Thursday, 23 March 2017

Well-stocked municipal flower beds

The expression comes from a recent article on France in The Economist. The writer meant it, I think, as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the French predilection for spending taxpayers’ money on prestigious, feel-good projects that may be difficult to justify in purely economic terms.

This morning, as I was walking to the municipal gymnasium in the medium-sized town just outside Paris where I live, I walked through the municipal park. Three gardeners were mowing the grass and tending the borders. I must admit that it looked magnificent in a pale morning sun. Primroses and dark blue, yellow and white pansies are in full bloom, daffodils and forsythia are coming out, the tulips are not far behind and the climbing roses have been neatly cut back and trained around their wooden frames. The gardeners were equipped with regulation clothing, boots and gloves, garden tools and two modern lawn mowers. The had wiped off the well varnished wrought iron and wooden benches and placed clean bags inside the rubbish cans next to each one. Behind the park, there is a large and well-equipped playground where children from the surrounding flats can meet after school or on a Sunday afternoon to play basketball, football or use the slides and swings. In the background is a handsome and well-maintained 19th century building that houses an internationally renowned centre specialised in the teaching of French as a second language. A plaque recalling De Gaulle’s stirring address of June 18, 1940,  (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”), almost standard issue in most municipalities, is displayed on a patch of grass near the entrance.

None of this of course is done on a shoestring. For a not too taxing 35 hour working week, the three well-equipped municipal gardeners I saw at work this morning are probably paid a little more than the minimum wage of about €1200 month, including, as they are local authority civil servants, fairly automatic wage increases and more generous health and pension benefits than they would get in the private sector. A recent, half-baked local authority reform was supposed to save money and generate greater efficiency but has clearly failed to have any impact on manpower. Although the national headcount of local authority civil servants has not increased, it certainly hasn’t fallen.  And as central government subsidies to local authorities have been severely pruned, local taxes have tended to increase. In his municipal newsletter, our mayor consistently finds apologetic and convoluted explanations for the necessary increase in local taxes. In spite of almost zero inflation, they have risen by about 7% in the last three years. For a modest (77m2) apartment in an early 1960s block of flats, I pay a total of about €2500 a year in local taxes.

All that being said, when I listen to the BBC Today Programme and regularly hear tales of woe from local authorities throughout Britain, some of which are closing libraries and parks because they can no longer afford to keep them open, I don’t grumble too much as I fill in my on-line tax payment form every autumn. Well-stocked municipal flower beds may be feel-good projects but they undoubtedly do contribute to the quality of life in our town.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The slow revenge of Eva Joly

Eva Joly is probably not a household name outside France or her native country of Norway.  Now 73 years old, a second-term MEP and former candidate for Europe Ecologie-les Verts in the 2012 presidential elections  - she polled just over 2% - she came to France at the age of 20 as an au-pair girl, studied law at night school and eventually became an examining magistrate, specialised in financial affairs.  In this capacity she investigated what came to be known as the Elf financial scandal of the 1990s, a saga of huge illicit payments from a French oil company (since taken over by TOTAL) to politicians and senior officials. She tells the bruising story in a book that was published in France in 2003,  “Est-ce dans ce monde-là que nous voulons vivre?” (Edtions les Arènes, 2003) that later appeared in an English translation, “Justice under siege” (Arcadia books 2006).

After a long and painstaking investigation, senior figures including Loïk le Floch Prigent, the boss of Elf at the time of the scandal and of SNCF at the time of the investigation and Roland Dumas, a well-known lawyer, minister and close friend of François Mitterand were charged for various offences. Roland Dumas was convicted and sentenced to fines and a prison sentence, later overturned on appeal.

I looked up the whole story again this morning as news broke of yet more investigations into François Fillon’s financial affairs and the sudden resignation yesterday of the Minister of the Interior, Bruno Le Roux, a close political ally of François Hollande, after revelations that he had employed his teenage daughters as parliamentary assistants! While there is very clearly little in common between the Elf affair of the 1990s and the comparatively minor (and legal) sins of which François Fillon and Bruno Le Roux stand accused, both cases are an interesting illustration of how far attitudes have changed in France over the past 25 years.

What is particularly striking in Eva Joly’s book is not so much the reality that she uncovered but the spiteful and violent reactions of the people she was investigating. One senior politician pointedly turned his back on her and read a book while she was trying to question him in her office. Roland Dumas called her, among other things, “crazy”. It was as if these senior member of the establishment, so accustomed to the corrupt ways of the time, assumed that they were simply above the law and were outraged at being publicly exposed and questioned  by a punctilious and “foreign” magistrate applying her Nordic ways to such upstanding officials of a country like France!

Nevertheless, scandal after scandal, both legal and moral standards have been tightening up, under pressure from public opinion and the legislator. François Hollande himself took one of the most recent initiatives, after a scandal in which a former minister was convicted only last year of tax evasion and money laundering. He set up a special public prosecution unit to which the dodgy financial affairs of politicians and senior official can be referred.  It is this body that is investigating Fillon and now Le Roux. Since 2013, MPs are also required to declare all their income from non-parliamentary sources to another body, the "High Authority for Transparency in Public Life” (HATVP), seen as a safeguard against possible conflicts of interest.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that France is indeed moving slowly towards more Nordic standards of integrity in public life. Radio and TV stations regularly report on cases like that of the Swedish minister who was forced to resign for buying nappies with her government credit card or the recent opening of the Norwegian tax administration’s website to any citizen who wishes to consult it.  Whether such levels of transparency will ever be attained in France is a matter of doubt. From her seat in the European Parliament however, Eva Joly must take some comfort from the realisation that the underlying culture in France has changed considerably since she carried out her investigations and that her successors in the new public prosecutor’s unit not only enjoy the backing of public opinion and the state but are also respected - and feared - rather than insulted.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The look and feel of a President

Last night’s televised debate between the five main candidates for the Presidency of France was not riveting.   A debate between five candidates is a misnomer anyway. A real, and decisive, debate between the two finalists will be held a few days before May 7. That is when we may hear a memorable and killer soundbite of the kind that tipped the scales in favour of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 (“Mr. Mitterand, vous n’avez pas le monopole du cœur” – “Mr. Mitterand, you have no monopoly of the heart”)  or the anaphora, “Moi, Président de la République…”  - “If I were President of France”   …… of François Hollande that dealt the  knockout blow to Sarkozy in 2012.

Of the five candidates on stage last night, answering imprecise and sometimes inept questions from two journalists, only three are in the running for the second round and only two will make it. Which two? If current opinion polls are to be believed, they will be Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, meaning the effective elimination of both the right and left wing parties that have governed France since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. But then, as the pollsters themselves are quick to point out, a poll is only a snapshot of public opinion at any given time, and, it must added, of voters who have already made up their mind. A month before the first round of voting many of them haven’t and they are the ones who will make the difference on the day.

So I found myself looking at the candidates last night and wondering what the floating voters would do on April 23 and, above all, on May 7. As they stand in line to cast their ballots, what will they be thinking of? Less, perhaps, of policies and more of character, image and stature. Which candidate will they find the most presidential?

Marine le Pen will clearly attract a sizeable protest vote and given the electoral arithmetic of a divided left and a troubled right, may very well, for that reason alone, make it into the second round. But even that is not a certainty. And on the basis of her performance last night, the usual combination of bluster, anti-establishment and xenophobic  rhetoric and a cheesy, cynical smile, not to speak of her lunatic economic policies, of which she said very little but which were neatly skewered by Fillon at one point, I really can’t see a majority of the French electorate sending her to the Elysée Palace for the next five years. Emmanuel Macron has undoubtedly broken the mould of presidential politics and is the darling of the polls at the moment. But to me he remains unconvincing. A minister, yes, even a Prime Minister, but not yet the stuff of a President.  Too young, too inexperienced, and on the basis of last night’s showing, a little too quick to rise to the bait and a bit flustered on a big night in the face of a hostile crowd. Do the French really feel that a young man of 39, however bold and gifted, can rise to the challenge of leading one of the oldest and richest civilisations in Europe? I have my doubts. Giscard d’Estaing was 48 in 1974, Nicholas Sarkozy 52 in 2007. Both were considered young at the time but both had experience in local and national politics. Both could look forward to solid parliamentary majorities to govern. Neither was re-elected for a second term.

François Fillon, at 63, projected the experience of his years and his long political career. He came across as calm, serious, on top of his brief, with a sixth sense of when to speak and when to stand back with an enigmatic and distant grin. When he spoke, he sounded convincing and often incisive. Of the five candidates on stage, he was the only one who struck me as having the look and feel of a President. I found myself thinking of François Mitterand.

After Chirac, who thoroughly enjoyed being President but achieved comparatively little during his twelve years in office, Sarkozy, who spend most of his presidency preening himself and Hollande who never recovered from being elected on false pretences, my guess is that this time, the French, in their majority, not only want a serious, calm and conservative father figure to guide their country through the difficult period ahead but also a President who will reflect who they are and how they see themselves and their country. Had François Fillon’s judgement not been found seriously wanting in recent weeks, he would have stood head and shoulders above the other candidates last night. He should not be written off yet. He may still emerge victorious from this long and gruelling campaign. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

France and globalisation

About 25 years ago, I found myself sitting next to a senior French official on a plane. We were both going to the same meeting, me as an interpreter, he as the representative of his country; the kind of highly intelligent public servant, superbly trained in the Republic’s elite schools that has been running France since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. As we had seen each other before, we got talking and I asked him about globalisation. At the time the word was starting to gain currency but had not passed the lips of any French politician. I wondered why. As globalisation was clearly unstoppable, I ventured, why didn’t there appear to be in France any public debate about what impact it would have, how it could be organised to the country’s advantage and how its positive and negative effects could be accommodated? To my considerable surprise, instead of the tightly argued analysis I was expecting, all I got by way of response was a gallic shrug and a barely audible “je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”).

That aborted conversation came back to me last night as I read a headline in Le Monde entitled: “Les candidats face à la contestation de la mondialisation” (“Candidates’ responses to anti-globalisation protests”)[1]. As one might expect, they are very different. Le Pen, Melenchon, and, to a lesser extent, Hamon claim that by putting back the clock by about 30 years and /or spending considerably more taxpayers’ money than the country can afford, all our problems will be miraculously solved. Fillon and Macron sound more realistic, talk of making the French economy more competitive and the French state more efficient but say little about the inevitable losers from globalisation and what should be done to support and protect them.

The sad truth is that, 25 years on, no French leader in power over that period, Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande has ever put forward an all-encompassing and convincing narrative about globalisation. It is therefore hardly surprising that anti-globalisation protests have gathered strength over the years, with politicians tending to react, in haste and under media pressure, to its evident drawbacks - the decline of old industries and their attendant job losses, regional desertification and immigration – while failing to point out the less spectacular but nevertheless very real advantages of cheaper international travel, cars and consumer goods and smartphones for all.

The conspicuous absence of a cogent political response has not prevented some French companies from doing very nicely out of globalisation: LVMH, L’Oreal, Airbus and Total, to name just four, generate considerably more profit these days from global markets than they do from their home market, while keeping their centres of decision and research mainly in France.   The huge number of young French entrepreneurs throwing themselves with gusto into building their own businesses, aim, right from the outset to serve the global market. The most successful, like Business Objects, before it was snapped up by SAP, or Criteo, listed first on the Nasdaq.

Only official France has not kept pace. Our education system is hidebound by centralised rules and procedures, apprenticeships are considered an inferior form of education and the whole vocational training system is rife with collusion and even corruption.  It is hardly surprising therefore that unemployment in general and youth unemployment in particular is ridiculously high. The “French social model” that most voters are rightly attached to is rusty to the core.

Will this election campaign turn out to be one more lost opportunity or, on the contrary, a chance to start putting things right and dragging the French state into the modern and globalised world? I sincerely hope that in five years time, I shall be able to report that my question of 25 years ago will have at last been answered by more than a gallic shrug and a barley audible  ”je ne sais pas”.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Eleven candidates in the running

Two days ago, as I was passing the primary school that will serve as a polling station next month, two municipal employees were unloading sturdy steel poster holders from a van. They propped them up against the school wall and wired them together to stop anyone removing them.

This is where election posters will be put up, scrawled over or ripped off by opponents …..and replaced by the party faithful as the election campaign heats up. It’s the same scenario at every election.

I counted ten poster holders. France’s Constitutional Council has just announced that 11 candidates have gathered the requisite 500 signatures of MPs, mayors, local and regional councillors from all over France to be allowed to stand in the first round of the presidential ballot on April 23.

The municipal employees will be out again on Monday to add an eleventh holder!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Mr.Macron goes to Berlin

Last night’s TV news and this morning’s papers show pictures of Chancellor Merkel and Emmanuel Macron chatting pleasantly in Merkel’s office in Berlin. To my knowledge, neither speaks, nor understands, the other’s language but both can get by in English. They were probably indulging in small talk, in halting English, about the weather on the East Coast or Mr. Macron’s flight schedule before the cameras were ushered out, an interpreter was called in and more serious discussions began.

However contrived they may appear, the pictures are nevertheless important. Any serious candidate for the Presidency of France knows only too well that successful co-operation within the E.U depends crucially on France and Germany seeing eye-to-eye, more than ever now that the U.K is heading for the exit. Any further move towards more effective governance of the Euro area for instance can only be successful if Germany loosens up. It will not do so, and not just because Herr Schäuble says no, unless France makes a serious attempt to put its economic and financial house in order first. François Fillon, when he was riding high in the polls, had a meeting with Merkel some months ago. Emmanuel Macron has now, one assumes, been taken over the same ground.

There are at last two strands in the Franco-German narrative: political co-operation and the folk memory. Without going back further than the second world war, the two are still alive and well, if somewhat divergent.

Political co-operation, initially driven by reconciliation, was considered on both sides as essential to normalising relations between the two countries as well as more wide-ranging co-operation within what is now the E.U. It nevertheless took until 1963 for De Gaulle and Adenauer to sign the Elysée Treaty on friendship and co-operation and undertake reciprocal official visits. Since then, whenever political and economic co-operation has flourished, it has been through privileged relations between French and German leaders. Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt laid the foundations of the common currency in the 1970s, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl traded German unification for the setting up of the Euro in 1991, before famously joining hands at a ceremony honouring the war dead of both countries in Verdun in 1994. No first time meeting between a French and a German minister can start or end without at least lip service being paid to Franco-German co-operation.

In 2017, it is hardly a scoop to suggest that the German authorities, whatever the outcome of their own elections this autumn, are keen to see the end of the Hollande Presidency and are looking forward to a fresh start.

As to the folk memory, it is also very much alive, at least in France. Memories of the wartime occupation, not to speak of SS massacres in places like Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, abound. Go to any medium-sized French railway station and you will probably find, fairly prominently displayed, a plaque with the names of four or five railway workers who were “fusillés par les allemands” during the occupation. (“shot by the Germans” sounds funny in English and even funnier in German but in French it sounds normal). Many street plaques in Paris commemorate the spot where free French solders were killed during the liberation of the city in August 1944. Flowers are placed next to them every year on the anniversary. Back in the 1970s, I remember only too well the barely concealed discomfort of the father of one of my ex-wife’s friends on the news that his daughter had decided to marry a German.  In the village in Brittany where I have spent many summer holidays I was once told, in a confidential whisper, that one of our neighbours had two sons fathered by a German officer during the occupation.

On the German side, despite the many tourists who flock to France’s beaches and countryside during the summer (far fewer French people return the compliment!) there is still a feeling of unease not far below the surface.  “Die Franzosen - das ist ein eigenartiges Volk”  (“The French - they’re a funny lot”) one German department store manager, said to me quite unprompted, not so long ago.

Lingering hostility and suspicion in both peoples will take generations to fade, and only as long as political co-operation continues and mutual benefit results. One can only hope that both Chancellor Merkel and M. Macron were keenly aware of all this in their discussions yesterday.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The economic lunacy of Marine le Pen

Many Europeans are breathing more easily this morning as we consider the encouraging results of the Dutch elections. With a slackening wind from the North Sea holding up, one hopes for good, the progression of the populist ship, it seems a good opportunity to look more closely at Marine Le Pen’s economic programme and hope that its lunacy will become increasingly apparent to electors in France.

The most complete exposition of this programme I have read so far can be found in an interview published in “Investir, Le Journal des Finances” on February 18 of this year. While M.L-P’s positions on the single currency and the EU itself have been well rehearsed, what caught my eye in particular was a comment tucked away in the middle of the piece where she says: “  … the whole logic our of policy is to no longer depend on foreign creditors.” [1]

A statement that is eerily familiar to those who remember François Hollande’s Le Bourget speech in the run up to the presidential election in 2011: “My enemy is finance.”

It is worthwhile repeating the facts about France’s indebtedness, as reported by Le Monde a few days ago, although M.L-P clearly prefers facts of the alternative variety. Current debt runs to 97.5% of GDP, 60% of which is held by foreigners, or, as the statisticians would describe them, “non-resident investors”. Annual interest payments, amount to €40billion (yes billion!!).

The only way of  “no longer depending on foreign creditors” would be to default on most of that debt, which M.L-P says she would stop short of. But investors worried about the prospect of France ditching the euro and having their debt repaid in a devalued currency are hedging their bets, which goes some way to explaining the rise of French 10 year rates over the last few months and the increasing spread with comparable German rates.

Whatever the bluster from M.L-P, it is very clear that any programme to reduce dependence on foreign creditors will require the implementation of a patient, credible and single-minded policy over many years. To claim anything else is pure fantasy.

Unless of course the Euro is abandoned and the EU falls apart. What would happen then is anybody’s guess.

François Fillon, for all his faults, is the only candidate who seems to have a proper understanding of this challenge. Whether he will be elected President and in a position do something about it is very much a matter of conjecture at the moment. But one hopes that he will at least, in the upcoming televised debates, explode the myths surrounding the lunatic policies of one of his main rivals.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own