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Does the French Government Understand That It’s Time to Panic?

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I set out to write this post about the atmosphere of economic vigilance floating over France these days. An urgent need to protect so-called strategic businesses and technology, companies that are symbols of national industrial strength and economic power, but also symbols of France’s idea of itself.

The latest evidence is General Electric’s attempted acquisition of French industrial company Alstom’s energy business, thwarted for now by the government despite Alstom’s clear interest in accepting. GE says it’s willing to negotiate with the government and has just extended the time to consider its offer from June 2nd to June 23rd, even as the Minister of the Economy, Arnaud Montebourg, announced a measure expanding the government’s right to direct oversight of foreign investment in certain “strategic sectors.” This now includes Alstom. And last year included DailyMotion, the French online-video website, which the government prevented Yahoo from acquiring.

I was going to write about how this latest expansion measure, which prompted the European Commission to warn France away from protectionism, was perfectly in line with the politics of Arnaud Montebourg, whose (in)famous anti-globalization outlook and equally (in)famous campaign to support manufacturing in France have made him into the zealous spokesperson for what he calls economic patriotism.

Protectionism, patriotism: an important nuance in many ways for some, a meaningless nuance for others, like the European Commission. “The objective of protecting essential strategic interests is clear when it involves security or public order and that is recognized in EU treaties,” says the Markets Commissioner, Michel Barnier (who is actually French), “but we also must check if this is applied in a proportionate fashion, otherwise it could amount to protectionism.”

And then I was going to say how Montebourg fervently defends his policy of economic patriotism/protectionism, without any sense of squeamishness about any overtones of nationalism. He doesn’t seem to think that, in the case of Alstom, giving preference to the offer of Siemens, a European company, over that of GE, an American company, or better yet, favoring an “all-French” solution, on which he claims to be working—even when Alstom has made clear its preference for the GE offer—needs any more explanation than the fact that Alstom is a “jewel” of French industry.

And if I am implying that there ought perhaps to be some incipient sense of discomfort with Montebourg’s championing of national sovereignty over industry, it’s because it sounds incredibly similar to the ideology of another party on the very opposite end of the political spectrum from the Socialist government. It sounds quite like the anti-globalization, anti-free market rhetoric at the foundation of the extreme-right National Front party.

The party’s leader, Marine le Pen, recently explained to Time magazine exactly what her position is on economic sovereignty: “The right to promote economic patriotism … When there are two people with same qualifications, the priority should be given to the national. Also, like the U.S. has, we should give priority to national companies in the bids for public tenders. Voilà.” Chances are Arnaud Montebourg, the socialist minister of the economy, wouldn’t disagree.

And I was going to conclude by explaining why this striking similarity between the moderate left and the extreme-right was not only bizarre and uncomfortable, but was perhaps the sign of a flaw in the logic of Montebourg’s economic patriotism, the indicator of a certain irrationality within his ideology.

But then I woke up yesterday morning to images of a radiant Marine Le Pen on the cover of every European media after Sunday’s European elections in which the National Front won a massive, landslide victory, gained a majority of the French seats in the European parliament, and has sent France and its entire political class into a tailspin.

The problem the day before yesterday might have been the reflexive nationalism of an economic patriotism that sounded and smelled wrong, like it didn’t belong in the policies of a socialist government allegedly trying to make France competitive and restart the economy.

The problem today has become that reflexive nationalism itself. It brought out more voters in France than any other party or ideology did, by far: 25% voted for the Front National, compared to 20% for the opposition UMP party, and just 14% for the socialists. In the European parliament, 24 of the 74 French MP’s will come from the extreme-right party. If economic patriotism were the Front National’s only ambiguous quality, it wouldn’t be as worrisome, but along with unbridled free markets Marine Le Pen also aggressively denounces immigration, the Euro, Europe itself, the system, politics, and globalization, among other things.

If the day before yesterday, the problem was the government’s claim to sovereignty over the “jewels” of French industry and ingenuity, the problem today is Marine Le Pen’s claim to absolute sovereignty. Over France’s borders, its currency, its economy. The socialists’ France might keep out Yahoo and GE, but the National Front’s France would keep out way more than Americans.

And if yesterday, in losing Alstom to American ownership, the French government was worried about losing a part of itself and its identity, today, in losing the elections to the Front National, the French government is having to struggle with a much more acute identity crisis: who and what is this France that votes for the ultra-nationalist extreme-right? And how do we speak to them? In order to find itself and its voice again the French government will have to come up with something a lot more persuasive than economic patriotism. Because Made in France is charming; but Made in Extreme-Right France is scary. It’s time to panic.

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