France revels in its new belle époque

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The Independent Online

The economy is booming. The French football team may tonight become the first to win the World and European championships back to back. French companies are among the world's most successful predators, gobbling up Korean and Japanese car companies and a Hollywood studio.

The economy is booming. The French football team may tonight become the first to win the World and European championships back to back. French companies are among the world's most successful predators, gobbling up Korean and Japanese car companies and a Hollywood studio.

President Chirac has reinvented the Franco-German axis (if his own publicity is to be believed) and Paris and Berlin are going to rule Europe again. The French health service has been declared the best in the world by the United Nations.

France is already the most visited country in the world, and its tourist industry seems certain to set new records this year (partly because of the weakness of the euro). Every hotel, gite and camp-site in the far south of France has been booked up since March.

Even the tourist trade on the south Breton and Atlantic coasts, expected to be devastated by the Erika oil spill, has seen a surge of late bookings. Forty years on, Johnny Halliday is still rocking. All that, and they still refuse to buy our beef..

What can it all mean? Should it scare us? After all, only three years ago, the French were flagellating themselves.

Everything in French society, they said (and we agreed) was hopelessly blocked. We were making fun of them, because they refused to see the Anglo-Saxon light and abandon their quaint belief in state investment and public services. Their unemployment was at 13 per cent and rising.

One month after Britain elected Tony Blair, and his shiny, purposeful, post-modern (and post-Thatcher) version of leftism, the French elected staid old Lionel Jospin, who looked like a superannuated geography teacher and still believed in state interference to create jobs by reducing the working week.

Three years later, the French economy has outperformed the British economy in almost every quarter since Blair and Jospin came to power. French unemployment is below 10 per cent (though still much higher than ours). France has created more jobs this year than in any year since 1954. It is climbing enthusiastically aboard the "point.com" (translation: dot.com) bandwagon.

France seems to be a living disproof of the Wall Street Journal modern orthodoxy about how successful countries come to be successful. How dare a large, industrial nation which takes over 50 per cent of its GNP in taxes create almost as many jobs pro rata as the US? One executive at the market-idolising Journal, I was told last week, has a simple explanation. The French must be cooking the books, fiddling the growth and jobs figures. There is no evidence whatever that this is the case (any more than all countries do).

The truth is that France is no longer the place that we think it is; and, more significantly, it is no longer that place that the French think it is.

Something like 30,000 people gathered in the small town of Millau in the south of France this weekend to picket the trial of the French farmer, self-publicist and anti-globalisation campaigner, José Bové. Mr Bové was on trial with nine other people for smashing up a half-built McDonald's last year. He turned his trial into an amusing, exasperating, demagogic jamboree against trade and capitalism (Mr Bové is a long-term leftist activist-turned-farmer, not a farmer-turned-activist).

Most of the French press, even the right-leaning press, has celebrated Mr Bové as some kind of latter-day Asterix, complete with droopy moustache, defending Gallic values against American imperialism. Nowhere can you read that France is one of the world's most successful trading nations, with a huge trade surplus; that it is the world's second-largest agri-industrial power, producing more wheat than Canada.

What has France, of all countries, to gain from clamping down on world trade? Why should the 1.6 million French people who go to a McDonald's every day not have the right to buy Big Macs if they want to? The French model - a reasonable social safety net, strategic public investment in tubes, railways, aerospace, research and sport - is a useful antidote to the fundamentalist market view of how the world turns. The boom of the French economy is partly rooted in this public investment. It is also, in part, a cyclical recovery from the mid-90s recession, when France was struggling into the single currency corset.

But there has also been an explosion of energy and creativity, thanks to a relaxation of state interference. Mr Jospin has privatised more than his right-wing predecessors. Taxes are down. The supposedly rigid French jobs market is creating thousands of part-time and temporary jobs. Even the 35-hour week allowed many employers to negotiate away restrictive practices.

There is also a new generation of French businessmen, experienced in the outside world, more Anglo-Saxon in their attitudes, less reliant on the cosy, inbred connections which have traditionally ruled French business (and politics).

For a paradigm of this new, tougher, more outward-looking, more successful France, you need look no further than "Les Bleus", the French national soccer team which will take the field in Rotterdam tonight against Italy.

All but one of the likely starting line-up plays for a foreign club. The exception, the goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, will play for Manchester United from next month.

The Bleus play abroad because taxation in France is so high that French clubs cannot match the take-home pay in the English, Italian and Spanish leagues. Zinedine Zidane, probably the greatest player in the world, says his game is better for honing his skills in the Italian league.

That was the lesson of the 1998 World Cup: France could be successful when it opened up to the world: that it need no longer be trapped in a self-image of glorious failure: doomed to defeat despite the fact, or because of the fact, that it was more cultured than the rest of the world. The odd thing is - judging by the jamboree in Millau - that France has managed to learn this lesson without admitting it to itself.

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