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28 June 1999

The French exception is on a roll

Lionel Jospin has snubbed the Third Way - with excellent results, writes David Lawday

By David Lawday

He really is a stubborn fellow, Lionel Jospin. The French prime minister receives some wonderful tips from Tony Blair on how to run France and refuses to follow them. After all, Blair gets things right, doesn’t he? True, Europe rather eludes him. But elsewhere the British PM has shored up the west’s moral high ground. Right on Kosovo. Right on economic liberalism. Right on refusing to see politics in terms of right and left (being modern’s the thing). Right on recruiting big fellows such as Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schroder as co-religionists. Sensible countries ought to have no hesitation about marching with Blairism.

Not all countries, though, are sensible. The mad thing about France is that not only does it balk at Blairism, it is doing rather well out of the heresy. Under Jospin, who locates himself squarely on the left – the old left, he might rib Blair – the “French exception” appears to be on a roll. Dire warnings from liberal capitalist visionaries in America and Britain that France has got it all hopelessly wrong remain, well, dire warnings. Jospin stands his ground. “The Third Way? The new centre? No thank you. I prefer to follow our own path.” The French left does not imitate, it has its own original face. Yes to the market economy, Jospin incants, but no to the market society.

You would think Jospin finds virtue in being wrong. Any duffer knows France is overtaxed, inflexible and handcuffed by regulation. Unpardonably centralised, too. The state just won’t step back. Actually it can’t step back. At its head, strong as ever, is a masterful political-administrative elite schooled precisely to maintain the state’s grasp.

When Blair and Schroder argue, as they do in their recent Third Way/Neue Mitte manifesto, that high public spending and state meddling in the market are the road to ruin, who else but France can they be waving their warning finger at? Deluded Jospin, with what he calls his government of the plural left – socialists, communists, greens – thinks being modern is to marry expensive welfare with a free-ish market and somehow, under the state’s organising genius, make it work. Poor chap.

Yet France is working. Frankly, it’s almost an insult to Blairism. Economic growth of 3.2 per cent was racily higher than either Britain’s or Germany’s last year and looks set to continue. The highly taxed French are spending. Inflation is so low you can’t see it. The budget deficit stays sagely within the tight bounds set by membership of the euro. The country continues to run up trade surpluses that Gordon Brown can only envy. If they could admit it, the French may be better salesmen than lovers. Jospin’s France even permits itself extraordinary experiments such as the 35-hour working week. Put down as a reckless national skive by Third Way fans, the reform promises some practical, albeit unplanned, economic advantages: while missing its stated aim of reducing unemployment, it is ushering in a new age of labour flexibility.

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This is all very confusing. The Germans proverbially define total happiness as “to live like God in France”. No doubt Blair as well as Schroder suspects God may have a hand in France’s performance. Beyond providing the best wine and cheese money can buy, however, the French have talents they advertise less. They are unusually efficient. Of workers in all the large European countries, the French are the most productive. Per capita income is well ahead of Britain’s. France has rapidly stripped itself of old industry. The price of such efficiency is high unemployment (still 11 per cent plus), which is indeed a drawback but one that the French seem to accept as a hard fact of life.

Also, France gets things done. When it wants new high-speed rail lines or a national super-stadium in Paris to stage the World Cup, it doesn’t wait around to find the money or search endlessly for participation by private capital, it builds them with a nod from parliament – then leaves it to its ingenious mandarins to organise the financing (hence high taxes).

I sense there is another strong reason for France’s resilience. The Europe that so flummoxes Britain has kicked in to assist France. As both Blair’s new Labour and Schroder’s Social Democrats were nosediving in the European elections, the errant French prime minister’s Socialist Party fared very nicely. Having settled well and truly into Europe, France draws new self-confidence from the union. The French are reaping important psychological benefits from Europe, and this assurance lifts economic performance – which, incidentally, is just what the founders of the euro expect the common currency to do. A French majority, small but extraordinary when you consider how “exceptional” the French love to be, favours a bona fide European government with a popularly elected president of Europe at its head.

There is, it must be said, an element of scam in Jospin’s disavowal of the Blair-Schroder way. Leftist France is more deeply engaged in “modern” liberal capitalism than the prime minister cares to broadcast. Even the left-wing tag that Jospin wears should read centre-left or pragmatic left. Privatisation swings ahead – not just of manufacturing industry but of banking and insurance, telephones, weapons, the national airline, Air France, and other interests that the state has regarded as a natural preserve. The Paris Bourse is on an enduring binge, no doubt reflecting the stability Jospin has brought.

Why Jospin chooses to draw a puritanical left-wing veil over all this is not hard to see. He keeps his “plural left” together by scowling at rampant capitalism. The market is both a good and an evil. To Jospin, the Blair model looks overly receptive to the evil bit. France’s economic prowess permits him to pursue his pose. This is the insistence on diversity known as the French exception. It very often is a pose. But it has some beef behind it.

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