2007/09/25 Does France Still Matter - Speech at the Singapore Management University,

Conversation with Ambassadors Series
Singapore Management University
Singapore, September 25, 2007

“How can you possibly govern a country with 300 sorts of cheese?”, General de Gaulle used to mutter. Today that number has risen to 500, providing yet another illustration of French creativity. How this increase affects the ability of our country to govern could be a dissertation subject for a PhD student in mathematics applied to political science.

But this is not what I intent to impose upon you today. More modestly, before reflecting on the fundamentals of France and her assets, I will first try to dispel a number of clichés which have for decades been pinned on France, no matter what happened there. You might remember the fall of 2005, when burning cars, rioting youth in the suburbs, insurrection-style images provided for weeks the daily footage on the evening news, and a number of people, even the least malign, wondered : what is the matter with France ? True, the election of a new President, with a bold political agenda, has if not silenced, then at least weakened the “cliché mill”. But those stereotypes, we see them re-emerging whenever something is said or done that someone dislikes here and there in the media.

In order to do them justice, allow me to just recapitulate them :
- Cliché N° 1 : the French do not work, displaying all the symptoms of a mature economically advanced nation, imbued with self-complacency, hedonism and an irresistible preference for leisure over work ;
- Cliché N° 2 : Protectionism : France is plagued by a vague paralyzing fear of globalization, prompting its government towards protectionism, defensive policies, a negative stance towards free trade, while clinging to stale agricultural policies to protect the interests of a powerful lobby ;
- Cliché N° 3 : Decline in culture. A lack of creativity in the arts and letters, culture, and sciences : where are the Sartres, the Camuses, the Arons, the Foucaults of our time ? the Picassos and the Matisses ?
- Cliché N° 4 : Decline of the language. French is progressively being wiped out, as a communication tool, by English, as well as other languages such as Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin ;
- Cliché N° 5 : Arrogance. A nation obsessed with notions of grandeur, living above its political means, a nation beholden to the obsolete status of permanent membership in the UNSC, which dates back to WW2, and shying away from further European integration, when Europe is at the core of its political and international strategy. And Europe itself, after expansion, has become such a huge, unmanageable body that it is hard to see where it is heading, with Europeans showing signs of lassitude and disappointment.
- Cliché N° 6 : France does not matter anymore. As a whole, a voice once listened to and respected in the world is fading away. An economic player with fewer cards in its hands. A scientific and technological power distanced by the American powerhouse and challenged by the rising stars of emerging Asia. Well, at best a sleeping beauty that no charming prince has been willing to wake up…

As I said, the presidential and parliamentary elections of last May and June has brought in a new generation of political leaders, in their 50s, and have sidelined a number of criticisms, especially in France. For, believe or not, the most damning critics of France were not, in the first instance, found in Washington and its “neo-con” circles or in an allegedly hostile Anglo-Saxon press, but in France itself ! There was a school of authors, essayists, commentators, op-ed writers etc., wallowing in pessimism, through numerous books, columns and TV shows, about the sombre fate of this desolate country and its gloomy prospects. Is this propensity for self-criticism a constant feature of our identity ? I am not even sure, for quite a number of commentators – or politicians - use sharp criticism to make their case for reform and to make their voices heard above the general buzz, and possibly to advocate reforms. It hence comes as no surprise, as a side-effect, that this rhetoric, both the serious and the more opportunistic one, finds its way into international media and end up, quite often, and too often in fact, being the last word on France.

You would expect me to differ. And true, I beg to differ. But before I tell you why, let me just say that all those bits of facts raised by even the toughest critics are not just myths, they are based on real facts known to everybody. They are constantly brought up in our very lively political debates, against the government and its policies, irrespective of which party is in power. And rightly so, I should add. For our sometimes revolutionary past has left us - graced us, I should say - with a regime of great freedom of expression, where debate is passionate. And this has especially been the case during the last spring, in the run-up to the presidential election. Without mentioning the more marginal candidates, both mainstream candidates rivaled in denouncing the stalemate in which our political system was mired. And the vigorous debate that ensued gave not only a clear cut majority to one of the two main contenders for presidency but also a strong mandate for reform and a decisive impetus for its implementation.

Indeed, the electoral campaign has not shied away from highlighting that there are bits of truth in the apocalyptic predictions of our doomsayers I listed earlier. It is true that a number of youths in our suburbs have been left behind. It is true that a welfare state designed in the wake of WWII has not undergone the steady streamlining that would have kept it efficient. It is true that France shot herself in the foot when she rejected the European constitution she had herself been instrumental in drafting. It is true that many of my compatriots are driven by a sense of fear or distaste in the face of the many side effects of globalization… and the list could go on.

What, I believe, is more important, though, is to look not at the bits or the pixels, taken one by one, but at the whole picture. What is more important is to answer the rather provocative question of whether France still counts, whether France still matters in the world. Well, all depends on what you put into that notion, that verb. In other words, what does “matter” mean ? Allow me first to reframe the question : how does a middle-sized European power, freed of its colonial empire, endowed with a mature developed economy, fare in the complexity of the world stage at the beginning of the 21st century ? Here, my answer is: well, thank you, it is not doing too bad.

I. Let us start with the most frivolous : good living, which has been the constant quest of philosophers since the time of ancient Greece. Or call it art de vivre. Well, this is maybe the essence of existence itself. Nature has not endowed France with oil, but with a generous soil, transformed by generations of farmers and vintners, and yielding some of the best food and wines on the surface of the earth. We pride ourselves in also grooming and exporting some of the best chefs in the world. Add to that an efficient education system and a health care system which has been named the best in the world by the WHO. Also add a stock of extraordinarily beautiful old houses, mansions, villages and cities, and you will understand why schools of foreigners - Britons, Dutch and Northern Europeans flock to settle and live in France, making it probably the most coveted and envied country of the Old Continent. A book by American author Jeremy Rifkin, instead of railing against the “European dream”, epitomised it in a best-seller in the USA, emphasizing cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over limitless material growth. And if I may add a further indication of the situation, the fertility rate in France is the second highest in Europe, at 2 children per woman, which is not exactly what you would expect from a country in a state of desolation.

It sounds like languishing in the delights of Capua. Does anyone ever work in that country ? Is this not a recipe for a dilapidated economy ? In the clichés I mentioned earlier on France, maybe. But neither in facts nor in the figures. The sixth highest GDP in the world, for a country which barely accounts for 1 % of the world population. The fourth most popular destination of foreign direct investment, after the US, China and the UK. It seems MNCs appreciate France - with direct access to the huge European market of almost half a billion consumers and an excellent communications system - to locate their production and their R&D facilitie : subsidiaries of foreign corporations employ almost 2 million workers in France, i.e. 1 out of 7. France is also the 5th biggest exporter of goods and the fourth biggest exporter of services. It even ranks third in terms of hourly productivity in OECD countries – ahead of every EU country and just behind the USA, which barely surpassed us - and you will not be surprised to learn that France is the first tourist destination of the world with 70 million visitors every year.

Hardly what you would call a self-centered economy. And if you look at its corporate texture, you find a number of truly global companies, grown out of sometimes modest ventures centered on the French market and which nowadays are household names throughout the world : Danone, L’Oréal, LVMH, Total, Areva, Michelin, Bouygues, Renault, Lafarge, Air liquide, Alcatel, Alstom, Thalès, BNP-Paribas and Axa to name just a few. And 9 of those heavy-weights are among the “top 100” of world companies as ranked by Forbes.

Neurons also seem to be left intact by the lavish French lifestyle - or maybe they are even inspired by it. In the last fifteen years, two Nobel prizes in physics, a Nobel Prize in chemistry, four Fields medals - the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics – have been awarded to French scientists, not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize which went to a French-born organization, Médecins sans frontières or Doctors without Borders.

And what about artistic inspiration, whom a number of creators also seek in France ? William Christie, the American who rediscovered French baroque music, the great Franco-Chinese painter Zao Wou Ki, or German artist Anselm Kiefer, the top fashion designers, such as Paul Ford and Galliano have settled in Paris, and so has Singapore’s own Andrew Gn, who thrives there, attracting royalty and celebrities to his studio.

II. Still it is not good enough. Unemployment rates are still too high, hovering around 8 % of the population. The State has been running a deficit for a quarter of a century, and still spends about 3% of its GDP more than it cashes in on revenues, thus increasing the debt every year by about 60-70 billion €. And it has been putting the total public debt at 1175 billion €, i.e. at a ratio of some 64 % of the GDP, above the ceiling of 60 % agreed within the Maastricht Treaty. Foreign trade is also in the red, at a time when Germany is clocking a surplus, despite the high value of the €. Those issues were at the heart of the presidential campaign, conferring upon the President and the government a clear mandate to fix them. And this is what is being done right now in France. A number of reforms are in the pipelines to streamline our social and economic system. You have probably heard the rumbles prompted by this work in progress, which encompasses such serious issues as social security, our pension system, the 35-hour work week, tax breaks to spur both additional working hours and higher consumption, the higher education system, and, last but not least, the trimming down of the State. A very bold agenda indeed, if you think that most governments have in the past blinked or stumbled on just one of these reforms.

What you can also expect is France pursuing its already tried-and-tested policy of setting guidelines, of injecting some orientation relative to the overall industrial strategy, with an eye on the future which the market does not necessarily have. Sometimes this is derided in the media or in some quarters as disastrous “industrial policy”, grooming of “national champions” or political meddling in purely business matters.

But is the market the ultimate judge when national security is concerned ? when the future is at stake ? France has early on invested on technologies that it deemed essential to its autonomy, to its independence, to the autonomy and the independence of Europe. It has been instrumental in lifting from the ground the European Space Agency, which has succeeded in making Europe a player in the launcher and in the satellite industries – over half of the world market for commercial launches are made by the Ariane rocket. It has been instrumental in re-modelling a hitherto scattered European aircraft and armament industry, creating the giant EADS, a mainly Franco-German holding company which makes Airbus aircraft, missiles, helicopters and much more. It has fostered the groundbreaking high-speed train technology (TGV) which interconnects France, England and Northwestern Europe, and which has proven a “hit” in exports. Last but not least, it has for decades, and against generations or scores of naysayers, invested resources on the development of nuclear energy, which is one of the few carbon-free sources of energy, and certainly by far the most cost-effective.
This hints at another priority France has set for itself, namely sustainable development, and the fight against global warming without undercutting global growth. In the forefront of that cause, there is not only nuclear energy, with the imminent development of fourth-generation reactors, but also the fostering of alternative or environment-friendly sources of energy : the low pollution hybrid-diesel vehicle, the ecological building, the bio-refinery... And France has been chosen to welcome the ITER reactor, expected to spearhead the research on the practical use of fusion energy.

III. Now how does France fare as an international player ? It would be fair to say that it considers itself a responsible actor at the very core of the multilateral system.

First as a permanent member of the UNSC. True, the present membership of the UNSC carries the imprint of the distribution of power at the end of WWII, and France has done its utmost to adjust it and to open up the Council to new players in order to better reflect today’s world order. For the time being, though, this reform has still not been agreed on, and there is no alternative international system on the table. So we work with the one we have, no matter how imperfect it may be. Here France has taken up the responsibilities associated with its status and does not shy away from being involved in every serious security issue in the world – especially in the form of the provision of forces for peace-keeping and peace-making.

This commitment is not just a rhetorical posture, but rests on a power apparatus which cannot be described as toothless : a totally independent nuclear deterrent, kept at a minimal and credible level, armed forces resting on a budget of 45 billion US dollars - the 3rd or the 5th in the world depending on how you count it - an autonomous armament industry, an aircraft carrier. It also has 34,000 troops permanently deployed overseas, including those involved in UN peace-keeping operations, in NATO or EU operations, in ad hoc coalitions or on a bilateral basis, such as in the Ivory Coast. This is a heavy burden, budget-wise and sometimes casualty-wise, but it is also the price-tag for the responsibility which comes with the status of a permanent member. It gives weight to our arguments and our votes at the Security Council when we feel that we have to make our voice heard and it is a guarantee that we do not act lightly when we vote on crucial international security issues.

Second, as a founding member of Europe and still, in many respects, its driving force, alongside our German friends. The “European house”, which was the brainchild of two Frenchmen, more than 50 years ago, is without a doubt one of the most astounding collective political enterprises in the history of mankind, based on astute mechanisms, pooling of sovereignty, sheer reason and willpower. Well, France matters in Europe, and Europe matters in the world. Not, for sure, as a power in the classical sense of that word, but as a norm-provider for its own constituency and hence for many countries in the world, which find it safer to adopt them in order to gain access to the huge European market, to elevate their own standards, or, for those eligible, to safeguard their chances of joining the EU at some stage in the future. It takes time, but it is a powerful process, as we witness with the gearing up of the euro. Has Europe run out of steam after France and the Netherlands rejected the draft constitution in 2005 ? I do not think so, for what constitutes Europe’s strength is not texts and treaties, but the concrete co-operation schemes which have been constantly built, brick by brick, and consolidated, and which hold the whole construction together. And on the institutional side, things are back on track, with a simplified treaty agreed on by all the heads of states and governments during the EU summit last June.

Thirdly, France is also a diplomatic agitator on its own merit in the multilateral system. We happen to believe, rightly or wrongly, that some values are of universal reach - basic rights of the human being, freedom, the rule of law, etc. - and that they deserve to be promoted. That may be what likens us, thanks to our respective revolutionary backgrounds, to our American friends and leads to these Homeric clashes we sometimes have with them, when we disagree on what consequences these values entail, and at some point brings us together again. This is why France has played a prominent role in the emergence of many recent agreements and treaties : the International Criminal Court, the new Human Rights Council, the convention signed under the aegis of UNESCO on cultural diversity. Last but not least, France is at the forefront of the campaign to confront seriously the looming ecological disaster that threatens our planet, and is pushing for more resolute action. And we do not shy away from urging our European friends to join us in the pursuit of causes they most often share with us.

Finally, France, by virtue of history, of conviction and of necessity, considers itself a global and not a mere regional actor. And spares no effort to convince European partners to follow suit and to act with us. It acts, bilaterally and multilaterally, to stabilise Africa, in the first instance by fostering development. It advocates with steadfastness a just settlement in the Middle East, which happens to be Europe’s neighbour and it intents to encompass them in a Mediterranean Union.

The same interest holds true for Asia, a huge region for which France has had a keen interest way before it became fashionable. As you might know, we have been instrumental in creating the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) and we pioneered, together with Singapore, the creation of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). In another first within the EU, France formally signed, earlier this year, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation of ASEAN, which in turn has prompted the EU and other EU nations to follow suit and to prepare to sign it as well.

So does France still matter ? the answer is yours, of course. What matters at the end of the day, though, is not to just “matter”, but to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. This is a job for everyone in a truly multilateral system, as each nation puts forth its convictions, its beliefs, its worldviews, its interests also. It should do so with humility, with care, with respect for others’ viewpoints. For no one country is the repository of the ultimate truth.

But it is also proper to spell out clearly one’s worldview and to try to convince others to rally behind it. This is what France tries to do, bearing an independent worldview shaped by the values it embodies and adheres to. Having the means and the will of such an independence is certainly what makes her voice heard on the world stage.

Dernière modification : 15/01/2010

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