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Nationalism’s distorted lens: UK v France

As the Mamoudou Gassama incident adds to Emmanuel Macron’s accumulation of glowing publicity, BARNABY TOWNS challenges some Brexit myths about the UK’s supposed superiority to our southern neighbour

Another day, another picture-perfect photo opportunity for President Emmanuel Macron, this time thanking Mamoudou Gassama — the undocumented immigrant who saved a child dangling from a balcony in Paris — and offering him citizenship. The image beamed around the world was quite the contrast with the recent Windrush scandal on this side of the channel, which highlighted immigration documents destroyed by the Home Office and United Kingdom citizens threatened and deported.

A political neophyte never previously elected to office, and France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon, Macon’s win followed the explosions of the narrow Brexit and Trump victories, cheering liberals and pro-Europeans at a time when Western politics has taken a nationalist turn. Macron’s meteoric rise and that of his political start-up En Marche!, in an election that marginalised traditional parties of right and left, offered an alternative to resurgent nativist politics.

Macron’s come-from-behind victory didn’t fit the nationalist narrative of European decline. Europe, British separatists propagandise, is yesterday’s news — stuck in the slow-growth lane of the world’s economy and mired in antiquated attitudes including self-limiting antipathy to globalisation. This led some Brexiteers to talk up Front National’s Marine Le Pen’s electoral prospects as yet further proof of the disintegration of the doomed European project.

This nationalist narrative is often accompanied in pro-Brexit circles by fantastic claims of British strength and French weakness. In fact, as opposed to fantasy, the UK is more France’s equal in economic and political strengths and weaknesses.This equality easily justifies the reciprocal rights exercised by Brits — one quarter of a million by some estimates — who have made a home there under the Maastricht Treaty’s free movement rules, including Brexiteer Nigel Lawson, who has just applied for his carte de séjour to protect his French residency.

The United Kingdom is, per person, as rich as France — and less wealthy per head than European Union members Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Ireland and Luxembourg.

France and the UK are more prosperous per capita than the EU average but still face difficult, if different, challenges. Similarly-sized by population, the UK came second globally and France 10th in a 2016 World Bank study of foreign direct investment. Meanwhile, French healthcare is ranked first by the World Health Organisation, compared to the UK’s 18th place. In yet another difference, rail service quality in France, home of grand projects, is rated second only to Spain’s of 25 European nations by Boston Consulting Group’s Rail Performance Index; the UK ranked joint sixth worst.

Other indicators offer a similarly mixed bag. French unemployment is a little over double the UK rate, according to Eurostat figures while inflation in France — and the eurozone — is lower than the UK’s. French productivity is 25% higher than ours, the UK Office of National Statistics finds. This means that the typical French person needs only to work Monday to Thursday to produce as much as the typical Brit working Monday to Friday. Yet days lost to industrial action in France are seven times the UK figure — 14 times Germany’s — recent European Trade Union Institute data shows.

Because income inequality is less pronounced in France than the UK, the average French person is better off than their British counterpart, but there are more wealthy individuals in Britain, which taxes them less. Britain has arguably been relatively more responsible with public finances in recent years: government debt is 87% of UK Gross Domestic Product; in France, it is 98%. The EU average is 83%. Germany’s is 65%.

This patchwork picture not only reflects different national cultures, politics and economics but also divergent recent history. In the post-war period, Britain lagged behind its Continental neighbours, including France, in sustainable economic growth, eventually leading some to characterise it as ‘the sick man’ of Europe. At the same time, France enjoyed Les Trentes Glorieuses — the so-called Thirty Glorious Years — with strong growth and welfare provision. But over the last generation, national fortunes somewhat reversed, placing today’s per-capita living standards at near-parity.

Into this complex mix of history, culture, politics, economics and international relations arrives Macron, one year after the Brexit vote that challenged Britain’s place in Europe. Here again, Brexiteer bluster that exaggerates British successes and French shortcomings is wide of the mark.

The new French president established his reformist credentials as Minister of Economy and Finance under his former mentor, now sometime critic, socialist ex-President Francois Hollande.

‘Macron’s law’ aimed to increase employment and investment by expanding opportunities for legal professionals; allowing bus companies to operate alongside railway lines; abolishing prison sentences for employers who failed to respect rules governing workplace negotiations with employees; allowing more Sunday shop opening; facilitating the negotiation of more flexible work hours and pay; and, more controversially, streamlining employment tribunals and layoff procedures.

Now President Macron’s sights are set on ending the kind of union perks familiar to older Brits, including ending paid retirement at 52 for train drivers in the state-owned rail system, which is a significant national employer. Also for the chop are automatic annual pay rises, protection from dismissal and the entitlement of employees’ close relatives to free rail travel.

To curb a famously unresponsive bureaucracy, Macron proposes a new right for citizens to make a mistake in good faith when dealing with the state, without being sanctioned.

France’s wealth tax has been cut and a 1980s tax on savings, investment and property was limited by Macron to property, with savings and investment gains to be incorporated into a 30% capital gains tax. Corporate taxes are targeted to fall to 25%. These rates are above the UK’s.

Powerful unions fret about how smaller firms’ employees will be able to negotiate their own agreements without union representatives. For unfair dismissal, a mandatory sliding scale for damages, from three months’ salary after two years of service to 20 months’ salary after 30 years is proposed. Appeals would have to be lodged within one year, instead of two.

Companies with more than 50 employees are required to allow nomination of workers’ representatives to a works council and a health and safety committee. Under proposed changes, the three groups will be folded into a single social and economic committee, excepting ‘high-risk’ sectors.

Much of France’s workforce is on short-term contracts, which are routinely renewed, helping employers avoid protections required for long-term contracts, including the 35-hour work week. Macron instead wants industry-based rules set by representatives from each sector to increase flexibility.

Reforms also include plans to cut 150,000 civil servants from a 5.3m total and allowing universities to introduce more selective student entry requirements, so as to better compete with British and American institutions in international rankings.

Macron’s ambitious agenda aims to succeed where predecessors of left and right tried and failed or feared to tread and — with Britain stuck in the weeds of Brexit, which increasingly consumes time, energy and finances — project a renewed France onto the world stage.

France’s future and that of the nation which UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw once described to the United Nations Security Council as ‘a very old country founded in 1066 by the French’ are, like their history, intertwined. Claims that the UK is doing so much better are fiction, however, even without factoring Macron’s potent charisma, diplomatic prowess, slick communications and polymath intellect, or France’s widely-celebrated rich quality of life.

Barnaby Towns is a former British government special adviser and CEO of Pioneer Strategy, a communications firm

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