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 percent, 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 former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, an early enthusiast for the common market, the cohort of French technocrats around former French president Francois Mitterrand and former European Commission president 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, left-wing economic experiment anywhere in the world.”
Thatcher — and former British prime ministers 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 union with Europe and voted initially against the Lisbon treaty.
At the time, the future French 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 former French president Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 he promised what he preached: “to break with the ideas, habits and behavior of the past.”
He brought into play the long-delayed disciplines of “French Thatcherism.” However, 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 on Tuesday, 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. However, his private life has made his public one immeasurably harder.