Tag Archives: France

Look not to the peripheries

5 Aug

In recent weeks, Yannis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister, has been under fire because of a secret group he ran, from February to June, whose purpose was to plan for a possible Grexit. Some have charged him with treason – primarily because his group hacked into the Greek Finance Ministry to acquire information they needed for the planning. Others defended him.

Whatever the stakes of this minor power struggle, it is a sideshow. In fact, Greece itself is not even the story. In this post-agreement moment, as the Tsipras government capitulates to the Eurogroup’s diktats, we need to grasp the dramatic failure of Syriza’s strategy in its proper context: the wider exhaustion of Left politics. The primary lesson is not (only) that Syriza failed but that the Left, across Europe, is politically exhausted. It is important to identify this weakness not only to acknowledge the limits of what Syriza could ever have done, but also to counter the emergent left-populist view that this is all about Germany.

To be sure, Tsipras deserves some blame. If the only planning for Grexit was happening in secret, on condition it never be made public and therefore never part of the bargaining strategy, then it was not just a pointless activity but a sign of Tsipras’ opportunistic willingness to use the Greeks as a stage army. They were there to vote, but never to have a real option granted. After all, for an exit to be a democratic act aimed at something like self-determination outside the Eurozone, it could not be a mere technocratic process of figuring out how to print and distribute notes, denominate payments, and sort out IOUs. It might have required seizing banks to prevent capital flight, nationalizing industries to prevent them being bought up by oligarchs who were hoarding euros outside Greece, rationing of certain basic supplies, even subsistence level economic production for a time. That is something the Greeks would have had to have been prepared for, something asked of them, and something which would have needed explicit popular backing. Tsipras made no effort in this direction and one has to think that he did not ultimately believe in his own people enough even to put the question to them.

Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the extraordinary constraints that Tsipras and the Syriza government generally were under. They took power after Greece had already been through multiple rounds of austerity and seen roughly a quarter of its GDP evaporate. The financial thuggery by the European Central Bank, which engineered a quasi-bank failure in the last days of the negotiations by drastically reducing emergency funding, was illegal and extremely coercive. President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Djisselbloem, doubled down on the threat, saying “we are going to collapse your banks.” It was clear that Schäuble wanted to turn Greece into something like debtor’s colony and was willing to take only that or let Greece go altogether. Even if Tsipras had, from the very beginning, made more effort to plan for the exit, looked for alternate sources of financing, pre-emptively printed drachmas, readied to seize the banks, moved to nationalize key assets, prepared capital controls, and taken the 50 other steps necessary to minimize the costs of exit, the democratic act would not have been a revolutionary step into a heroic, post-austerian future. It would have been a necessary, high-cost, step away from the clutches of the Eurozone.

The reason Greece was so limited in options is that Syriza had no meaningful support from the rest of the European Left. It had no support because the mainstream left parties, from the German SPD to the French Socialists, on through other Western European parties, have so fully committed themselves to the Eurozone and to some version of austerity that they were in no position to open the space within which a proper resistance to the Eurogroup’s divide-and-conquer sadomonetarism could be challenged. Syriza ran up against some world-historic limits that allowed someone other than the Left to dictate not just the basic terms but also the governing ideas of public discourse.

The best way to appreciate this is to note what could have been said but wasn’t. For one, it is striking how quickly the sovereign debt crisis of 2010 became pitched in nationalist terms, as a competition between creditor and debtor nations. In fact, the sovereign debt crisis had its origins in reckless lending by major French and German banks, which mirrored some of the profligacy and corruption of the Mediterranean spenders, and the majority of the money of the early bailouts was channeled into making those banks whole. This was true across the board but especially true in Greece. As Mark Blyth notes:

Greece was thus a mere conduit for a bailout. It was not a recipient in any significant way, despite what is constantly repeated in the media. Of the roughly 230 billion euro disbursed to Greece, it is estimated that only 27 billion went toward keeping the Greek state running. Indeed, by 2013 Greece was running a surplus and did not need such financing. Accordingly, 65 percent of the loans to Greece went straight through Greece to core banks for interest payments, maturing debt, and for domestic bank recapitalization demanded by the lenders. By another accounting, 90 percent of the “loans to Greece” bypassed Greece entirely.

The European people funded the bank bailouts, preserving their irrational financial system, and effectively nationalizing the debt through the Troika institutions. This could have been the start of more democratic control over the economy. Instead, the price of the bailouts was austerity for the southern countries, even less democracy (remember two elected governments, in Italy and Greece, were replaced by unelected technocrats), and worst of all the transformation of a conflict between the people and their economic system into a conflict between creditor and debtor nations. After all, once the majority of the debt was nationalized through the bailouts, the French, Dutch, other Northern Europeans, but above all the Germans, became creditors for the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks. The parties of the Left in these Northern countries could have tried to resist the nationalist impulse that coursed through the financial circuits of the European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism, Emergency Liquidity Assistance, and other conduits of the bailout programs. They were, however, so thoroughly compromised by their commitment to the EU and the euro, not to mention their cooperation with what we now know as austerity, that there was no way out.

Consider the Germans. Any left-wing politician worth his salt could have pointed out that the way Schäuble talked about Greeks in public was likely how he talks about German workers in private. And, further, that Schäuble represented the interests of a fraction of German capital, not the German people as whole. Indeed, a German politician could have further pointed out that keeping Greece in but forcing it into deeper internal devaluation – namely, benefits reduction and wage repression – simply threatens to lower the wage floor for all of Europe, especially since the latest agreement also involved a direct assault on labor rights. However, the German SDP has been imposing wage stagnation on its own working class for the last two decades, most notably with the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s, imposed more or less in tandem with the rise of the euro. These reforms, pushed through when the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder was Chancellor, reduced benefits and contributed to wage stagnation. Even when the SDP lost to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, they agreed to be the junior partner in a governing coalition, in exchange for a few concessions, some lousy portfolios, and fealty to Merkel’s vision of Germany in Europe.

This has left the only significant party with any capacity for opposition utterly compromised. How do you tell workers whom you have been telling to accept wage stagnation and benefits reductions that they should now turn around and spend more money bailing out Greeks? Why save Greek benefits when your own are being chipped away? The SPD has no answers, no capacity even to generate answers, and even if it had generated answers, it could have never presented itself as a credible opposition, able to support the Greeks. That is why the whole affair looked like a unified, German hegemonic operation. Not because Germany really does have a national interest in dominating Europe – no working class has a stake in intensified nationalistic conflict – but because the expression of class divisions has been suppressed by the mainstream Left party itself.

A similar story could be told about the French Socialist Party. As already argued on The Current Moment, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) is not a working class party. Indeed, the abandonment of the working class by the French Left goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Front National amongst the young working class French. They rightly judge that the PS no longer represents them. Hollande’s tepid support for Tsipras soon after the latter’s election quickly turned into hostility. Hollande’s intervention at the last minute to stop Schäuble’s push for Grexit was a matter of French national interests, not of ideological or class solidarity. Hollande calculated that a German-provoked Grexit would make life in the Eurozone quite a bit more difficult, with rules ever more rigid. A similar calculation was made by Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

The PS’s commitment to European integration and monetary union stems from Mitterrand’s u-turn on membership of the European Monetary System (and the Exchange Rate Mechanism within it) in 1984. Whilst Mitterrand justified his decision to remain in the EMS in the language of Europe and peace, it fitted with his wider goals. He had become convinced of the need to reform the French economy through domestic adaptation rather than to use devaluations of the French franc as a basis for economic competiveness. The EMS was a rules-based framework that would help Mitterrand to pursue this strategy. De Gaulle’s attempt at internal reform failed with the general strike of 1968 and a devaluation in 1969. The Barre Plan of 1976 had also failed, which was why Mitterrand’s alternative of ‘Keynesianism in one country’ had been so popular in 1981. When he abandoned it a few years later, he brought the PS in line with the now established view about the need for an external monetary anchor to encourage reform internally. Mitterrand’s conversion to the power of external rules has become a core belief within the PS and there was no chance that Hollande, Valls, Fabius or Macron would challenge this by supporting Syriza. For them, as for the rest of the European Left, there is no alternative to this way of conducting economic policy.

The failure we see is, therefore, not just one of parties taking the wrong stance, or being compromised by their past commitments. It is also the dearth of alternative, left-wing ideas. Being anti-austerity is no longer enough, and it hasn’t been for a long time. It is one thing to say that turning Greece into a debtor’s colony, or undermining the European welfare state, is immoral. It is another to have some conception of and belief in the alternative. No doubt one reason that Tsipras and Syriza were afraid of what Grexit would take is because few found it credible even to consider nationalizing the banks. They only got as far as capital controls, very likely an example of how halfway can be worse than none or all. But the point is that, beyond outrage, there isn’t much in the way of a credible Left alternative to what gets shoved down the people’s throats each time the dollars or Euros run out. In such a political and ideological climate, there is little the Greeks could have done.

In fact, the degree of hope invested in Syriza by the wider European Left, especially around the time of the referendum, was the product of political displacement – not so dissimilar from left-wing support for the ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum last year. Unable to lead directly, the Left will project its needs and desires onto anything that looks vaguely oppositional, and Syriza had the added advantage of having some actual left-wing elements in it. If Syriza failed to lead, their failure only reflected the wider Left’s failure to imagine itself leading a popular movement that is willing to take responsibility for running society out of the hands of a bankrupt elite.

This is a failure not only of Syriza, but of the only other significant movements that have emerged out of the European status quo. Consider Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s Podemos Party. In July Iglesias took pains to distance himself from Greece and to commit himself, if elected, to staying in the euro. He then openly professed that there is nothing he can do to resist the anti-democratic character of the EU – despite claiming the right to lead 45 million people. What better sign that it is not only the technocrats of Europe that are queasy about democracy. The peripheries and the core are constrained by the weakness of the Left everywhere.

Alex Gourevitch

Hollande vacillates (again)

4 Apr

This week’s cabinet reshuffle in France has done little to clarify where François Hollande stands on the key issues facing his presidency. What it has done is confirm that Hollande remains the manager of his own fractious party rather than a president with a clear political agenda.

When it was announced that Manuel Valls would replace Jean-Marc Ayrault as prime minister, it seemed that Hollande was completing his turn-to-the-right that had begun in January, in a speech where Hollande promised to cut public spending and reduce the tax burden on business. This ‘social compromise’, denounced by Marine Le Pen as an embrace of neoliberalism, was at the time seen as a new departure for Hollande. His nomination of Valls at Matignon seemed to take it further. The Financial Times complemented Hollande for ‘daring to turn to the right’ and commentators began to associate this new socialist government with the likes of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK, Schroder’s SPD in Germany, and the current much-transformed state of the Italian Democratic Party.

A couple of days later and the impression is very different. The appointment of Valls has been tempered by the promotion of key left-wing figures within the French Socialist Party. Arnaud Montebourg – the self-appointed spokesperson of the anti-globalization wing of the French Left – has been given a beefed up economic profile. Benoit Hamon, another prominent leftist, was made education minister, a powerful and key government department.

With such a cabinet, there is little evidence of any dramatic turn to the right in the Hollande presidency. Indeed, there is no dramatic turn to anywhere. Hollande’s goal seems to have been to manage the different currents within his own party, deploying the popularity of Valls as an antidote to his own poor poll ratings whilst compensating the left of the party with the promotion of Montebourg and Hamon. Michel Sapin’s nomination as finance minister hardly signals a radical change in France’s economic policy, given the little Sapin has achieved as labour minister. The impression Hollande gives is of placating his party rather than leading it. It may be that all along his success in the presidential primaries of 2011 was down to good luck: an absent Strauss-Kahn, strong antipathy to Valls, a weak showing by Royale and Montebourg, Aubry running rather than Fabius. Now Hollande continues to act as manager of his party’s different currents and egos, at the cost of pushing forward his own programme. There is little evidence as compelling as this to suggest that the French Socialist Party is no more than a sum of its many – and very different – parts.

It’s all about wages

29 May

The FT is running this week a series of articles (here but behind a firewall) on European manufacturing and how it is surviving the crisis. In an article on French industry, it suggests that focusing on the grim facts of deindustrialisation and declining competiveness in the North-East of the country risks missing much of what makes French industry successful. It argues that in some sectors France is following the German recipe of success: focus on cutting edge industries, invest heavily in research and development, and make the best use of a highly skilled (though albeit expensive) labour force in order to produce high-quality manufacturing products. The example it gives is of passenger jet engine-maker, Safran, and its more specialised companies like Turbomeca that make helicopter engines.

The article has some arresting facts and figures. Turbomeca is recruiting 200 new engineers this year, a reflection of its status as the world’s largest helicopter engine maker by volume. Safran, its parent company, is recruiting up to 7,000 new engineers, half of which will be employed in France. Its strategy has been to focus on R&D: 12% of its sales revenue was reinvested last year into research. On the Hollande government’s 20 billion Euros tax credit aimed at boosting competitiveness, the article cites the Peugot-Citroen CEO as saying that it will only bring down the company’s 4 billion Euros labour cost bill by 2.5%.

The article itself suggests high labour costs can be offset by investment strategies that focus on innovation and research. But the figures it gives all go to show that what matters is the ability to bring down the wages bill: either via internal adjustment or through outsourcing. Internal adjustment is what Southern European countries have been experiencing, with a positive impact on some export sectors. In France, Safran’s success comes from outsourcing 70% of its engine components. Much of the lower end manufacturing is done in countries with lower wages, a move that also matches German businesses. Another arresting fact: according to McKinsey, in 2009 the average hourly cost of a French factory worker was 32 Euros and in Germany it was 29 Euros. But taking into account the contribution of component suppliers from Eastern Europe, where wages are lower, the real cost of German labour was 25 Euros an hour.  In discussions of Germany’s current competitiveness, much is made of Schroder’s labour market reforms and the discipline shown by the country’s labour force. Less attention is given to the role played by this out-sourcing strategy. The FT article concludes with the suggestion that North Africa should become France’s low wage periphery in the way that Eastern Europe has become Germany’s, something Renault has already done by relocating some of its car production to Morocco.

There has been much debate about how France can regain some of its competitiveness. Some suggest a strategic reorientation away from traditional manufacturing towards more hi-tech activities. What seems obvious is that lowering wages is still the strategy overwhelmingly favoured by businesses. Given how unlikely it is that this occurs via internal adjustment in France, the most probable outcome is that French companies continue to exploit outsourcing opportunities.

François Hollande, a year on

7 May


A year into his Presidency, François Hollande is struggling. Of all the analyses made of his first year in office, very few have been positive. At The Current Moment, we commented extensively on the elections a year ago and on Hollande as a leader (see here, here and here). A few points are worth reiterating to make sense of today’s widespread disappointment.

It is important to remember that what secured Hollande’s victory a year ago was the prevailing anti-Sarkozy sentiment. Some of that feeling came from a rejection of the substance of Sarkozy’s presidency and so signalled a real endorsement of Hollande’s agenda. But much of the anti-Sarkozy feeling came from a reaction against his style: showy, celebrity-focused, hyperactive, lacking the gravitas expected of the President of the Republic. This list could go on.

Far from challenging this superficial rendering of politics as a matter of competing styles and personalities, the Socialists launched their own brand: normality, embodied in the rotund (but much-slimmed) cheeriness of François Hollande. He enjoys football, he makes jokes, he will govern through the country’s institutions and not above or alongside them. The notion of the ‘normal presidency’ never really stuck, not least because it lacks any capacity to inspire. But it did just enough to give Hollande the election victory on May 6th. Other factors counted too of course: his promise of a 75 per cent tax on incomes above 1 million Euros was timed perfectly to play on the anger felt towards high earners living in luxury at a time of social crisis. Even then, Hollande’s victory was wafer thin. He edged in front of Sarkozy by very little in the first round (28.63% to Sarkozy’s 27.08%) in comparison to Sarkozy’s thumping victory against Ségolène Royal back in 2008. In the second round, Hollande secured 51.64% of the vote, to Sarkozy’s 48.36%.

Throughout the campaign, the gap narrowed between the two leading contenders, transforming what many thought would be a sure victory for the Socialists into a very narrow one indeed. Hollande, an unremarkable figure until then, tipped by few as a likely winner for the presidency, certainly held his nerve. More than anything else, though, he was in the right place at the right time. This explains why his popularity has plummeted. Constructed on the back of the antipathy towards Sarkozy, the fading memory of the latter brings with it a steady erosion in Hollande’s popularity. This is not a problem of voters forgetting the past too easily. It is a product of the negative and opportunistic campaign of the Socialists in 2012.

Hollande’s difficulties today are also to do with what has happened since May 2012. The gay marriage bill has been pushed through but at the expense of a widespread societal mobilization against it, one that brought many people out of their provinces and onto the esplanades of the country’s capital. This author remembers seeing dozens of coaches, all full to the brim, tearing through the Bois de Boulogne on a Sunday morning on their way to an anti-gay marriage demonstration and all coming in from well outside of the capital and its surrounding suburbs.

One event that hit the government particularly hard was the Cahuzac affair: the admission by a government minister, the minister for the budget no less, after many months of denial, that he had a bank account in Switzerland which he kept hidden from the French taxman. The reason the Cahuzac affair has been so damaging for the government is that Hollande’s critique of capitalism, and in particular those private companies and private individuals that escape paying taxes, was always a moralistic one. Hollande presented his case against finance as a moral crusade: it was a war against the vulgar anti-egalitarian materialism of the financial class, fought in the name of the republican values of common good and a sense of patriotic duty attached to contributing to the public coffers.

Cahuzac’s secret Swiss bank account struck at the heart of this moral crusade by bringing those corrupt values into the heart of Hollande’s cabinet. In some ways, Hollande can’t be blamed for having trusted someone who then betrayed him. To misjudge someone’s character is something we have all done at some point. For Hollande, the difficulty was that there was nothing other than this moral crusade underpinning his critique of capitalism. What could have been dismissed as a mere personal failing on the part of an individual, had Hollande’s critique been more substantial, has had the effect of a devastating blow.

This crusade against finance has also been exposed to the harsh winds of the continuing national and European crisis. On this, the French government has managed to achieve very little. A central plank of Hollande’s campaign was his promise to rewrite the European Fiscal Compact, notably by injecting into it a strong growth component. Even at the time, it seemed improbable that Hollande – after the election – would travel to Berlin and tell Angela Merkel what to do. Unsurprisingly, very little in the Compact was changed and Hollande has so far struggled to dent Merkel’s determination to stick to her austerity agenda in the run up to elections in Germany in the Autumn. Promising a radical shake up of France’s sclerotic economy, Hollande commissioned a report from prominent industrialist, Louis Gallois. Focused on competitiveness, Gallois suggested a number of ‘shock’ measures which the government chose to ignore. Hollande may still pursue a reform agenda, by bringing Gallois or someone like Pascal Lamy into a more technocratic cabinet after a summer reshuffle. But there is little momentum in either the reforming or the staunchly anti-austerity direction, leaving all sides unhappy at the government’s immobilism.

Hollande has tended to make his case by courting fellow travellers, latching onto Southern European leaders like Rajoy, or more recently Enrico Letta, whose national difficulties expose the limits of the German austerity agenda. Alliance-building, however, is no substitute for a programme. As remarked upon by Current Moment co-founder Alex Gourevitch, the fact that the case for austerity is currently unravelling has more to do with the pain it is inflicting on European societies and rather less to do with any political alternative being proposed by its growing army of critics.

The political economy of Brixit

16 Jan

At the end of this week, David Cameron will deliver “the speech”: his much talked-about and endlessly-put-off speech on the place of the United Kingdom in the European Union. Choosing to give the speech abroad, in the Netherlands, Cameron is hoping to gain the gravitas of earlier famous speeches on Europe, like Thatcher’s in Bruges in 1988. After so much feverish speculation, the speech will probably disappoint. But it does raise the question of what exactly is going on with the UK and its relations with the EU. Is “Brixit” really likely? Does anyone actually want it to happen? Or is the debate only really about a more cosmetic recalibration of the UK’s membership of the EU?

The Current Moment has previously argued that were “Brixit” to occur, it would be rather in the manner of the “accidental divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic: a curious historical event, where neither side was virulently separatist but a split occurred nonetheless. But how likely is “Brixit”? The Current Moment also suggested that it was unlikely given how implicated the UK is in the EU. The country is far more of a member state than its political leaders admit and finds itself active in the policymaking process even in areas where it has formally opted out.

Even if the UK doesn’t leave, current events still need to be explained. Why this particularly awkward relationship to the EU? Why the prominence of Eurosceptic movements like UKIP and the political classes’ fixation – above all on the Tory side – with reclaiming power back from the EU? Some of the explanation is historical: the UK joined later than many other members after having been rebuffed twice by Charles de Gaulle and made itself unpopular by trying to renegotiate its membership immediately upon entering. Thatcher’s long-standing battles against the European Commission no doubt left scars on both sides. But these explanations are too dated to have much purchase on events in recent years and they don’t explain the climate within the UK and the virulent anti-Europeanism of some its political class that is pushing a rather neutral David Cameron in the direction of “Brixit”.

One powerful argument is that the British establishment, and its political class in particular, does not need Europe in the same was as others do in the rest of Europe. There are various economic ties between the UK and Europe that make the case for EU membership rather strong, as Lord Heseltine and others have argued recently. But the political economy of UK membership in the EU is somewhat distinctive from other member states. In short, the UK has managed its transition away from postwar social democracy on its own, without too much reliance on the EU. Compare Thatcher and Mitterrand. At exactly the same time as the British police were – on Thatcher’s orders – fighting pitched battles against the trade unions, Mitterrand was undertaking his own retreat from Keynesianism via the European backdoor. Rather than take on the militant elements of the French working class directly, Mitterrand preferred to rely on European agreements as a way of slowly and partially dismantling the mixed economy model of postwar capitalism. Thatcher attacked the public sector directly, Mitterrand – and Kohl – did so indirectly via European directives. The same holds true for other countries – like the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark – where old corporatist models of national capitalism were slowly reformed and wound down via a reliance on European agreements. From the Maastricht Treaty to the Lisbon Agenda to the present day Fiscal Pact, the management of socio-economic change across European societies has been conducted collectively at the European level. In the more extreme cases, like Italy, the vast swathe of the political class believes that macro-economic stability can only be achieved if the country is bound up tightly within a set of European rules. The Euro – with its Stability and Growth Pact and now with the new rules being introduced – was the apotheosis of this particular approach to governing national societies.

In contrast to all of this, Britain has generally managed the transition alone. Its own way of dismantling the postwar social contract was to isolate decision-making power from the authority of the national legislature. Politicians gave up powers to independent bodies, from the multiple national regulatory agencies to the Central Bank and the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. Decision-making was located outside of politics, but not outside of the UK as such.

For this reason, the British political class needs the EU and Brussels much less in the governing of British society. The EU is less tied up with the transformations of British capitalism than it is the transformations of national capitalisms on the continent. That leaves the door open to all the parochialism and xenophobia that animates the British political debate on the EU. This also makes it possible, though still unlikely, that the UK would leave the EU.

The Florange affair

6 Dec

As long-time observer of French politics Art Goldhammer has pointed out, there is little in the French government’s battle with the Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, that makes sense. Uncertainty prevails over what deal the government has done with Mittal, what promises he may or may not have given, and what the future is for the Florange plant that is at the centre of the whole affair.

One thing that seems to be clear: there will be no forced nationalization of the plant, as argued for by France’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg. Well-known as a voice on the left of an otherwise rather centrist Socialist government, Montebourg has long championed the cause of “de-globalization”: a return to national protection and a more traditional national industrial policy of old. Montebourg plunged into the Mittal affair by criticizing publicly the Indian businessman, accusing him of not keeping his promises. His proposed solution – that gave much hope to the workers of the steel plant threatened with closure – was to force a nationalization of the plant. Mittal resisted, saying he was willing to let the government take over some of the plant but he wanted to retain those elements he thought could be profitable. At issue are two blast furnaces at Florange which Mittal argues are no longer worth keeping given the overcapacity of steel production in Europe. As demand for steel has fallen, so Mittal has been forced to rationalize production. Existing demand can be met by steel production in other sites, such as Dunkirk (read economist Elie Cohen on this here), leaving the Florange furnances without customers. As the government wasn’t ready to cough up the cash needed for a full nationalization, and many in the government were opposed to doing so, it made a deal with Mittal. Though Mittal committed himself to 180 million Euros of investment in cold steel processing at Florange, the issue of the blast furnaces remains unsolved. The government is claiming that it has saved the 629 jobs that were threatened but the unions don’t think Mittal will keep his word.

What is really at stake in this affair? In many ways, it seems distinctly French and confirms much of what The Economist wrote about France a few weeks ago in its special report on the country. Loud union reps camping out at the entrance to the site, vitriolic anti-capitalist rhetoric from leftwing ministers, behind-the-scene deals brokered between political and business interests: all evidence of the poor state of corporate France.

Beyond some of these clichés, two issues stand out. One is to do with Montebourg. His appointment as minister responsible for revitalizing French industry was surprising. As someone who harbours ambitions far grander than saving a few hundred jobs on the Franco-Luxembourg border, Montebourg could have been expected to resist the poisoned portfolio. It was obviously going to mean fighting a losing battle over unproductive sites like Florange and yet he accepted the job. What has been tested in the Florange affair is Montebourg’s representativeness. Does he stand for a strong current in French opinion and within the Socialist Party about a state-led route for industrial rejuvenation? Is it correct to see France as torn between its Colbertian instincts of old and a new recognition of the need for liberalisation and market-driven competitiveness? This is the kind of ideological battle The Economist likes but events over the last few days suggest something rather less dramatic is going on in France. Montebourg doesn’t seem to have his own industrial strategy but nor does the government. At the very least, strategies are about choices and priorities. What the government’s response over Florange has demonstrated is immobility and fright: unwilling to give up on the Florange workers and yet unable to place their intervention in this case within a wider plan for French industry. Montebourg appears as the fire-fighter in chief more than as a voice for an alternative French industrial strategy.

The second issue is about nationalization itself. Elie Cohen argues that the Florange affair is different from other recent instances of nationalization: General Motors in the US, Alstom in France. He is right to point to differences: there is little in common between Florange and the company-wide restructuring that resulted from the government takeover of General Motors. But he doesn’t mention the other obvious case of nationalization, that of banking and financial institutions. Via bail-outs, some of these have become the property of tax-payers. In all cases, this was evidence of massive strategic intervention by public actors to save a financial system they believed was on the rocks. Why is it that such interventions are free from the sense of helplessness and pointlessness that government involvement in failing manufacturing industries evokes for all observers?

Former Danish Prime Minister, Poul Rasmussen, an articulate European social democrat, once made the observation that many Western politicians appear unwilling to accept a shrinking of their country’s financial sector but they are willing to run down almost entirely their manufacturing sectors. He put this down to a deference elected representatives felt in the face of suave and sophisticated bankers. He perhaps exaggerated the point but it is certainly true that whilst government intervention to save failing industries appears to us anachronistic, intervention to prop up a tottering financial sector is seen as far-sighted and brave. This is surely as much about sentiment as it is an objective assessment. After all, a reason why the government couldn’t afford to nationalize Florange is that it still hasn’t paid off the debts incurred in saving its banks. These are the kinds of priorities the French government cannot articulate but they are nevertheless there in the background and structure government action over the mid to long term. There is no strategy there, but an underlying structure of interests and relations of power upon which French society rests.

Winds of change in France?

8 Nov

Much has been said and written about the Gallois report on competitiveness, made public earlier this week. The 31st report on competiviness produced in the last 10 years, this one had been commissioned by the French prime minister. Louis Gallois, a prominent figure in French industrial life, is seen as able to bridge the divide between French business and the French state. Relations have soured recently between the two, in particular between small and medium sized businesses and the recently elected Socialist government. Gallois’ own career has involved heading large companies that are competitive internationally but are also very closed tied to the French state. He is an emblematic figure of French state capitalism.

The report itself rightly highlighted what is a pressing problem for France: a looming deindustrialisation. France is in the difficult position of straddling an increasingly empty middle ground. On the one side, there are the high-quality goods produced by an export power like Germany, goods that remain expensive but whose quality guarantees that they dominate the high-end markets for cars and many other industrial products. On the other side are lower quality goods from Asia that win-out on price. They are cheap and good enough to crowd out slightly better quality but signficantly more expensive French-made products. Stuck in between this polarisation, France has in the last 10 years lost a great deal of export market shares. Hundreds of billions of Euros of exports have been lost and around 750,000 manufacturing jobs have gone in the last decade. This was not always so: until the early 2000s France enjoyed a strong showing on the balance of payments, not least relative to Germany. But it has now gone deeply into deficit, as the graph below shows. France has not seen the kind of reversal of fortunes that Spain, Greece or Portugal have but its current acccount deficit has been steadily growing.

The report itself recommended that the burden of social security payments should be shifted – to the tune of a 30 billion Euro transfer – away from business and salary contributions and towards generalized taxation, in the form of the CSG tax (generalized social contribution) and VAT. French economist Jean-Claude Casanova put it thus: when employees decide to have babies, companies face a rise in labour costs that in some cases can push them into the red. Bizarrely, as soon as the main recommendation of the Gallois became known – what the author referred to as a “confidence shock” for French business – the government declared that it would not be implementing this particular recommendation. It preferred a different system for lowing labour costs that involved a complex credit transfer system. Companies will have to work out for themselves what they can win back from the state through these transfers, something that favours large companies with bulging accounting departments. Smaller firms, the ones suffering most from declining competiveness, will find the system opaque and difficult to implement. Regardless of where you stand on the rights and wrongs of the labour cost/competitiveness debate in France, the government’s handling of the report was poor.

It would be wrong, though, to dismiss all this with a gallic shrug and a muttering of plus ça change. The business newspaper, Les Echos, points to one recommendation in the report likely to be taken on by the government and one which could have a very considerable impact on France in the medium to long term. Gallois proposed that French firms systematically include in their governing bodies worker representatives. In companies with more than 5,000 employees, between a quarter and a third of the members of these governing bodies should be worker representatives. Les Echos celebrates this as a signal that France will move in the direction taken up by Germany, Austria and other countries with much more successful industrial policies than France. In the German case, this rule is applied to companies with more than 500 employees. For companies with over 2,000 employees, the proportion of worker representatives in these governing bodies rises to 50%. Les Echos argues that therein lies the key to Germany’s success in turning itself round and boosting its competitiveness.

What Les Echos is getting at is labour discipline. German companies were able to boost competitiviness in the absence of currency devaluations largely because German workers accepted the cost-cutting measures being proposed, many of which were harsh and involved temporary unemployment. As well as the German government having a strong hold over unions, company directors themselves have a better hold over their own workforce. The consensual way labour and business interests within German firms implemented the competitiveness drive of the mid to late 2000s in Germany goes a long way to explaining Germany’s present export success. France has famously been an example of a very different kind of industrial relations: more conflictual, dominated by the role played by unions, resistant to change. What the Gallois report proposes is a way in which French labour could be better controlled. If implemented, this could have a far greater impact on French industry than the more public spat over VAT, CSG and how to finance social security. At least, that is what Les Echos hopes. Perhaps, in focusing on its rejection of Gallois’ proposal to raise CSG and VAT, the government is deflecting attention from other measures, that could be more far-reaching in the long term. French business-labour relations will not be transformed over night but this could be the beginning of a greater disciplining of labour through co-option into the decision-making process.


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