For the first time this century France and Britain will be governed from the left for the same five year stretch. Yet London power brokers are disdainful of Lionel Jospin. This is no time for Francophobiaby Denis MacShane / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Are France and Britain condemned to enter the next century as fr?res ennemis-rivals on every issue they can find? In the space of four weeks, the people of these two historic nations have chosen to place their faith in a team of political leaders of the centre left. For the first time this century France and Britain will be governed by the left for a simultaneous five year stretch.
Yet far from welcoming this political development the smart talk in London has been full of disdain and dismay at the arrival of Lionel Jospin. The conventional wisdom as expressed in public commentaries and private conversations with power-holders in Westminster and Whitehall is that the poor old French have lurched back to a Jurassic socialism.
While New Labour releases itself from the grasp of outdated 20th century collectivist ideology, les vieux socialistes of France plump for the past. Ten years after the end of Sovietism three communists-yes, in France they still exist!-have been given junior ministerial jobs, including one as minister for tourism, offering the vista of red flags fluttering over the C?te d’Azur. Meanwhile the French socialist manifesto promises to do three impossible things each week without raising taxes, not even a windfall one.
But if this condescending London attitude is maintained it is Britain that will be the loser. For three centuries Britain and France have been slugging it out. Deep differences in culture, national interest and approach to life have marked out the two countries. In the middle of the 19th century, Victor Hugo described the rivalry thus: “There has never been an antipathy between them only the desire to surpass. France is the adversary of England as better is the enemy of the good.” H?las, Hugo’s optimism remained a dead letter.
In the past Labour has often played on a sense of superiority. Harold Wilson used to seat French presidents under a big picture of Waterloo at Chequers while Ernest Bevin, Labour’s postwar foreign secretary liked to refer to his opposite number Georges Bidault, the resistance leader, as “Biddle.” Tr?s amusant.
Today, the French socialists do start from different premises from those of the Labour government- but not that different. There are three guiding principles underneath the superficiality of the socialists’ election manifesto hastily concocted following President Chirac’s surprise dissolution.
First, a post-ideological politics of governance from the centre, where results count above all.
Second, a pragmatic engagement with Europe. The French are no more Eurofederalist than the British. Of course their fate is linked with their giant neighbour, Germany, and the French elite will do anything to stop Germany going it alone as Europe’s new superpower. But the idea that France will surrender national identity and dissolve itself into a Brussels-run superstate is absurd. As David Soskice argued in Prospect (June 1997), with skilful diplomacy, Britain can join (and reform) the Paris-Bonn axis.
Third, France will seek to modernise its economy and make it globally competitive. London commentators have focused on high French unemployment and rightly so. But what was hailed as a necessary shake-out under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s is condemned as weakness and failure across the Channel in the 1990s. What few people notice is that the French economy is at least 20 per cent bigger than that of Britain. French bankers and businessmen pullulate in London and own large chunks of our privatised industries. France’s balance of trade is in healthy surplus and its strength in manufactured exports as well as the key service sectors such as tourism, luxury goods and culture are profit makers for the future.
To be sure, France needs reform to promote jobs and employability. But more men are in full-time work in France than in Britain and family life is much stronger thanks to fiscal support for families.
The French may rant about les Anglo-Saxons but the love affair with America is stronger than these hollow insults. It is easier to see a new Hollywood release in Paris than in London and American directors and stars have more L?gions d’honneur bestowed on them than OBEs or knighthoods.
In the field of education, is there nothing to be learnt from the rigours of the French state lyc?es? And has anyone noticed that the socialists privatised the French equivalent of the BBC more than a decade ago?
Can we not learn from each other and stop looking down our noses from London and Paris? Tony Blair speaks good French. Lionel Jospin and many of his ministers are at ease in English. Can Britain and France seek out what unites them? Already in defence there is a high level of co-operation and both countries have a global presence and role on behalf of Europe as well as their own national interests.
Between now and 2002 Britain and France will be governed by parties that have more in common than is supposed. Can healthy rivalry and co-operation replace bien-pensant disdain and petty antipathies? To put it another way, will the spirit of Churchill and de Gaulle conquer the bickering of Margaret Thatcher and Fran?ois Mitterrand?