By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, May 5, 2012
I’ve spent the week in cobblestoned squares, listening to French presidential candidates argue that their country’s way of life is threatened by forces from beyond its borders. It’s a popular refrain these days: As economies falter, people fear the economic and human waves sweeping in from beyond.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has led the way, pledging to reintroduce trade protectionism, reinstitute passport checks and cut immigration. His challenger François Hollande has also suggested more protectionist policies and less immigration. As a result, four out of five French voters now believe that globalization is bad for their livelihoods, and that borders should be closed to foreign investment and immigration.
As I listened to these warnings, I couldn’t help thinking about how my week had begun in London.
On Monday morning, I paid the electricity and gas bills by writing a cheque to a French company. We buy our heat and light, as do 5.7 million other British families, from EDF Energy, a state-owned French company that provides a quarter of Europe’s electricity.
Then I took the garbage bags to the curb, where they were collected expertly by employees of the French company Veolia Environnement. Its 331,226 workers provide garbage collection, water treatment, street lighting and public transportation in 77 countries.
I hit the road, avoiding the tide of Renault Clios and Meganes and Peugeot 207s, among the most popular cars in Europe, together accounting for almost a million vehicles sold each year in the 27 European Union countries.
At the Underground station, I boarded a train built by Alstom, the French engineering company with 85,000 employees in 70 countries. They also built the nuclear reactors that provide my electricity. The train was guided by the Underground’s signalling and control network operated from a central hub in Waterloo Station by Thales, the French company with 68,000 employees in 50 countries.
En route, I made some travel plans. I’ll need to be in Munich, Warsaw and Barcelona in the next while, which inevitably means staying in one of the 5,000 hotels owned by the French company Accor, whose 145,000 employees in 40 countries run the Sofitel, Mercure, Ibis, Pullman, Novotel and Motel 6 chains.
French companies are impossible to avoid. They employ 4.5 million people outside of France and account for almost a fifth of all the investment in Europe. If you want to buy groceries in most parts of Poland or Greece or Portugal, you have little choice but to go to one of the 13,000 giant supermarkets of France’s Carrefour chain. France’s banks dominate finance across the continent – which is why they are so dangerously exposed to the Greek and Spanish crises. France doesn’t suffer the blows of international capitalism – it metes them out.
In fact, French investment abroad is twice the size of outside foreign investment in France. And if you strip away finance flows and look only at the industrial economy, French companies do 14 times more business abroad than foreign companies do in France. This is hardly a country that will, in the words of Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign speech, “dilute itself into globalization.” The French are the globalizers, not the globalized.
What about the human flood? I thought about that as I stepped off the Underground in the corner of Kensington known as “petit France” for its baguette shops and brasseries. London is home to 300,000 French citizens who take advantage of Europe’s open borders. There are two million French living abroad, an outflow that’s approaching the number of foreigners coming in.
As I had lunch with a Parisian expat scholar, I saw people heading to the local lycée to vote early in the presidential election. We now know that slightly more than half of those London French cast their ballot for a candidate, Mr. Sarkozy, who has promised to outlaw foreigners voting in local elections.
And then Thursday, a great many of those same French citizens went to another polling station to cast a ballot for the London mayor, because as European foreigners, they have full rights to vote in Britain’s local and national elections.
Mr. Sarkozy said he’d end Europe’s open borders because immigrants, notably Muslims, aren’t integrating in France. In fact, every study shows French Muslims have the highest rates of social integration, adopting the language, the family sizes and the liberal attitudes toward premarital sex and homosexuality at Europe’s highest rates, and even becoming as atheist and religiously unobservant as French Christians.
The problem is that nobody gives them jobs. And the larger problem within France is not foreign capital, but the fact that people have trouble creating jobs. As with so many countries today, their leaders are searching in vain for outside enemies when the real problem is right in front of them.
We have watched a similar movie in Canada, for decades. The federal government blames the provinces for their plight, and vice versa, when the issues facing both groups of politicians are "right in front of them" as Mr. Saunders says. And another version of this chicanery is witnessed at the municipal level, with the mayors and councils of towns and cities blaming the provinces and the federal government for their problems, when the issues facing them, about which they are legally charged with "fixing" continue to go unaddressed.
Another version in "party" politics, is to blame the other party for whatever now seems to be wrong with the effective and efficient running of the state, whether that be nation, province, city or town.
There is both an immaturity to this "blame" game and also a denial of responsibility, sometimes in serious proportions, much of which the electorate(s) seem either willing to endure or unwilling to challenge.
And now, in the U.S. presidential election, Romney often demonizes Obama for being "too european" and "too socialist" as if these countries like France, apparently about to elect a socialist president, are the model on which Obama bases his demonic policies.
There is really no force more to be feared in political life than parochialism, provincialism, NIMBY, and all of the other forms of the disease. When only "we" (whoever we is) know the correct answers to the problems, and "they" have it all wrong, we know there is too much narrow, arrogant and at the same time neurotic blindness in the proposals we are hearing. Absolute answers, known only to absolute propagandizers, even if the purpose is to paint with a wide and unnuanced brush for headline grabbing, have not and do not and will not work in any endeavour.
The catholic church has tried so many times, without apparently learning that God is not a definition of absolutes, that the practice has become redundant. The political ideologues, too, seem to believe that they have more chance of winning over the (simpleton) electorate, if they spew absolutes into their microphones.
And when those absolutes are linked to the kind of fear that undergirds parochialism, in any country, or town or village, the risk of serious damage being wrought on that (simpleton) electorate is too high.
For the French to "see" their own globalizing successes, of course, would be to render the parochial fears unwarranted, and the politicians pandering to them silent. And no politician can afford to be rendered mute, ever, anywhere.
The "straw-man" demon, against which all propaganda is painted, including the "teachings of all churches" is purely rhetorical, and does not warrant its strength in defining reality, at least the reality that requires "fixing".
And without the "straw-man" demon, against whom too many politicians are running, those same politicians are left, as that proverbial emperor, with no clothes.
How sad that our political debates have become so empty of muscle fibre, of intellectual rigour and of imaginative and visionary proposals worthy of the offices these national politicians are seeking.
If this conduct were coming from Ford or General Motors, or Fiat, there would be millions of recalls.
Too bad we do not have mid-term power to recall some of the fear-mongering rhetoric, that would and could render political campaigns at election time more worth our time and energy.