About 25 years ago, I found myself sitting next to a senior French official on a plane. We were both going to the same meeting, me as an interpreter, he as the representative of his country; the kind of highly intelligent public servant, superbly trained in the Republic’s elite schools that has been running France since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. As we had seen each other before, we got talking and I asked him about globalisation. At the time the word was starting to gain currency but had not passed the lips of any French politician. I wondered why. As globalisation was clearly unstoppable, I ventured, why didn’t there appear to be in France any public debate about what impact it would have, how it could be organised to the country’s advantage and how its positive and negative effects could be accommodated? To my considerable surprise, instead of the tightly argued analysis I was expecting, all I got by way of response was a gallic shrug and a barely audible “je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”).
That aborted conversation came back to me last night as I read a headline in Le Monde entitled: “Les candidats face à la contestation de la mondialisation” (“Candidates’ responses to anti-globalisation protests”). As one might expect, they are very different. Le Pen, Melenchon, and, to a lesser extent, Hamon claim that by putting back the clock by about 30 years and /or spending considerably more taxpayers’ money than the country can afford, all our problems will be miraculously solved. Fillon and Macron sound more realistic, talk of making the French economy more competitive and the French state more efficient but say little about the inevitable losers from globalisation and what should be done to support and protect them.
The sad truth is that, 25 years on, no French leader in power over that period, Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande has ever put forward an all-encompassing and convincing narrative about globalisation. It is therefore hardly surprising that anti-globalisation protests have gathered strength over the years, with politicians tending to react, in haste and under media pressure, to its evident drawbacks - the decline of old industries and their attendant job losses, regional desertification and immigration – while failing to point out the less spectacular but nevertheless very real advantages of cheaper international travel, cars and consumer goods and smartphones for all.
The conspicuous absence of a cogent political response has not prevented some French companies from doing very nicely out of globalisation: LVMH, L’Oreal, Airbus and Total, to name just four, generate considerably more profit these days from global markets than they do from their home market, while keeping their centres of decision and research mainly in France. The huge number of young French entrepreneurs throwing themselves with gusto into building their own businesses, aim, right from the outset to serve the global market. The most successful, like Business Objects, before it was snapped up by SAP, or Criteo, listed first on the Nasdaq.
Only official France has not kept pace. Our education system is hidebound by centralised rules and procedures, apprenticeships are considered an inferior form of education and the whole vocational training system is rife with collusion and even corruption. It is hardly surprising therefore that unemployment in general and youth unemployment in particular is ridiculously high. The “French social model” that most voters are rightly attached to is rusty to the core.
Will this election campaign turn out to be one more lost opportunity or, on the contrary, a chance to start putting things right and dragging the French state into the modern and globalised world? I sincerely hope that in five years time, I shall be able to report that my question of 25 years ago will have at last been answered by more than a gallic shrug and a barley audible ”je ne sais pas”.