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Thursday, January 29, 2009

French and British Diseases

Somewhere between a million and two and a half million French people took to the streets across the country today to protest their government’s handling of the economy, bringing much of the country shuddering to a halt. From Britain, a country where Thatcher broke the backs of the unions twenty five years ago and presided over a decade of public rioting in the process, the French tendency to protest, riot and strike at the slightest encouragement can sometimes seem ridiculous, sometimes perplexing, sometimes inspiring and sometimes worrisome. Two years ago, most Brits would probably have looked with some condescension at the “French disease”. A year ago the French would have responded by looking back with equal condescension at the collapse of the “Anglo-Saxon” capitalist model. Now, perhaps, the signs finally are indisputable that we’re all on the same side in this crisis.

Of course, each country’s vulnerabilities are different. The French are benefiting from a stronger currency than the nose-diving pound, though this naturally has an attendant impact on export competitiveness. Unemployment in France is likely to reach ten percent pretty soon. The country remains dominated by a system of education and high office-holding that is even more elitist than the Oxbridge model in Britain or the Ivy League in the US. Tight employment regulations mean that job creation has been and remains a problem. Yet these latest anti-Sarkozy protests are just the most recent indication that a generations-long hostility to attempts to open the market shows no sign of disappearing soon. As far as I can tell, employment deregulation is considered by most French people to be nothing more than an a cynical excuse to pay people less, employ them in worse jobs, and fire them sooner. Personally, this argument would make more sense to me if France – hit far less directly than Britain by the housing market or the financial crash – were not already haemorrhaging jobs.

In Britain, unemployment is lower – just over six percent – though it’s climbing fast, and to be honest it’s hard to trust the figures as so many people are reclassified by the government in different ways so as to get them down. And rising unemployment in Britain, as the eighties showed, brings its own forms of conflict and hostility over here. Whilst the French were indulging their national pastime today, the darker face of Britain showed itself too, as hundreds of workers at oil refineries in the North of England walked out after a construction contract was awarded to an Italian firm employing foreign workers.

It’s hard not to sympathise with workers who watch jobs get handed to outsiders instead of their own communities. Just as it’s hard not to sympathise with workers in France who are looking at redundancies, or deflationary pay settlements, or hours and benefits cuts. But we’re in a global economy now, and that means free movement of capital and labour, people creating jobs in other places if your country isn’t competitive, and bringing workers from other places to your country if it makes sense to do so.

Whatever the way out of this crisis turns out to be – and, as I say, it seems pretty certain that the path will be a little different in each country – there’s no doubt that we won’t find our way out unless we all start to realise we’re all in this together.

Alex Goodall
Papamoka’s European Contributor
From A Swift Blow to the Head

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Blogger B.J. said...

Alex: It's great to get your perspective. Over at DemWit, my latest post title is "We're all in the same wagon." In it I recall FDR's 1932 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. FDR, in that speech, clearly saw the seeds of where we are today - all of us. BJ

1:04 AM  

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