Across the channel, Britain’s oldest rival has chosen a new president. Throughout the recent election campaign, policy gap between the contenders seemed vast, much greater than the personality and policy differences in Westminster.
In spite of their fractious past, Britain and France remain very similar countries. Like Britain, France is a recovering Great Power.
Both countries pack about 60 million people into a modest land mass and on a global stage, that land mass looks a lot smaller than it used to do.
Having initiated the industrial revolution some 200 years ago, the two nations have largely exhausted their domestic mineral resources. Self importance remains a powerful conviction for both of us but by the 1970s, Britain and France had lost their empires and did not know where to go.
Then in the early 1980s, something interesting happened. The two electorates attempted to diverge. The British opted for Margaret Thatcher and the near forgotten policy of monetarism. In contrast the French elected, what by modern post war standards, represented a truly socialist government.
In fact, President Mitterand’s agenda was not dissimilar from the Labour Party manifesto of the early 1980s. Thirty years later, with the next French President on standby to try socialism all over again, it seems pertinent to compare the long-term outcomes of these two approaches.
Committed ideologues from the 1980s may not like it, but the outcome has been the same under the two systems. Little or nothing that either Mitterand or Thatcher attempted was able to stem the tide of globalisation.
As in all Western societies, the people of both nations are reluctant to confess to their success. Private prosperity has increased immensely over the last 30 years although we have both experienced the pain of retrenchment after the banking crisis.
The relative predominance of the farming sector delivers a relative strength to the French economy as does its status as the world’s leading tourist destination.
Across the channel, the British obtained an astonishing share of the global market for services. Even to a casual observer, there is a hustle and a bustle to the British capital that makes London feel like a city of business. In contrast, Paris is a study in narcissism, a city that seems to lack a sense of direction.
But none of these factors reflect blue collar employment in traditional manufacturing. What dominated the landscape of the early 1980s was de-industrialisation and blue collar employment.
Under the radical leadership of Michael Foot, the Labour party was committed to returning every lost job to its rightful owner. Sadly for Foot, he never got the chance to play his hand. But in France, such similar policies were introduced.
Thirty years down the line, France has a lower manufacturing output than the UK and manufacturing in France represents a smaller proportion of economic activity than it does in Britain.
Add up and take away and our manufacturing sectors are approximately the same size: significantly inferior to Germany but still in the top ten on the world stage.
But the Darwinian forces of the 1980s continue to take their toll. British employment in the manufacturing sector has halved in the last 15 years whilst output remained static. By implication, output per worker – productivity – has doubled during this period. If we wish to retain a manufacturing sector in the years to come it will have to double again, quickly.
Many of the outcomes of the Mitterand versus Thatcher experience were entirely predictable. France’s passion for prestigious infrastructure projects has left them with some impressive high speed train networks, bridges and tunnels.
In spite of this, the mileage of track in the French railway sector is still less than half of the British and far fewer people commute to work by train.