Eurosceptics are looking to the Paris mob to stop the single currency. They may have to look no further than the government. Douglas Johnson reveals the real reason why Jacques Delors did not run for presidentby Douglas Johnson / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
I would not have thought, said the old lady, that the transfer of Andr? Malraux’s remains to the Panth?on would have caused the barricades to go up. The barricades are down now, the lorries are rolling again, and we have all had another opportunity to consider the profound mystery that is France’s European policy.
Is France about to explode? The answer is no-at least not in the traditional manner of 1848 or even 1968. But it is not unreasonable to ask the question. Things are being stretched.
President Jacques Chirac spends much of his time in conclave with Chancellor Helmut Kohl urging faster European integration, while on the streets three out of four people are said to support militant lorry drivers who were at least in part striking against the effects of European integration. Few doubt that a clear majority would now vote against Maastricht.
The lorry strike illustrated how interdependent the main economies of Europe are becoming. An astonishing 85 per cent of Europe’s freight is now carried by road; if you block the roads in one country you soon create shortages in another. Blockades are against the spirit and the letter of EU law. But drivers from other countries caught in the dispute were surprised to find that French police took no action.
Yet the old principle still applies in France: if you are in trouble you turn to the state. And if an unpopular government was reluctant to use force to end a popular strike, it did at least intervene to provide some of the money to resolve it.
A government which is seeking to reduce public expenditure in order to meet the Maastricht criteria for membership of the single currency should not act in this way. The government has now established a precedent for other strikers which will further damage the country’s public finances.
So, in its cause, conduct and consequence, the lorry drivers’ strike had a European dimension. Was that not also the case during the near-general strike in November and December 1995? The government presumably feared that the lorry drivers’ strike would lead to a repeat of that episode. And certainly there were those who hoped it would. But one must not mythologise the events of 1995. It is true that the extent of the strikes was a surprise. When the government announced a freeze of public sector wages in September, it was followed by a one day strike of public employees, involving 300,000 civil servants. Then, Chirac announced an austerity programme in October, including an increase in taxes, a reduction in retirement benefits in the public sector and changes in the health system. The ensuing public sector strikes affected transport, schools, postal services, electrical workers, refuse collectors and more. On 7th December there were demonstrations involving more than 1m people throughout France. The strikes began to fade only when the government started to give way.
These strikes were a conservative movement, led by the trade unions, seeking to maintain the rights and privileges that had been won in earlier times. The austerity programme was not just about the Maastricht conditions. For many years public spending on health had been too great and everyone agreed that reform was necessary. But at a deeper level the reforms were (and are) about trying to adapt French institutions to a new form of liberal, global, economic rationality in which the role of the state and public finance is much diminished.
Globalisation may be the big enemy, but Europe is closer to hand and-from the point of view of a French public sector worker or lorry driver-part of the same problem. And the problem is going to get worse. The lorry drivers, for example, have seen only the beginning of competition. In 1998 a British or Spanish lorry company will be able to tender to carry loads from Dunkirk to Marseilles. While it is also true that French operators will be able to work freely within Britain or Germany, most observers believe it is French companies which will lose out. On current form this is likely to be true of several other industrial sectors too. What will happen then? Will there be many more strikes? Will Jean-Marie Le Pen’s share of the vote start creeping up again?
When one speaks of the French being mesmerised by self-doubt and “miserabilism,” it is because France is not ready for this Europe. The government is now starting to press seriously for more labour market flexibility, but no French government has properly prepared the French people for a new world in which sacred national institutions are made redundant.
Is this a failure of communication on the part of a political class which has insufficient contact with ordinary people? Or is the political class itself divided and confused?
The recent flurry of doubts about the franc fort policy-led this time by that arch-European Val?ry Giscard d’Estaing-suggests the latter. But such doubts erupt every six months or so, and are dispelled each time by invoking the economic pain already suffered.
Perhaps a more telling sign of confusion among the political and economic elite has come in the financial news. Twice in a month the government has had to call off an important privatisation. First, the CIC savings bank sale had to be postponed when the government announced that bids were unsatisfactory. At the same time it sacked the head of the bank for allegedly obstructing the privatisation.
Then a week later the privatisation of the Thomson defence group was vetoed by a government appointed privatisation commission. The sale was controversial, in a country still suspicious of foreign ownership, because it involved the selling on of a subsidiary to the Daewoo group from Korea.
The case for confusion is strengthened by no less an authority than Jacques Delors. He has recently revealed, in a private letter, the real reason for his refusal to stand for the 1995 presidency. With typical modesty, he explains that he would easily have won the election but, he believes, the Chirac-led opposition would then have turned against European integration and rallied a majority of French people to its flag. Thus, by handing victory to Chirac, Delors ensured that France remained locked into its existing European policy. Chirac, in other words, is presiding over a European policy that neither he nor his party really believe in. Now things do become clearer.
General de Gaulle said that France exists because of the state, the army and the franc. But we now have a neo-Gaullist government which pretends to want to abolish the franc and even most of the state. Eurosceptics all over Europe are still waiting in hope that Chirac will rediscover his Gaullism.