Monday, 20 January 2014

La Belle France

I like France and I'd like the place even more if the French weren't so 'up themselves' and so terribly rude at times.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian seems to be a Francophile too, but he hits the nail on the head when he says that Francois Hollande's big problem is the state of the French economy - not the President's complicated private life.

What puzzles me is that while the French appears to be becoming less socialist in his outlook (he declared himself to be a Social Democrat recently) - his political soulmate in the UK, Ed Miliband, is trying to beef up his socialist credentials.     

Hollande's private life is the least of his problems

The president should be regretting not his personal follies but the failure of the French economic model

By Simon Jenkins

President Hollande's press conference on 14 January. Link to video: François Hollande dodges affair question

Of course it matters. A president is not just a professional figure. He is a head of state, briefly the embodiment of his people. If the Queen were sneaking off on a scooter each night to see a toyboy in Pimlico, Britons might regard it as a "purely private affair". But they would be aghast and agog. President Hollande's love life may be private. But is it really of no interest or concern to the French people? Pull the other one.

Behaviour, style, personal relationships may seem tangential to government as a business, but they cannot be divorced from government as an art. Most of the "unanswered" questions swirling around Hollande'spress conference struggled to drag his private life into the public domain. Was there a security risk? Was the president vulnerable to attack or kidnap? Was a bodyguard with him at all times? The answers to these questions were trivial.

They were proxies for a different fascination, one that is bound to envelop the private lives of public figures. We all seek in the lives of celebrities some echo of our joys and sorrows. Personal emotion and behaviour may have no imprint on public action. But such is the secrecy of power that we crave any glimpse of the "man behind the mask". In a democracy, "the public interest" is to some degree whatever interests the public.

Hollande has swatted aside his ever deferential press corps with "no comment" on his private life. But he is asking his people to behave differently, to agree a "responsibility pact" to set aside decades of self-indulgence that is in part the legacy of his own French socialist movement. They must come together to liberate employment and accept a reduction in spending and business taxes. His apologists might argue that this is just a matter of laws and austerity. But he is asking for a change in outlook and behaviour. People are less likely to respond if they see the man asking as a fool or an object of ridicule.

I have always seen France as in some sense Britain's twin. They are two countries with the same population, the same GDP, the same life expectancy and the same murder rate. They share much of their history. French workers pour into London for jobs, while one in five Britons spends at least a week a year in France. Finance flourishes in London, but Europe's second economy, tourism, flourishes in France, whose coast and countryside are not just more extensive than Britain's but also better conserved.

France has seemed a strangely somnolent giant. After the war it relaxed while Germany strove. Paris played Athens to Bonn's Rome. Its leaders were largely responsible for designing the common market as a comfort blanket, not a spur to efficiency. They guarded its agriculture and industry from global competition and isolated its social costs, particularly immigration from Africa, in sprawling suburbs and southern cities. France did well out of Europe.

The result is often impressive. I drove last autumn from Toulouse across the south-west to Montpellier, as I had previously driven from Paris to Lyon and across to Bordeaux. Everywhere were signs of the huge investment France has made in its industrial and civic infrastructure: Airbus in Toulouse, IBM in Montpellier, Dassault and EADS in Bordeaux and industrial estates around Paris and Lyon. Seemingly immaculate factories surrounded carefully beautified towns.

The prosperity and pride of French cities is in glaring contrast to Britain's former industrial regions. London's postwar contempt for provincial Britain is ever more grotesque when seen from continental Europe, as if urban renewal meant nothing but a motorway, a hypermarket and a shed estate. France knows such places must appeal culturally to new people and new money. Paris has protected its charm to be Europe's premier visitor destination, while France's glorious valleys and sweeping uplands are becoming the resort of an entire continent. I have never seen how France could fail.

It fails at present only when you enter any commercial premises and hear the same wail. Service is dreadful because taxes are high and employing anyone is prohibitively costly. Unemployment is now 11%, and the young and the rich are leaving for England and elsewhere. In almost any small restaurant, only family members are employed. France has sabotaged its industry with protection and its services with regulation.

In their immaculate history of recent Anglo-French relations, That Sweet Enemy, Robert and Isabelle Tombs chart the nervousness with which each country has viewed the other as the EU evolved. To Margaret Thatcher, an early enthusiast for the common market, the cohort of French énarques around François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors offered a different economic model. As she said: "It was clear from the start they had competing visions of Europe." Theirs was what Tombs called "the last full-blooded, leftwing economic experiment anywhere in the world".

Thatcher – and John Major and Tony Blair after her – were convinced the French model would not work. They were largely right. As its economy ailed, France sought comfort in joining the euro, and thus denied itself the currency flexibility that might have protected it from nemesis. In 2005 the people of France could not face further European union, and voted initially against the Lisbon treaty. At the time, the future president Nicolas Sarkozy wrote that "the limits of the model" had been reached, and that France must reduce its "stifling" public spending, reduce public debt and "become less afraid of the outside world", according to the Tombs.

When Sarkozy came to power in 2007 he promised what he had preached, "to break with the ideas, habits and behaviour of the past". He brought into play the long-delayed disciplines of "French Thatcherism". But he failed, giving Hollande the opportunity to promise relief from such disciplines and a return to the escapism of dirigisme and debt. It was a promise the electorate eagerly believed and, as a questioner asked at the conference, the result was "18 wasted months".

It is this waste that Hollande should have regretted, whatever woes may surround his personal affairs. He has already declared the French state "too heavy, too slow, too costly", but he needs to move mountains if he is to convert platitudes into action. He may plead his entitlement to a private life. But his private life has made his public one immeasurably harder.