Monday, 15 January 2018

Lafayette nous voilà!

One of the staples of transatlantic relations is the enduring friendship between France and the United States of America. In a TV interview in November, President Macron, as a preface to his comments on President Trump’s attitude towards global warming and Iran, declared: “the Americans are our allies. We helped the American people to win independence and they helped us every time our security was threatened”.  He was referring of course, among other things, to the role of Count Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette alongside George Washington during the American war of independence and the famous words attributed to General Pershing  (but probably uttered by his aide-de-camp) at Lafayette’s grave after landing in France at the head his troops in 1917: “Lafayette nous voila!" In his New year’s address to the French people, Macron even went so far as to echo John F. Kennedy’s words at his inaugural address in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” In the U.S, countless streets, towns and cities are named after Lafayette and many statues have been erected to honour his memory. There are no less than three in New York, one in Union Square Park, sculpted by Statue of Liberty sculptor, Bartholdi, one in Lafayette Park, Harlem and one on an impressive frieze along the wall of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, commissioned by Henry Harteau, a Brooklyn citizen of French ancestry, who had these words inscribed on it: … “an enduring tribute to one who as friend and companion of the immortal Washington fought to establish in our country those vital principles of liberty and human brotherhood which he afterward labored to establish in his own.”

Relations between the two countries have not always been as warm as such tributes would suggest. A book published in 2004, written by an American journalist, John J. Miller and a historian, Mark Molesky (“Our oldest enemy”- “a history of America’s disastrous relationship with France”) romps through the history of bilateral relations with a distinctly jaundiced eye.  The book’s provocative title is only a prelude to the blackening of France’s reputation in the body of the text. France is accused at many junctures in history of deviousness, crude anti-Americanism and frequent attempts to thwart American, and by extension, the world’s interests, in pursuit of its own devious ends. From France's attempts to establish itself in the New World by conspiring with Indian tribes to massacre English settlers, to Napoleon Bonaparte’s designs on Louisiana, Napoleon 3rd’s support for the Confederacy during the Civil War and his failed attempts to install a puppet regime in Mexico, the thwarting by Clemenceau of Woodrow Wilson’s urge to  “make the world safe for democracy” by working for a more balanced version of the Versailles Treaty than the one that was eventually imposed on Germany in 1919, the obstructionism and “gallic pomposity” of Gaulle, after World War 2, the condescending arrogance of  the French cultural elite towards American popular culture in the 1950s and 60,  and finally  the "duplicitous" behaviour of Jacques Chirac in expressing unending sympathy for America  after 9/11 but refusing to take part in President Bush’s invasion of Irak. Published in 2004, the book was of course intended to surf on the wave of anti-French sentiment  following France’s refusal to participate in the "war on terror”, and it is therefore understandable that the authors did their best to cast the French in the worst possible light.  However, even George Washington, as recorded in the book, noted that: “…it is a maxim founded in the universal experience of mankind that no nation can be trusted further than it is bound by its interests”. The authors go to great lengths to blame the French for thwarting American interests but, unsurprisingly, make little attempt to explain or justify them. Little matter, the book makes entertaining reading!

Even these authors, however, warm to Lafayette. During America’s struggle for independence, they write, “there was at least one Frenchman however, whose concern for America seemed motivated by something other than raw self-interest”, even if they add, a couple of pages later, that, "in truth it is not altogether clear how well Lafayette actually understood the principles he was fighting for ”, and by extension therefore that, “for more than two centuries, whenever tensions arose between the United States and France, the French rarely missed an opportunity to invoke the memory of Lafayette as a way of shielding their true motives”.

Indeed, Lafayette might not have expressed the principles he was fighting for at the time of the American Revolution in the way historians have done since, but there is no doubting the sincerity of his convictions. And in the ultra turbulent times of the French revolution, some 20 years later, it was certainly not easy to “establish those principles of liberty and human brotherhood”, in the words of Harteau’s tribute. By all accounts, Lafayette was a moderate at a time of extremists, a bringer of order at a time of anarchy, in favour of establishing a constitutional monarchy in the aftermath of a monarch’s bloody execution. As the revolution spiralled out of control, he only saved his head by being outside the country, having been taken prisoner by the Austrians during the revolutionary wars. And while his wife, from the de Noailles aristocratic family, was able to escape from revolutionary Paris and join her husband, her sister, mother and grandmother all fell victim to the reign of terror, during which more than 1300 people were executed on the same guillotine in June and July of 1794.  During the post revolutionary period, Lafayette's relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte was strained, to say the least, and he spent the remaining years of his life as a moderate member of the Chamber of Deputies, playing a pivotal role in the mini Revolution of July 1830 when the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe was installed on the throne.

Lafayette’s last resting place, since his death in 1834, is the Picpus cemetery in Paris. I found it a strange place in many ways when I visited it recently, a small haven of peace and quiet, next to a noisy building site for a new university and across the road  from a large car dealership. The small number of elaborate tombs holding the remains of some of France’s most aristocratic families stand just yards away from three mass graves in which the bodies of many of those executed during the reign of terror were hastily and secretly buried in land that was consecrated only years later. Lafayette’s grave is easily recognisable in the far corner, with inscriptions in French and English and decorated with an American flag. It also holds American soil, brought back for this very purpose by Lafayette himself from his triumphant tour of America in 1824. Every year on July 4th, an American delegation runs up a fresh flag over the grave of its honorary citizen and lays a wreath. As to the ideals of liberty and human brotherhood, the universalist message of both France and the United States, they continue to resonate and inspire throughout the world, from China to Russia, from Iran to Tunisia, to name just a few of its more recent manifestations.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Authority is back!

The month of May 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the “events”, as they are still euphemistically called in France, of May 1968.  There has been some talk in the media about whether the anniversary should be celebrated and if so how. Especially as most people old enough to remember them have images of disruption and chaos uppermost in their minds. The mini revolution culminated in what some consider a near coup d’état, thwarted only by the failure of the student and workers’ movements to find common ground and the reluctance of political leaders like François Mitterrand or the leadership of the powerful (at the time) French communist party to exploit the situation, overthrow de Gaulle and form a new government. After some initial hesitation, President de Gaulle eventually put up a spirited defence of the regime he had founded, dissolved parliament and won a resounding victory in the subsequent elections. The political crisis at least was over by the end of June.

It can be argued though that the effects of May 1968 are still being felt in France today. It was after all a revolt against authority that had been brewing for some time, similar to revolts in other western democracies during the same period. A revolt against the authority of parents, teachers, bosses, the church, political leaders and the powers that be in general. One of its best known slogans was: “it shall be forbidden to forbid” (“il est interdit d’interdire”) Anybody like myself who brought up children in France in the 1970s and 80s knows only too well that notions of authority were profoundly different after May 1968 than in the 1950s and early 60s. For better or for worse, previously imposed, and often grudgingly accepted, authority gave way to widespread liberalisation in almost every area of society, as the perceived balance of individual rights and obligations underwent a radical shift. And so it has been ever since, so deeply ingrained in the prevalent culture that nobody seems to notice any more. 50 years on however, and particularly since the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, there are signs that the pendulum may be swinging back. Three examples come to mind.

The first concerns reactions to the recently announced ban on the use of mobile phones on the premises of primary and secondary schools from September 2018. Interviewed on TV, a teachers union leader, clearly ill at ease with the proposed measure, claimed that it would be difficult to enforce, referring to the need to “search pupils” or require them to lock up their phones in individual custom-built lockers. In a discussion about this over the Christmas turkey, one of my daughters-in-law, born in 1977, the same year as Emmanuel Macron, and certainly no sympathiser of the Front National, simply said this: “why can’t schools just tell pupils that the use of mobile phones on school premises is forbidden and if they are caught using one it will be confiscated? That’s what they do in privately run schools and I know for a fact that it works!” My conclusion from this brief exchange was that at least one 40 year-old parent today is not convinced that forbidding should be forbidden, nor that authority cannot and should not be exerted, and respected, when it serves a specific purpose.

The second example concerns the on-going national debate about the reform of unemployment allowances and vocational training. Under the current system, a job seeker is required to accept a job offer or a training opportunity if his or her employment counsellor judges it reasonable. After two refusals, the job seeker can be struck off the unemployment register for two to six months. In addition, their allowances can be cut but this decision can only be taken by a prefect, the direct representative of the state. The sanction is hardly ever applied and therefore exists largely on paper only.  As part of the reform being mooted by the government, the employment agency will be empowered to take that decision itself. Unions and left-wing politicians have protested loudly with hard-hitting sound bites like: “the government should be tackling unemployment and not the unemployed”. In reality, fewer than 15% of job seekers would be liable for this kind of sanction but the state has clearly been reluctant, so far at least, to exert its own authority and apply the existing law.

The third concerns the vexed, emotionally charged and infinitely more complex issue of immigration and how to deal with the mass of migrants who end up in France and apply for asylum here. France of course has a long and generous tradition of welcoming and integrating foreigners, but the squalid and well publicised encampments in Calais or under the bridges of overhead metro lines in different parts of Paris suggest, at the very least, that the welcoming tradition is being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. Again, the law is clear: once an asylum request has been rejected, disappointed claimants should be returned either to their home country or to the first EU country in which they landed. But again, the measure is hardly ever applied. The vast majority of migrants whose asylum claim has been rejected manage to stay on as illegals, making the situation of overcrowding even worse and putting increased pressure on the authorities and the volunteer organisations that do their level best to alleviate their plight.

Once again it is the state that is reluctant to apply the full force of the law and use the police to deport those who have been told they can no longer stay. President Macron announced recently that he would tighten up regulations on migrants who are not allowed, after due process, to stay in France. Predictably, political opponents on the left have protested that France’s welcoming tradition is being trodden underfoot and that that the police have no right to enter premises housing immigrants in order to identify and arrest illegals. On the far right of the political spectrum, the Front National has been saying, with a smirk of satisfaction, that Macron is only about to do what it has been advocating for many years.

In any democratic society of course there must be public debate, and in France there always is - and it is always heated - about the rights and obligations of the unemployed or whether economic migrants should enjoy the same status as refugees from war zones, on what criteria that distinction should be made and what should be done about those who fall on the wrong side of the dividing line. That being said, once the debate has run its course and legislation has been passed, a government that does not apply it loses credibility and is rightly accused of doing nothing – a charge that can be levelled at many governments since May 1968. During Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, for example, a number of brutal murders were committed by convicted criminals who had been released on parole or whose prison sentences had been reduced.  At Sarkozy’s instigation, and under pressure from public opinion, parliament voted no less than six new laws in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of such events.  The widely held view is that they have made precious little difference to actual sentencing and parole practises, simply because they are not applied.

By contrast, President Macron has gone on record more than once as saying: “I will do what I have said I will do”. During his presidential campaign he did indeed say that the unemployed should be held to greater account in exchange for fairly generous allowances and more recently that he will tighten up the immigration laws. Looking back over his first few months in office, he has certainly not been afraid to assert his authority. One remembers, for example, his very public dressing down of the army’s Chief of Staff before the summer holidays (See my post: “Hail to the Chief!” - July 16).

Perhaps he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of May 1968 by reminding the French, in word and deed, that the authority of the state is being restored and that he will continue to set an example at the very top. A Head of State who was born nearly ten years after “the events”, may finally be consigning their legacy to history!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Cleared for take-off?

Last week, a three-man committee of mediators submitted a report to the French Prime Minister on the pros and cons of going ahead with a project to build an entirely new international airport not far from the city of Nantes in the West of France, around the small farming village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The current Nantes airport is located at the very edge of the city, has just one runway and is near saturation.  As an extension would be complicated and as many city dwellers suffer a high level of aircraft noise and pollution, not to speak of the danger of an aircraft accident over the city, it seemed logical, given the almost empty countryside just a few dozen mile away, to design and build a green field airport there and eventually close the city airport altogether.

Logical perhaps, but even in a country that sets very high store by logic, the project has been controversial from the outset. It was first mooted 50 years ago when economic and traffic projections concluded that the existing Nantes airport would have to be replaced or extended sooner or later. Since then a “deferred development area” (Zone d’aménagement différé), known by the acronym of “ZAD,” has been gradually cleared of its inhabitants and farms. Some farmers have accepted an expropriation package and gone quietly, others have not. And that is where the problem lies. As happens with many such projects that would change the face of the surrounding area for ever, the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, has become a focus for demonstrations and protests by green activists, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protesters from all over France and even other parts of Europe. An estimated 200 to 300 protestors have set up camps in the area and refuse be dislodged, renaming the area a “zone à defendre” and calling themselves “ZADists”. After a lengthy public enquiry, a whole host of legal challenges on environmental grounds, an aborted attempt to evacuate the protestors last year, a local referendum won by those in favour of the new airport by a majority of 55%, the reluctance of several governments to decide one way or another, President Macron has finally let it be know that a decision will be taken by the end of January 2018.

Although France is a large country with vast, sparsely populated areas, the country’s deeply entrenched attachment to rural values and small farming sits uneasily with large infrastructure projects in the middle of green pastures. Even more so if such projects are decided, as they invariably are, by central government in distant Paris. This is particularly true in Brittany, of which the Loire Atlantique department, the home of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, is historically a part and which has a long history of rebellion against the crown, the revolution and the centralised state. Back in the 1970s for instance, a project to build a nuclear power station in Plogoff, near one of Brittany’s most spectacular coastal beauty spots, was violently contested by protestors of all persuasions until the newly elected President Mitterrand decided to abandon it in 1981. More recently a national project to introduce tolls for heavy lorries using the country’s main roads and motorways was derailed in Brittany by an ad hoc coalition of protestors wearing red Phrygian bonnets, reminiscent of the reign of terror in 1794. (see my post: ”Punitive ecology”  - June 11). It is worth noting in passing that Brittany has never allowed any toll motorway on its territory either and gets by with two-lane dual carriageways linking its large towns.

Luckily, neither of the two protests referred to above led to any fatalities, unlike two other popular protests in other parts of France, one against the building of a fast breeder nuclear reactor in central France in 1977, during which one protestor was killed by a police stun grenade (since outlawed as a means of riot control) and another, more recently, in the South West against the construction of a dam over a river, in which a green activist also lost his life, again as the result of a police charge.

The fear of loss of life among protestors and the police is clearly the main factor that has held back successive governments from trying to evacuate the area around Notre-Dame-des-Landes. French riot police are not known for their pussy-footedness and determined protestors, armed with sharpened wooden stakes, various projectiles and shielded behind makeshift barricades are no pushover. Reading between the lines, the mediators’ report offers the government a face-saving climb down by suggesting that an extension of the current Nantes airport, whatever its other drawbacks, would cost less than building the new airport and all the infrastructure serving it. In addition, having just last week hosted a climate summit and clearly wishing to give himself a leading role in the campaign to fight global warming, the “make-our-planet-great-again” President Macron would find it very awkward to give the go-ahead to an environmentally destructive project that could severely damage his image as a climate saviour. Add to that the well-known views of his “Minister of Ecological Transition” Nicolas Hulot and the revelation by former minister and green party leader, Cécile Duflot, that President Hollande himself was no fan of the new airport, whatever he might have said in public, and the balance seems to be tipping in favour of abandoning the project altogether.

If he does go for that solution however, Macron will probably find it easier to placate the local and national politicians who have always been in favour of the project, as well as find the money to pay the construction companies for breach of contract, than oversee an orderly evacuation and dispersal of the protestors. After all, pitched battles with riot police in muddy fields and narrow country roads would not look good on the evening news and would certainly do no good for the image of France in the world, let alone that of its President.  Whether events come to a head in that way, especially if the protestors have won their fight to kill the project, remains to be seen, but France may be in for a hotter winter than usual  -  and not just because of global warming!

Monday, 11 December 2017

My song, your song.

Emmanuel Macron made two remarkable speeches on two successive days in Paris last week. They were both funeral orations, the first at a ceremony in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides, to honour the passing of Jean d’Ormesson, a patrician writer, senior member of the Académie Française and well known public figure who died on Monday, the second at a ceremony on the steps of the Eglise de la Madeleine, to honour the memory of the uniquely French rock star Johnny Hallyday, who died just the next day.

These two very different but equally famous figures in French society were both judged worthy of a national farewell ceremony, a more solemn one for the man of literature and a popular one for the popular singer. Once such occasions are organised, it is the task of the Head of State to give public expression to the country’s sense of gratitude and grief. On both occasions, Macron acquitted himself with panache and style, using both speeches to conjure up the unity of the nation around two remarkable men, but at the same time, subtly casting himself in their reflected glory and revealing a lot about his own values and ambitions.

The theme of his tribute to Jean d’Ormesson was, unsurprisingly, literature. Macron referred to famous French writers of the past and linked them to d’Ormesson in what France, over and above the divisions within its society, “treasures as its most precious and enduring feature: its literature”. “The very essence of France” he went on, "is its love of literature and its affection for its writers”.

It is true of course that the French expect their political leaders to be steeped in culture, knowing their classics and skilled in expressing themselves both orally and in writing.  De Gaulle was famous for his seemingly spontaneous and often colourful turns of phrase during his legendary press conferences. He started his memoirs with the memorable sentence: “All my life I have had my own vision of France”. (“Toute ma vie je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”). Pompidou was a literature scholar and loved poetry. Mitterand was a compulsive reader and a prolific writer. Any candidate for the presidency, even the least literary, has to write at least one book to be taken seriously. Macron is no exception. In a recent interview, his wife, Brigitte, said that she could easily have imagined her husband as a successful writer, but never thought he would go into politics. He is said to devote his rare moments of leisure to writing.

This being said, some of course would take issue with the idea that literature and writers are “the very essence of France”, but Macron was surely making a political point too. Especially at a time when the results of the PIRLS  (Progress in International Reading Literacy) comparative study that were released last week, put France in 34th position, out of 50 comparable countries, for reading skills among 10 year olds and one of only two European countries to have a lower score than five years ago, when the last test was run. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of Education, made an appearance on prime time news last week to say what the government is doing about it: cutting Ist year primary school class sizes by half in underprivileged areas, as Macron promised during his presidential campaign, and concentrating on what he called the four basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and “respect for others ". He made it clear too that the “pedagogical freedom” hitherto enjoyed by teachers in the choice of teaching methods must take second place to the imperative of ensuring that no child leaves primary school without mastering these basic skills. As a sign of his determination he announced that primary school teachers would be required henceforth to give their pupils one dictation every day. The clear message is that the quest for integration, inclusion and national unity starts in the first year of primary school with the mastering of language, numeracy and social awareness.

On Saturday, in his brief tribute to the popular idol, Johnny Hallyday, Macron himself returned to the theme of national unity. “Johnny cut through”, he said, “everything that divides our society, expressing emotion that is one of those energies that defines a people”.

But It was surely in another part of his tribute that Macron was the most revealing: “That this young man, … should have sought inspiration in the blues of America’s black community and the rock and roll of Nashville and made them popular in every part of France was highly improbable and yet, it is a (typical) French destiny. He changed the words and the music, worked with the very best….. ".

No politician crafts a speech without giving careful consideration to its possible political impact, however subtle and well disguised, and certainly not a young Head of State in the first year of a mandate to profoundly transform his country. In speaking about the “improbability” of importing new ideas into France, and persuading the French to adopt them regardless of their job, social class or where they live, he was not only talking about Johnny Hallyday. He was also, I think, talking about his own vision for changing the prevalent political discourse and culture and ultimately France itself. “I hope that Johnny’s improbable destiny will also be mine”, he seemed to be saying to a crowd of almost one million people at the ceremony and fifteen million following on television. I imagine the subtext as: “You believed in Johnny and you loved his songs. Listen to my song – and make it yours too.”

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Brexit won't happen !

“Ma’am, you are the first British monarch to return from a foreign adventure by land!” These words, spoken by Alastair Morton, co-chairman of Eurotunnel to Queen Elizabeth, at the tunnel’s official opening in Folkestone in May 1994, symbolise more than anything else the historic and indissoluble link between the United Kingdom and the European Continent. The UK’s accession to the European Economic Community, as it then was, on January 1st 1973, was of course a momentous event in itself, putting an end, or so it seemed at the time, to 25 years of British hesitation about its future relationship with Europe. But the tunnel cemented that link for good, both literally and metaphorically.  Nothing would ever be the same again after cars and lorries could simply drive on to a shuttle train and drive off at the other end or passengers board a train in one capital city and alight less than 3 hours later in another. Despite the initial traffic figures, far below those predicted and a devastating fire in 1996, the tunnel has gone from strength to strength, been rescued from the verge of bankruptcy and today notches up record figures, month after month, for crossings of passengers, trains, cars and lorries. Remarkably, and somewhat counter-intuitively, its business has continued to prosper since the Brexit referendum in June 2016. After an initial fall, its share price has now recovered to its pre-referendum level, reflecting investors’ confidence in its future.

It’s not difficult to see why. After arriving at St. Pancras station, a passenger’s first stop may be a coffee shop on the station concourse. More often than not, it is staffed by young men and women from France, Spain or Italy, keen to take advantage of the UK’s flexible labour market, earn a bit of money and improve their English, even if it means living in a cramped shared flat with several others. In a more up-market pub and restaurant upstairs, the waiters and waitresses are Polish. The last time I had lunch there, a couple of months ago, the faces were all new but still Polish. The last time I stayed at a hotel in London the receptionist was …Polish. If you are unlucky enough to have to go to an Accident and Emergency department at a British hospital you might well be attended to by a German junior doctor and a Spanish nurse. Walking through Camden market not so long ago, I struck up a conversation with two young Frenchmen who spend their week preparing meals for corporate dining rooms in the City and their weekends selling imported French cheeses on a market stall.

This anecdotal evidence however, that any casual visitor to London cannot fail to pick up, is just the tip of an economic iceberg that has seen exchanges of all kinds between the UK and the European continent grow and multiply over the last 45 years as the whole of the EU has slowly become more integrated. The tunnel has definitely accelerated that trend. Japanese car makers like Honda and Nissan import car parts into the UK on a just-in-time basis, assemble cars in ultra modern plants and then export the finished products to be sold on the continent. British start-ups, like start-ups everywhere, rely on a range of skilled employees from all over Europe and the rest of the world. Britain’s thriving financial services industry, thanks to “passporting” rights, can engage in financial business throughout the EU. The examples could go on and on and on.

Why then did 52% of those who voted in the 2016 referendum decide to turn their back on all this and feel that Britain could go it alone? Why did the area around Sunderland for instance, home of the Nissan car plant, one of the largest local employers and dependent on exports to the rest of the EU, decide by 61% to leave? Part of the answer is surely the political mood at the time with many voters still suffering from the slow-burning impact of the 2007-08 crisis and happy to take the referendum as an excuse to vent their displeasure with their country’s aloof government. Political scientists have long established that voters, called on to vote in a referendum, often use it to protest about what might be peeving them at the time rather than answering the question they are asked. Over and above these immediate reasons however, the UK’s more fundamental ambivalence towards Europe has not changed much since the end of World War Two. Anybody who reads Hugo Young’s masterful account of relations between Britain and Europe from 1945 to 1998 (“This Blessed Plot – Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair”, Macmillan, 1998) cannot help being struck by the permanence of the British establishment’s attitudes towards the European project in general, starting with the Schuman plan in 1950. As Lord David Hannay, who was deeply involved in the first negotiations to join the Common Market in 1961 (vetoed by President de Gaulle in 1963) is reported to have said in a recent speech: “In 1961-63, much like today, we had not really made up our minds what on earth we wanted to do.”

Seen against this background, the outcome of the Brexit referendum is perhaps therefore little more than another hiccup in the troubled relationship between Britain and the EU, on a par with the 1975 referendum, Prime Minister Thatcher’s successful but damaging campaign to gain a budget rebate in 1984, the opt-outs from Schengen and the Euro. My guess is that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who ran the successful “Leave” campaign on the grounds that Britain should “take back control”, rid itself from “interference” by the European Court of Justice and spend the money sent to “Brussels” on the NHS, together with their small band of extremist supporters, will not be treated kindly by the history books.  But beyond these increasingly ridiculous and opportunistic figures, the whole idea of Brexit may just be the final gasp of imperial glory, the now futile pretence that Britain is still strong enough to dictate its terms to the rest of the world, as it did when it presided over an Empire on which the sun never set. Together with the popular press that panders to the prejudices of those who have come off badly from globalisation and blame it all on Brussels, they will eventually have to concede, probably sooner rather than later, that they have made a big mistake and put their country’s future prosperity at risk.

The truth is that Britain’s European dimension has loomed increasingly large over the past 45 years and short of closing the tunnel, that nobody has suggested, that trend can only continue. As the Erasmus generation takes over from the imperial blimps, as employers from all sectors realise that they desperately need employees from the rest of the EU, as opinion leaders come to terms with the prospect of seriously compromising 60% of the country’s foreign trade, as civil servants are faced with the mind-boggling complexity of unpicking every single thread of a 45 year old alliance, opinion will surely shift and many of those who voted “Leave” in 2016 will come to regret their decision. If reports and polls are to be believed, some already do.

Prime Minister May has often repeated that: “Brexit means Brexit”. My guess is that Brexit will not happen.  Whether it is derailed by a new Prime Minister heading a reshuffled Conservative government, a change of government after a general election, a showdown vote in the House of Commons or the European Parliament or quite simply a second referendum, remains to be seen. But as the economist Herbert Stein said famously: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Nice work if you can get it

I once had a friend, who, sadly, died only a year after retirement. He was a superb craftsman and ran a small boat building and repairing business in Brittany. He was able to shape wood or fibreglass so that every part looked perfect - a true professional. He told me more than once that he was able to assess every young recruit within a few days of them starting work and tell whether they were gifted for manual work or not. With those who passed muster he was generous with his time and advice, but he was also quick to discourage those he felt would never find fulfilment in manual work. Most of the youngsters he encouraged stayed on in the business and one even went on to set up a similar company in another part of Brittany. Without realising it, they had been given an excellent start to their career by benefiting from the shrewd assessment and generous mentoring of an experienced professional at just the right time.

All this comes back into memory as I listen to the endless debates about President Macron’s promised and much needed reform of France’s byzantine system of vocational training, apprenticeships and unemployment insurance. It has long been a mantra of politicians that France needs to reform its vocational training system to bring down high employment, especially youth unemployment, by giving young people the skills they need to get a job or retrain those whose job has been lost. It sounds simple but, like most things in an advanced industrial economy, and particularly in France, it isn’t.

Take the school system to start with. Not so many years go, kids who did not do well in school were weeded out early and ended up in unskilled jobs on a farm, in a factory or in a shop. Soon after I first came to France, over 40 years ago, I did a stint of teaching at a “collège” (for kids up to the age of about 16) in a small provincial town. At the end of their compulsory schooling, pupils, especially girls, who were not considered academic were told, pretty dismissively after the final class assessment, that they would do better to leave school and look for a job. At the time, jobs were more easily found – even for the unqualified. Today most jobs require minimum levels of competence to work with modern technological tools. Recognising this, the monolithic Education Nationale has, over the years, introduced alternative paths to the baccalauréat, (high school leaving exam) for those whose academic performance has not been stellar. Pupils who are not deemed academic enough to do a general baccalauréat (in maths and science, literature or social studies) are directed towards these alternative, vocationally oriented, courses, supposed to equip them with the skills required for the jobs market or some form of higher education. And yet it is still the case, despite the huge changes that have taken place in society and the economy that those who are not considered “academic” at school still carry a stigma of failure as they take up these alternative baccalauréats, widely considered as  second best solutions for the ungifted. The system does ensure that 80% of any given age group pass some form of baccalauréat. However, many consider that vocational subjects suffer from teaching that is overly academic, an inadequate level of out-dated resources, little regard for employability and are therefore ill matched to the skills required for the labour market. But then schools and those who run them have always defended the view that their primary task is to educate pupils to be well-rounded citizens, and not be too distracted from this noble mission by designing and delivering training for commerce or industry.

In contrast to all this, it should not be forgotten that France boasts a number of very selective but world-class higher institutes of learning and training. For those who do well in high school, elite engineering and business academies beckon, opening up prospects of responsible and highly paid jobs all over the world. Graduates from the famous Polytechnique and the elite engineering schools (Ecole des Mines and Ecole de Ponts et Chaussées) for instance, or top business schools, are among the best and the brightest anywhere. But the impact on society, as a famous French journalist, Pierre Viansson-Ponté, wrote many years ago, is that “France chooses its future elites on the basis of their excellence in mathematics”. It was only a slight exaggeration at the time and not much has changed since.

In other words, the French education and training system works well, even very well, for the select few who are able to meet such exacting requirements. It works a lot less well for many others with different talents that are not always identified and nurtured at school. If high school students pass any baccalauréat, they can claim, without further ado, a place at a state-run university charging no tuition fees, regardless of their school record or job prospects. They roundly reject any attempt at  “selection “, because university is seen as the default choice for further training, even though only about 50% succeed in their first undergraduate year.

This state of affairs is exactly what Macron’s bold attempt at reform is supposed to remedy: change attitudes towards apprenticeships and vocational training; identify areas that require skills and ensure that relevant training courses are on offer to provide them; identify pupils who are likely to benefit from such opportunities, even if they have a patchy school record; retrain employees who need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones, paid for in many cases by their “individual training account”, a welcome innovation introduced by a previous government three years ago.

And it is not as if the money to fund such an effort is not there, not to speak of the savings that could be made if more of those who are entitled to claim a place at university decided to opt for more promising avenues towards employment.  All companies are required by law to pay contributions towards training and there are plenty of central and local government bodies that are supposed to dispense and oversee it. The trouble is that the whole system has become mired in bureaucracy, content, like most bureaucracies, to observe the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Money is directed towards training by numerous committees made up of employers, trade unions and civil servants. Vocational training for adults is doled out by over 65 000 registered providers. There is precious little individual counselling and practically no evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. The input of individual businesses, when it is requested, tends to be cancelled out by the dead hand of the Education Nationale. The unqualified and long-term unemployed vegetate on the sidelines.

President Macron’s purported reforms, now being discussed with all the parties involved, sound promising, but a lot will depend on how they are presented and if the inevitable resistances can be overcome. And there will be plenty of resistance on the part of the many and various bodies that hold the power and the purse strings in the current system. Three years ago for instance, as part of a regional reform programme, regional authorities were given, on paper, the responsibility for vocational training in order to bring it closer to local employment requirements. Since then, bureaucratic confusion and infighting has ensued and above all, the Education Nationale is quietly resisting any attempt to take training for the young out of its remit. While there is a lot to be said for the idea of giving all children a well-rounded education and preparing them for citizenship, there is surely the need, in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU, for a new balance to be struck, so that attractive and promising vocational training opportunities can be brought to those whose talents are suited to them, young and less young. After all, a fulfilling job also makes for happier employees, more stable families and a better society in general.

Whatever new arrangements are eventually put in place, they will of course be light years away from the simple but effective method instinctively applied by my deceased friend in Brittany. But there are nevertheless small, everyday signs of hope that the deep culture may be changing. The other day, in the garage to which I had taken my car for servicing, I spotted a youngster working on a car engine. “Got an apprentice?” I asked the owner. “Yes”, he said, “he’s on a vocational training course, one week here, one week in school, doing well, likes the job. Nice to see a youngster like that getting stuck in.”

France certainly needs a lot more of them.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Glyphosate mon amour !

Anyone who travels by train or car from Paris towards the Loire valley or Brittany will pass though the region of the Beauce, thousands and thousands of acres of flat, arable land that stretches for miles and could be described as France’s breadbasket. The farmers of wheat and other cereals who are lucky enough to have land in this area are among the wealthiest of their profession. A lot of their harvest is exported and contributes positively to France’s trade and current account balances.  These are definitely not the French farmers who sometimes use their tractors to disrupt traffic on major roads or dump tons of potatoes or manure in front of government buildings. One of the reasons for their success is the high yields enabled by the spraying of powerful herbicides and pesticides on their crops. The same is true for sugar beet farmers and, to a lesser extent, many others.

It has been known for some time that residues of these chemicals can be found in foodstuffs and urine samples. Environmental activists have long denounced their widespread use and beekeepers consider neonicotinoid pesticides in particular responsible for abnormally high bee mortality in recent years. Public debate has now crystallised around glyphosate, the chemical compound used in Monsanto’s famous herbicide, Roundup. As glyphosate’s licence for use throughout the European Union is due for renewal by December 15 of this year, the debate has become increasingly heated and no fewer than eight expert and ministerial meetings in Brussels have been unable to attain the necessary majority for renewal. The European Commission’s initial proposal was to renew the licence for ten years, reduced to five after an outcry from the European Parliament. France, through its Minister for Ecological Transition (and telenvironmentalist in a previous life) Nicolas Hulot, has refused to concede more than three years and is thought to favour the gradual phasing out of the product altogether rather than renewing the licence and facing the same battle three years hence.

Somewhat concealed under the manoeuvrings of the Commission, clearly influenced by Monsanto’s lobbying, the European Parliament which has banned the company’s representatives from entering its premises and environmentalists of all persuasions, the underlying issue is the future shape of the European Union’s model of agriculture. And as France is one of the EU’s largest countries and a major producer and exporter of agricultural produce, its stance will have a big impact. An additional twist to the plot is that the German chemical concern, Bayer, launched a takeover bid for Monsanto in September 2016, so the position of Germany, still embroiled in coalition negotiations to form the next government, is likely to tip the balance one way or the other.  

Like most people, I have no way of knowing what claims and counterclaims about glyphosate are accurate. A specialist body of the World Health Organisation has concluded from its studies that it is carcinogenic for humans. Other studies claim that it is not, although doubts have been cast on their design and conclusions. Common sense however would I think conclude that spraying large quantities of strong chemicals on crops of all kinds, even if they are not a direct cause of cancer, is not exactly conducive to good health. On holiday in Alsace a few years ago, I remember walking though some vineyards, seeing a large tank of liquid that was undoubtedly being sprayed on the vines and coming away with my eyes stinging so badly, that I had to go straight to the nearest pharmacy and ask for something to relieve the pain. The pharmacist made no comment on the reasons I gave for seeking his help, but with the help of an over-the-counter ocular formula my eyes were back to normal by the end of the evening. I couldn’t help wondering though whether the chemical sprayed on the vines, whatever it was, would not leave a residue in the grapes and the wine that would be made from them. Not too many months later, my ex-wife’s basset hound, a middle-aged dog normally in good health, died in obvious pain a few days after lapping from what looked like a puddle of rainwater at the edge of a cultivated field. The vet was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to say what he had died of, but my suspicion is that he had slurped up some nasty and poisonous chemical, washed off the crops by rain.

All in all, I can’t help feeling that environmental activists should be taken seriously when they call for a complete overhaul of France’s agricultural model. There are signs that farmers are starting to listen, under pressure mainly from consumers who are increasingly keen to buy organic produce (See: “Food glorious food”- September 18th).  In one of those schizophrenic episodes to which the EU authorities are prone, European subsidies are earmarked for farmers who convert to organic farming methods although, for the time being, reports suggest that they are insufficient in France and being paid out very slowly by the French government.  Personally I look forward to being able to eat bread and drink wine that is certified free of chemical residues – and too bad for wine growers in Alsace or wheat farmers in the Beauce. They are likely to protest loudly, lobby hard and do their best to procrastinate but I’m confident they won’t go out of business!