French Rhetoric and Reality Don't Necessarily Match


A militant sheep farmer vandalizes McDonald's as a symbol of globalism. Thousands of marchers, led by the Communist Party chief, protest layoffs in a city dubbed the "capital of the resistance" to globalization.

It might seem that the French are having a hard time adjusting to modern economic times. But beneath the noise, France, one of the world's largest economies, is quietly adapting--defying perceptions of a nation fixated on its past and reluctant to change.

The French government has slowly rolled back business regulations in recent years, helping to fuel an economic boom. Foreign investment in France has soared, and unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in a decade. France is leading a drive toward greater economic unity in Europe.

France remains highly regulated by U. S. standards. The government is a major investor in its aerospace industry and is expected to play an active role in protecting workers from the vagaries of the world economy. Many French still hanker for the days when the government coddled them.

But traditions are fading. Balancing old ideals with the demands of globalization is proving a delicate act for Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was elected four years ago in part by promising to turn around France's chronically high joblessness.

The dilemma came sharply into focus during a recent wave of protests, sparked by thousands of layoffs at companies such as French food giant Groupe Danone and British retailer Marks & Spencer.

At least 15,000 people marched outside a Danone cookie factory marked for closure in northern France. The Socialists could not ignore the outcry, since some of the loudest calls came from their coalition partner, the Communist Party.

Jospin and his team quickly cobbled together proposals to calm the workers and paint a picture of compassionate government. They included a plan to double severance pay for laid-off workers, and to encourage retraining and redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites.

The proposals were slammed by unions for not going far enough, while the head of the largest employers' group, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, said they were "old, archaic recipes pulled out to give the appearance" of solving a problem.

So far, so French, one might think.

But while the government's rhetoric may appear rooted in the kind of socialist ideology that has vanished in most industrialized nations, the reality is different.

"This is a country that plays the card of an open and global economy, but political speech is totally different," said Elie Cohen, senior researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Analysts say that if the government were to match its actions to its crowd-pleasing, anti-liberal rhetoric, the French economy would be in a very weak position.

Since coming to power in 1997, the Socialists have privatized industry, liberalized labor rules and presided over France's bid to become one of the 12 member nations to start using the euro next year.

Much remains to be done. France has been slow to open its gas and electricity markets to competition as required by the European Union, and business leaders say that operating in France involves too much red tape and that corporate taxes are too high.

But outside companies increasingly are investing in France, drawn to its highly skilled work force and proximity to the booming European market. French companies like media multinational Vivendi Universal, telecommunications powerhouse Alcatel and partially state-owned Airbus Industrie are global leaders.

Paul Lenain, an economist at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, points to looser government restrictions on hiring temporary and short-term workers and to cuts in what employers pay for benefits.

Still, Jospin felt compelled to say in a recent interview: "I am not a liberal. I am not resigned to globalization."

Part of the political elite's reluctance to fully embrace globalization may stem from its view of France as offering an alternate world vision.

"France does not think like a medium-sized European country. France thinks it is the cradle for universal values," Cohen said. "Our concept of Europe is as a social alternative to the U. S. system."

A key to understanding why the French like to take to the streets may be the French Revolution.

"When you have cut your king's head off, it is very easy to go after the heads of business," said Romain Pache, of the Institut Louis Harris polling agency. "We are not a revolutionary country for nothing."

'France does not think like a medium-sized European country. France thinks it is the cradle for universal values.'

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