The blockades are over but the 'solution' was cowardly

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The Independent Online

It would be tempting but wrong to feel an Anglo-Saxon superiority towards the French as a result of the short-lived blockade of their ports. British fishermen, farmers and truck-drivers do not blockade ports in protest at the price of oil on world markets. Nor does our government give in to the demands of unofficial strike leaders by offering them extra subsidies.

It would be tempting but wrong to feel an Anglo-Saxon superiority towards the French as a result of the short-lived blockade of their ports. British fishermen, farmers and truck-drivers do not blockade ports in protest at the price of oil on world markets. Nor does our government give in to the demands of unofficial strike leaders by offering them extra subsidies.

These are virtues, certainly, but they ought to be seen in perspective.

For one thing, the French tradition of protest does at least give the "little person" the sense that their voice can be heard in Paris. One of the negative aspects of the Thatcherisation of the British working class is its sense of powerlessness and therefore its apathy towards politics.

For another, the common perception of the French economy as being at the mercy of wildcat strikes and pusillanimous governments is at odds with the reality, which is that it is more successful than ours. Despite Lionel Jospin's socialist rhetoric, his policies are much closer to the tax-cutting, deregulating and privatising assumptions held on this side of the Channel than it suits him to admit.

If we British are to lecture our French neighbours about the lessons to be drawn from their protests, we should do so from a position of moderate humility. All these cautions entered, however, it would have been better if the French government explained to its people the benefits of free trade rather than pretend that market forces can be wished away by state subsidy.

This is not simply a matter of France's domestic policy. It is no business of other European countries if the French wish to subsidise economically marginal communities, such as small farms or fishing villages, for social reasons. But state subsidy has been the bane of European food policy since the start of the Common Agriculture and Fisheries policies. If French fishing boats are to get state-subsidised diesel, what about the British fishing industry, equally feeling the rough edge of decades of overfishing?

Yesterday's climb-down by the French government makes it all the harder to persuade the peoples of the EU to accept two home truths. One is that compensating people for changes in world prices of raw materials should only ever be a short-term expedient. The other is that for environmental reasons, we all have to get used to the idea of paying more for energy. Cross-Channel travellers are not the only ones who are likely to pay dearly for the French government's cowardice in the future.

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