John Lichfield: Sarkozy's happiness index is worth taking seriously

Out of France: GDP tables don't tell the whole story – we need to measure our 'joie de vivre'

Sunday 20 September 2009 00:00 BST

Sacré bleu, or rather, sacré rose. Has President Nicolas Sarkozy gone all soft and squashy and lefty on us? But worst of all, has he gone French on us?

The French President was elected two years ago with the endorsement of the right-wing, never-wrong pundits of the Anglo-Saxon media. Here – enfin! – was a sensible kind of French politician, an anti-Chirac, a French Thatcher. Here was the man who would make France work harder; here was the man who would dismantle the fat and slothful French state; here was the man who would make France more like Britain or the US.

Consternation and mockery, therefore, among the massed ranks of Anglo-Saxon punditry last week. President Sarkozy had suggested that the world should (hee, hee) be more like France. Instead of measuring national well-being and political success wholly in terms of money and growth, Sarko suggested, the world should devise a new "happiness index", an internationally approved barometer of "joie de vivre". How silly. How impractical. How French.

But hang on just a moment. What if Sarko is on to something important?

It was always foolish to regard Nicolas Sarkozy as a French Thatcher. Sarkozyisme, or Sarkonomics, was always a ragbag of left and right influences; both pro-market and pro-big government; in favour of trade and protectionism; promoting both laissez-faire and interventionism or, rather, activism. What the President chiefly believes in is being seen to do things; being seen to have new ideas. His only core ideology seems to be his belief in his own legend as a pragmatic man of action; a man who gets things done.

In truth, his record as the all-action "omnipresident", approaching the half-way point in his term, is muddled. Reforms of education, the state, and healthcare have been partially sensible, partially blunted or abandoned and nowhere near as radical as Mr Sarkozy's supporters (and, helpfully to him, his opponents) claim.

But there is a courageous pragmatic side to Nicolas Sarkozy that can be refreshing, even inspiring. He is willing to state the obvious. He is willing to be self-contradictory. He is willing to challenge the comfortable, unthinking rules on which national, and international, institutions have always run the world and, arguably, run the world into the ground.

The dogma of economic "growth", Mr Sarkozy suggests, is no longer sustainable. It has to be broadened into a new measure of political success and national achievement that takes account of the quality of ordinary lives and our professed desire to save the planet from environmental disaster.

Twenty months ago – before a global economic crisis driven by the god of short-term growth – Mr Sarkozy set up a commission of 20 economists. They were asked to report back on ways of changing the statistical currency beloved of the OECD, the EU and all national governments; in other words, how to replace Gross Domestic Product with some new measure: Gross Domestic Happiness or Gross Domestic Contentment. This idea was mocked as unforgivably quaint and foolish, especially in the United States, and especially by the high priests of Wall Street.

And yet the US Declaration of Independence lists the "pursuit of happiness" as an "inalienable right" of mankind. There is no mention of the pursuit of GDP. The committee of economists, led by Joseph Stiglitz from the United States, reported back last week. President Sarkozy chose to receive – and endorse – the report one year to the day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Let us be technical for a moment. The commission's proposal is that GDP should be replaced by a broader measure based on something called Net National Product (NNP), which takes account not just of annual growth but the value, and depreciation, of all of a nation's human and physical resources. The Stiglitz commission, and Mr Sarkozy, suggest that this should be broadened even further into an internationally accepted index of national achievement that would embrace the state of the environment, the equality of incomes, the quality of public services, free services provided within a family or community and even opinion polls on the contentment of ordinary citizens.

It has been suggested that France would thrive in such an international league table. Hence President Sarkozy's interest in changing the rules before he goes for re-election in 2012. In truth, France would score well on public services but not on contentment polls. The irascible French always give excessively gloomy answers to pollsters.

If the world is to make a true recovery from the crash of 2008-09, Mr Sarkozy says it must change the definitions of economic and political success. If the world is to reduce its emissions of carbon, it cannot endlessly demand increased economic growth. The "cult" of growth and the "cult" of the market must be replaced by a new "politics of civilisation".

This, of course, is the same Sarko who came to power promising that he would make the French "work harder and earn more". It is the same Sarko who has pushed through legislation which will allow more French shops to open on Sundays. France was aghast this week at a plague of office suicides at France Telecom, allegedly produced by the introduction of more brutal, non-French methods of business management. In truth working in French offices – selfish, hierarchical and anti-youth – has always been a nightmare.

Mr Sarkozy's happiness index is fraught with other contradictions. Developing countries will see his ideas as another wheeze to deny them the right to rise to the level of developed nations. The underlying philosophy may be green and progressive, but poorer citizens of rich nations would be first to feel the pain if low-growth politics began to destroy jobs.

All the same, the questions raised are important ones. Brutal definitions of success produce a brutal world. Nicolas Sarkozy deserves to be heard, not mocked.

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