Past problems cloud France's new image

The World Cup host nation is looking to present a can-do face. But reality is more complex
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BRITONS watching the World Cup on the BBC will have a privileged view of a traditional France of elegance and splendour - one of the twin images the country wishes to project to the world. The BBC team of World Cup experts will broadcast from what amounts to a makeshift bungalow, perched on top of one of the magnificent buildings overlooking the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

If you tire of the musings of Desmond, Alan, David et al, rest your eyes on the splendid background: on the colonnade of the Assemblee Nationale, the Eiffel Tower, or on France's version of Cleopatra's Needle (newly plastered with gold leaf at its apex, so that it looks, in the evening sunlight, like a giant illuminated candle).

Normally it would be unthinkable, impossible, to obtain permission to place a bottle of wine on the roof of the Automobile Club de France; let alone a prefab bungalow. The permission was secured with ease, revealing the other aspect of France that the country hopes to broadcast to the world in the next six weeks: a can-do France; a modern France; a business- like France.

Stubbornly, the world insists on tuning into a different picture. Recall the stories which have dominated headlines in the run-up to the World Cup, and not just in Britain.

There is the Air France pilots' strike, starting today, which is already seriously disrupting travel to the World Cup. There is the much less serious threat of a rail strike, or several rail strikes. There was talk of a lorry drivers' blockade (now cancelled). There is the confusion and fury over World Cup ticket sales (not in fact entirely France's fault). There is the investigation of alleged corruption in President Chirac's RPR party, which threatens to cause legal complications for the President himself.

This is a year that gives France a chance to re-adjust its public image for the 21st century, but much of the country, or at least its media, has appeared preoccupied with the past, from the Dreyfus affair to Vichy to May 1968.

Despite the best efforts and hopes of the organisers and the government, the pre-tournament publicity has projected an immobile France; a France ill at ease with itself; a France poorly served by its politicians; a France facing the world, and its future, backwards.

The impression is not entirely wrong, but misleading. It misses a substantial shift in the economic fortunes of France since the change of government in the general election a year ago today. And it misses a less quantifiable, but tangible, change in the mood of the country. France is not booming (yet). But it is humming.

Unemployment is still among the highest in the industrial world. But it dropped sharply in April, falling below the 12 per cent barrier for the first time in two years, continuing a downward trend now eight months old. In that time, France has created more jobs than any other industrial country. The French economy is expected to grow by around 3 per cent this year and maybe next year: substantially faster than Britain's.

Exports, as ever, are surging. Inflation scarcely exists. Interest rates are low. Industrial investment, both domestic and foreign, is the highest for years. Household spending is climbing steeply.

Whether Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister elected 12 months ago today, deserves any credit for this happier state of affairs is a matter of debate. In part, the country is benefiting from the previous centre-right government's Emu-inspired check on public spending; in part, the profits from high exports, fuelled by a high dollar and a low franc, have finally cheered up domestic businesses and consumers alike.

At the least, Mr Jospin inherited an unexpected economic upturn and managed affairs sufficiently pragmatically not to ruin his own good fortune. The sullen mood of France during last year's election campaign has been replaced by something more positive: a sense that three years' economic bad weather is passing.

But there is also a sense that many underlying problems are unchanged: youth unemployment remains high; public spending still takes almost 50 per cent of everything France creates; the inner suburbs of most large towns are racially tense and economically deprived. The economy remains oddly divided between a few mega-companies, mostly state-controlled or recently privatised, and thousands of small businesses; France does not easily create, or sustain, the medium-size businesses, especially in the hi-tech area, which are creating jobs in other countries. The slow emigration of small businesses, and young people, to Britain shows no signs of abating.

Then there are the strikes. Living in France in the 1990s can be like living through a grainy old video of the UK in the 1970s (without the huge side-burns and garish kipper ties). As an exercise last week, I did a search for the word greve (strike) on two days of the domestic news wire of the French news agency Agence France-Presse. There were 85 strike stories in 48 hours, some of them, admittedly, updates and repeats.

Apart from those already reported, there were strikes by postal engineers, aircraft cleaners, Metro-station cleaners, postal delivery workers in parts of Paris, workers at the naval shipyard in Toulon, attendants at the Grand Palais exhibition hall in Paris, and employees of the Paris botanical gardens and the Museum of Mankind.

An immobile country? In a sense, the two days' harvest of strikes suggests the opposite: that this is a country which is changing rapidly, or at least trying to change.

In almost every case, the cause of the strike was not a pay demand but an attempt by the management to move to short-term contracts, or more flexible working patterns.

The Air France pilots' strike arises directly from a plan to sell off part of the state-owned airline; the strike at the Toulon shipyard was caused by the fact that the (Socialist-led) government had sent a large naval oil tanker for repairs at a private yard.

The emigration of small businesses and young people also has its positive side: even a few years ago such a willingness to go abroad would have been unthinkable. It suggests the country is opening to the world in a way that will be, in the longer run, to the benefit of France.

A country stuck in the past? It is true that bookshops have been flooded with reminiscences, recreations and re- examinations of the events of May 1968. It is also true that all of these publications have been a commercial disaster. The public, it seems, does not want to know.

A great country poorly served by its politicians? On the right of the political spectrum, it is difficult to argue with that judgement. The destructive manouvering by parties of the centre-right in recent weeks has been driven mostly by personal vanity. The creeping progress of no less than 12 judicial investigations into the finances of the neo-Gaullist RPR is, at the least, a severe embarrassment to the party's founder, Jacques Chirac. It may prove something more than that.

On the left side of the spectrum, the more thoughtful commentators of both right and left admit the unspectacular Lionel Jospin has been an unspectacular success. There is something about the Prime Minister's passionate ordinariness which appeals to a public disillusioned by the hollow grandeur of Mitterrand and Chirac and the arrogance and stuffiness of Alain Juppe and Edouard Balladur.

It is not entirely misleading that France's World Cup month should begin with a disruptive labour dispute. But the underlying truth is that France is in better shape, and in better hands, than seemed possible a year ago.