City & Business: Lesson for British hare from French tortoise

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The Independent Online
Congratulations to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In Brighton last week they finessed the two key economic questions facing the country. What happens when the boom ends? The Prime Minister and Chancellor said only that we face "hard choices". And when those hard choices come home to roost? They said only that we must all make "sacrifices".

There is an undeniable logic in this position. Yet neither they nor their fellow ministers were pressed on the obvious follow-up questions. What choices will the Government make when forced to by a deteriorating economy? Who in the country, meanwhile, will be asked to make what sacrifices?

Britain is a darling of the markets now. Across the Channel from Brighton stands France, currently a dog in the eyes of the markets. Yet it was across the Channel last week, and not in Brighton, that the interesting debate on what a nation does when the winds of international competition chill its national economy was taking place.

France is portrayed as a nest of anti-globalisation sentiment second only to Mahathir bin Mohamed's Malaysia these days.

But this is an old rap. French industry is restructuring. Even the quasi- old-Labour-style government of prime minister Lionel Jospin is resigned to globalisation now - and is looking to stake out a position midway between embrace and rejection of what is in effect a deregulated world economy.

This means that while Gordon Brown was pledging a return to "full employment" - a pledge, incidentally, that could come back to haunt him - Paris was debating a move to a 35-hour-week. With impeccable Cartesian logic, Mr Jospin is seeking to spread a dwindling quantity of decently paid work in his nation across a growing population.

While Tony Blair was dodging questions on the future of labour relations in Britain with the same adroitness that he stayed miles away from BA's fight with flight attendants this summer, meanwhile, French employers were openly discussing the terms of a new contract in principle with workers. In an interview given to Liberation, Alain Debocq, president of the French subsidiary of German chemicals giant Hoechst, went so far as to acknow- ledge that demands for "flexibility" from labour can often be Orwell- speak for acceptance of huge redundancies.

Mr Debocq spoke of the need for greater flexibility from workers. But he went on: "It is necessary to negotiate. Flexibility that is imposed never works."

It seems hard to credit it. But a world in which the tables are turned on Britain and France - and Mr Blair and Mr Jospin - would be a stinging irony. Britain, the hare in Europe's bid to cope with globalisation, could end up turning to France, the tortoise, for ideas.