'Sarkozy is no French Thatcher'

2nd May 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 2, 2007 (AFP) - France's presidential election has been depicted as the moment when the country could finally choose the path of liberal economic reform, bending to the winds of globalisation by choosing the pro-market agenda of Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, May 2, 2007 (AFP) - France's presidential election has been depicted as the moment when the country could finally choose the path of liberal economic reform, bending to the winds of globalisation by choosing the pro-market agenda of Nicolas Sarkozy.

But nothing could be further from the truth, according to British historian Robert Tombs, who says the most that can be expected from a Sarkozy victory over Socialist Segolene Royal on Sunday is "some tweaking round the edges" of the French state-centred social model.

"There is an idea doing the rounds that Sarkozy is a kind of French Margaret Thatcher. But I don't think such a creature exists. Not least because no-one in France wants a French Thatcher," Tombs said in a telephone interview from his office at Cambridge University.

"If you contrast the positions of France today and Britain in the late 1970s, it's clear that even though there is certainly a sense of crisis in France, it is nothing like as severe as what Britain was going through when Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979.

"Then from a historical perspective, there is the fact that France completely lacks the liberal tradition. Over the last 200 years the only time that France had a liberal economic policy was in the 1860s under emperor Napoleon III, and it lasted just 10 years.

"Britain by contrast has been under the sway of free-market economics since the 1840s. The only time it wasn't was just after World War II, and in a sense Mrs Thatcher's reforms were simply a return to tradition. But in France they would be against the grain of history.

"The other point is that there are major forces in Britain in favour of liberalisation, led by the City (London's financial district). But in France there is no equivalent. There is no nexus of interests pressing for globalisation.

"Most French trade is within Europe. And apart from its big multinationals, most companies in France are not really competitive outside of a sheltered European environment. So who is pushing for liberalisation? Not many, as far as I can see," he said. 

With his French wife Isabelle, Tombs was author in 2006 of "That Sweet Enemy" -- a history of French-British relations from the late 17th century.

An over-riding theme is the tension between a maritime Britain -- rich on world trade and suspicious of government -- and a materially more modest France that looks to the European continent for its alliances and relies heavily on the centralised state.

"Since the early 18th century, the British people have been consistently wealthier than the French -- the only exception being the 1960s and 70s. But though they may be jealous, the French are always aware of the price to be paid for getting what the British have got," said Tombs.

"In the 19th century they looked across the Channel and decried the downtrodden British workforce, the polluted cities, the heavy reliance on a handful of industries, in the same way that now they criticise the dependence on world trade.

"There has always been a sense that Britain's was a dangerous way to go and France should be more prudent. So today when you ask the French: aren't the British lucky to have higher GNP per head, they'll say - yes, but look at their terrible railways and hospitals.

"And indeed if you see the British and French as offering two contrasting visions within Europe, it's hard to say that one or other has conclusively proved its superiority. There is no objective evidence to show that the French way of doing things is bankrupt.

"Which brings us back to the point: is there really any constituency for revolutionary change in France?"

According to Tombs, a Sarkozy presidency would certainly try to enact some reforms, with the main focus on labour market flexibility.

"But it is perfectly possible to envisage an attempt at reform, followed by protests in the streets and then the end of reform. Let's face it, it's happened enough in the past," he said.

"If there is to be a turning-point after the election, what is at stake is not the system as a whole, but certain rights and privileges enjoyed by a certain generation, notably in the public sector.

"Don't forget that Sarkozy is in his origins a Gaullist. It seems to me that ever since Charles de Gaulle himself, every French politician has been fated to play the role of de Gaulle in some way or another. And de Gaulle was above all the man of the state."  


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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