Posts Tagged ‘paris’

France. Ha ha.

January 14, 2012

To say the French and British aren’t exactly in bed with one another is probably something of an under-statement. The British have always regarded the French as arrogant. For their part, the French tend to regard the British as awkward and difficult, clinging to a past that has long since evaporated and switching in emotions between colonial guilt and nostalgia.

In his autobiography, Tony Blair has an interesting description of French premier Nicolas Sarkozy. Blair met him before he won office and says:

“Nicolas and I had certain things in common… However, we differed in one respect: he had superabundant self-confidence. There was not a glimmer of self-doubt. As we walked through an avenue of trees that led down from the villa, he talked frankly and with complete conviction about his own victory: ‘I will win. I will become president.’

From anyone else it would have sounded vain or even slightly mad, but he said it with a combination of charm and clarity that made it seem entirely factual. The British would have wanted to cut someone who talked like that down to size, but I could see that the French would go for it. It was an attitude which had passion, elan and also that touch of arrogance which in some small way defines France, and which in some small way I admire. I could see them looking at Nicolas and saying: Now that’s a president.”

I must say that, unlike Blair, I’m not hugely enamoured with arrogant confidence. I think I’d probably have just felt like punching Sarkozy. But then I, unlike Blair, never have had the ambition to be prime minister.

Sarkozy has not been winning many friends in Britain recently. In December, Britain was forced to veto a new EU treaty that had precious little to do with saving the euro and quite a lot to do with giving more powers to Brussels. It’s difficult to know exactly what went on in that room of 27 leaders, but the outcome – with Cameron isolated, unable to sign up to a French-backed treaty that would bizarrely have placed an onerous burden on the City rather than actually done anything useful to salvage the euro project – had all the hallmarks of a French stitch-up.

Of course, the French position is entirely justifiable. Britain has never been a full part of the EU – it remains outside the euro, Schengen and the social chapter. So France might be quite entitled to ask: why are you in this EU club at all? By isolating Britain, Sarkozy clearly has more weight – along with German chancellor Angela Merkel – to steer things in the direction that he wants.

Troublesome Britain. Arrogant French.

My personal view is that Cameron did the right thing but for perhaps the wrong reasons. One of my arguments with the Conservatives is that they are somewhat incoherent on Europe. The party is divided over Europe, with the consequence that they say nothing, which, given the importance of the EU in British life, is clearly wrong. The party has been forced into this ridiculous position by the somewhat nutty eurosceptic movement in the UK – and the best thing for the Tories would be to decide exactly what relationship they want with Europe. Deciding this might also please the French.

Yesterday, Standard & Poor’s, a US ratings agency, downgraded French sovereign debt by one notch – from AAA to AA+. French government advisors responded in usual kind – by attacking the ratings agency in question, and saying this didn’t really matter since France is still a comparatively stable economy able to service its debts.

True, perhaps. But the S&P downgrade is still significant.

One can rant and rave at rating agencies until one is blue in the face – as the EU very often does – and there is a good argument to be made that they have too much power in the world. A friend of mine, who used to work at a rating agency, has endless stories about the politics involved behind ratings – and how his office would often get called by the finance minister of one country or another if a downgrade was expected, to perhaps steer things down another course.

This is not an indication that rating agencies are unimportant, as some in Paris might have you believe. Not only does the downgrade signal that things are not completely rosy in Paris, but also on a more practical level they make it more costly for France to borrow money. And that is going to hurt the recovery. It will also cause the euro’s rescue package to wobble since France is one of the biggest backers of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

Of course one has to be careful of schadenfreude. The UK has its own distinctive problems and may very well be in recession (again!) But the downgrade of France holds in it a warning for those eurozone leaders trying to resolve the crisis. National arrogance is misplaced. Solidarity would serve the euro-group much better.

And, for Cameron, reading the reasons for the S&P downgrade might not be a bad idea. Austerity is all very well – says S&P – but it cannot work on its own, without solid policies to stimulate growth. This is of course what that maverick economist John Maynard Keynes once said – you have to grow your way out of a recession, not cut your way out.

There are signs that Cameron, which launched his premiership on the ticket of fierce austerity, might be heeding such advice and recognising that there is a complex balance to be struck.

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Austerity, French-style

October 22, 2010

I’m having a coffee in a bar on the Champs Elysees, one of the most prestigious areas of Paris, just watching the world go by and trying to focus on an article I’m supposed to be editing.

Outside, there is an old gypsy-like woman, resting heavily on a walking stick and asking for money. She’s either a bloody good actor or really is destitute. I’ve been watching her for half an hour.

The most tragic thing is that I have so far not seen one person give her so much as a few cents. I’m mentally willing someone, anyone, to give her something.

I’ve been in Paris a couple of days, interviewing people about pensions, which is a fairly topical subject these days.

The country has been paralysed by strikes for the past week. A few days ago, I had the good fortune to meet a friend of mine from my Brussels days, who I hadn’t seen in ages. I was extremely fortunate, because my scheduled arrival was supposed to be two hous after her flight left. But, because air traffic control was woefully understaffed, her plane wasn’t allowed to leave. So one lady’s frustration was another man’s gain.

But, all over, I am seeing how seriously these strikes have affected the functioning of France. Fortunately, the two things I care about whilst in France – the TGV and the metro are both operating more-or-less satisfactorily. I did suffer one affect from the strikes, however, and that was the cancellation of a key meeting on Thursday. He had to leave work early, apparently, to catch his flight and therefore couldn’t meet me.

What I have been having some trouble understanding is why, when just about all countries of Europe (even the prolific Greeks, thanks to the stealy hand of Brussels), are having to swallow the bitter pill of austerity, no one is making quite the same fuss as the cambert-munching, frog leg-crunching Gaullists.

In an article a week or so ago, the Economist rather pooh-poohed the French protests, saying that the zing had rather gone out of French industrial action in recent years. I beg to differ. They have effectively paralysed the country. The fact that the new legislation is going through anyway says more about the bloody-mindedness of Nicholas Sarkozy and the obvious need for fairly swift action, than it does about the spinelessness of the French people. The unionists still have the clout.

One pension fund manager that I met explained to me, in some length, why the French feel the need to shout so loudly about the proposed changes; to many, raising the retirement age by a mere two years seems a rather trifling thing to get upset about. The unions fought hard for better pension rights 40 years ago, and they feel that any attempt to pare them back is a direct affront to their influence within the country.

I asked whether the reform would affect this particular pension fund.

“It’s a good thing,” I was told. “We’ll match the state pension. So, not only will we have longer to manager our investments, but the liabilities will be less.”

“So that’s why you’re not out there protesting,” I quipped, and we shared a good Anglo-French laugh.