smugly from across the Channel. But the lesson also for us in the UK is that we cannot hide from globalisation either, and indeed we shouldn't, even if we could. I'm not sure that even here the lessons of 30 years ago have been permanently etched in our consciousness. It is easy to imagine a situation where the dreamy far left (whose interpretation of history remains completely warped) in an unholy alliance with those who believe the gospel according to the Daily Mail cause the same sclerotic behaviour. The lesson of what is happening in France is for electorates to realise that we must elect governments who have vision. Governments who will take difficult decisions because they see the consequences of taking them (or not taking them). And we must continue to root out corruption, nepotism and just plain stupidity to ensure those decisions are made only for the best of reasons. (On the latter point, it will be interesting to see whether the Italian electorate, voting at the moment, makes the right choice in that regard).

Mes amis Francais! Réveillez-vous!

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