They order things better in France

French orderWe don’t know who first said that and in what connection but in these troubled times there are quite a few foreign observers who would agree. And Nicolas Sarkozy has reaped the benefit. Although he likes to dismiss opinion polls as “so much froth” he has certainly been gratified to see his ratings creeping up. It’s too early for this to be put down to any clear effect of his “relaunch” package with its heavy state spending which has led Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to hail him, half seriously, as a fellow socialist. Rather the French economy has some advantages which has allowed it to weather the crisis rather better than the US and UK. The French are less in debt and have always remained great savers (they put away three times as much as the Brits, for example); these savings have been entrusted to a banking system with relatively little exposure to “toxic” investments; and the French welfare system – so often decried by Anglo-Saxon commentators – is offering continued protection of a kind much less available elsewhere.

When the French look at television, and witness the fate of General Motors and Woolworths and that of their workers, they appreciate much of this and that explains the relative moderation of organised labour. But Sarkozy realises that France’s parallel political system of street demos and riots could kick in at any time. As lycéens marched and chanted against a proposed (and seemingly necessary and reasonable) reform of high schools, the President ordered his education minister to drop the scheme and make conciliatory noises to the kids. Sarkozy was also made uneasy by scenes of screaming mobs and burning cars in Athens. He’s been quick to repeat that income tax won’t go up this year and major government projects won’t be cut. He knows – as history confirms – that a few missteps by the government could set off a social explosion.

From Riviera Reporter Issue 131: Feb/March 2009