New Connections between Britain and France
th November 2004 Report of a seminar 24
Here was a group of “Thirtysomethings” most of whom had never met each other before. They were not quite randomly selected. They were chosen with some regard to gender, experience and institutional background. Coming from business, the arts, academe, politics and government, they represented a reasonable cross section of the educated and successful of their age cohort in both countries. How much should they have had in common?
After spending barely seven hours together, they bonded. They were hungry; they wanted more. A “group dynamic” had been created, someone said. Participants in the seminar asked for further contact, another occasion to meet, more exchanges, an ongoing conversation between contemporaries
Even allowing for a certain euphoria that builds up at such events – akin, perhaps, to the esprit that makes
diplomatic breakthrough possible in tightly-timetabled international conferences – this appetite for extending
and deepening links was remarkable. Perhaps it demonstrated that Franco-British dealings in general are in deficit. Over them – the co-chairmen of the Franco
British Council, Lord Radice and Jacques Viot nodded in
agreement – hung the shadow of (British) euroscepticism. Much depended, they said, on age and the reference points that came from personal experience of politics. Denis MacShane, the British minister, referred to personalities (Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath) who may now have faded from consciousness. Yves Censi, the French
parliamentarian, noted a distinct generational sense in France among the sons and daughters of soixante-huitard:
was there, he wondered, an analogous British sense of belonging together in time?
Perhaps not, but the seminar showed there exists a common, age-specific wish to reach over and make contact – whatever parents and forbears might have done. We travel and visit and deal with one another, but beneath the surface of banal connexions there exists a potential for deeper contact, friendship and exchange; for swapping notes (observed Jonathan Portes) on such common anxieties as pension provision.
That word – exchange - came up a lot during the day. It dominated the recommendations for follow-up action
participants were asked to make at the end of proceedings. Was it mere curiosity or did this group demonstrate some special talent pour le couplage – that ambiguous phrase
leading to badinage (is that any longer a French word?)
between the politicians, Yves Censi and Denis MacShane, who joked about its application to the relationship between British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand. Perhaps our seminar
showed only that closer contact sharpens the desire for more intimacy; that, jolted out of everyday and national existences, people (at least these Thirtysomethings) relished the opportunity to learn about each other and compare notes on their experience. Did our day together serve to alter perceptions, to tear veils (those coverings later a subject of some anguished debate on both sides) or to dissolve stereotypes?
The culprit, on the British side at least, was easy to identify. It was the media, especially the UK’s national newspaper press. The seminar heard bitter complaint about the treatment of France and of the European Union in British newspapers and in broadcasting, of reporting that had started to merge dishonestly into opinionating, of prejudice and, as bad, great gaps in coverage. Little was heard at the seminar about French media, though some participants worried about a tendency to “blame Brussels”. In the UK the media were judged to have abdicated responsibility for leading the public and articulating a sense of national purpose and future betterment. But Benedicte Paviot said less-than-courageous politicians bore some responsibility, too.
At events such as this, said Yves Censi, we should
maximise that which unites us and marginalise that which separates us. Age did not seem to belong to the latter category. Yet it was hard to pick up any sense that this age cohort was more or less attuned to events and movements in the respective countries now. Had a group of
Thirtysomethings convened two decades ago, would they have produced a radically different agenda of divergences and convergences? Certain issues have risen up the agenda of public attention, notably migration and multi-culturalism; our seminar discussed them energetically. But it was hard to see, in France or the UK, an age-specific concern about, for example, social cohesion, fundamentalism and the need to protect core civic values; these themes preoccupy thinking people of all ages.
Similarities, Differences and Shared Influences: Perceptions of a New Generation of the Economy
The seminar began on a note of difference. In the UK the phrase “Thatcher’s children” has been used of the
generation passing into adulthood during the 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps our seminar did pick up, from the UK side at least, some sense that this generation – now in
its thirties – had acquired a fatalistic sense of the state’s incapacity and the futility of attempts to intervene in markets. It’s very much not a sense French men and women of a similar age share.
Debate was lively. Liberalism vs etatisme became one of
the slogans of the day. Under the Blair government UK policy, said Denis MacShane, rested upon “flexibility”,
the expansion of small and medium enterprise and the rest of the Lisbon agenda. We wanted, he said, fewer directions out of Brussels; the view was not unknown in France Yves Censi drily noted.
And this was the consensus in the UK, said David Cameron
MP. There is more agreement in the UK on the bases of policy than in France or the United States, he argued. Here we concur on the primacy of market economics and the central role of private ownership in economic life. Of course the parties divided over tax, regulation and the extent of the state’s role in national life; but the British, left, right and centre, were wedded to liberalism.
William Vereker put the point in stronger terms. Between France and the UK existed “fundamental differences” about the state and political economy. Take corporate ownership. On one side of the Channel large French companies dominated the market while in the UK the economy was open to German, French and American ownership; in London, the lights were kept on courtesy of EdF and no one bothered. In France, however, the recent introduction of private capital had not wrested French energy concerns from their close links with the state or the trade unions. Even an ostensibly right-of-centre politician such as the former finance minister Nicholas Sarkozy believed in market intervention by government and “national champions”. The cost to France was high, Mr Vereker argued. Consumer energy prices were above those in the UK. And tax. Young, energetic French people migrated, not least to London, to avoid punitive taxation.
These remarks caused a stir, among participants from both countries. Dogmatic belief in competition had undermined economic confidence in the UK, said Catherine Fieschi, and UK consumers had lost out through the privatisation of the railways; now a damaging, competitive model was being extended to health.
UK railways were “a disaster” according to Anwar Akhtar.
Private markets could not deliver a safe or cohesive society. He cited the positive role played by a state agency, the Arts Council, in music and culture. Some public sector leaders, however, continued “recklessly to
cheerlead the private sector”. Beware generalisations,
John Edward chipped in. In Scotland, water had never been privatised.
However, James Tugendhat rejected black and white models of public-private sectors for both France and the UK. The idea that French companies were featherbedded was nonsense; on the basis of his own experience some of them were judged “ruthless”. Pierre-Antoine de Selancy took a
similar view: strong forces of economic convergence were at work in the world. Both French and British economies faced similar problems of flexibility, employment and growth and companies in both countries realised, or ought to realise, that their staff would only add value if they were committed, and managed accordingly. Pascal Rigaud –
noting his personal experience of working in France for a UK-owned company – wanted more exchanges within and
between companies on either side of the Channel. Addressing a contemporary problem of French public policy, he wondered about statutory restrictions on weekly hours of work: the 35-hour scheme might inhibit the effort to reclaim a sense of the value of work. Eluned Haf, also
reflecting on personal experience of work inside and outside the UK, worried about too rigid divisions between public and private sectors and urged the need for partnership and a better division of labour between business and government.
Now the French trained their heavy guns on William Vereker’s contention that the British economy was in a better state than the French, thanks to Thatcherite liberalisation. You are consuming our nuclear energy, Arnaud Leparmentier, noted, referring to the importation of electricity into the UK from France. Liberalisation in energy markets had led to shortages in the UK and the botched privatisation of British Energy had had to be unwound. As for rail, the industry depended on government subsidies. That said, things were changing in France. Perhaps, he mused, the broad-bottomed Gaullist-inspired consensus about energy, especially France’s nuclear programme, would come to an end with the privatisation of EdF.
While urging discussants to move beyond a “Manichean vision” of public and private sectors, Jeannette Bougrab
explored the role of the French state in building infrastructure and pumping investment into sector, such as rail, where the private sector had in the past proved deficient.
Yet you, said Pierre Razoux, indicating in the general
direction of the British participants, believe in the market while we believe in people. He told a story based on his experience of working in the Ministry of Defence
in Whitehall about the remarkable tolerance of his colleagues towards “hot-desking” – a symbol of how UK
employers tend to treat their staffs as moveable and disposable. Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq expressed her
puzzlement at what she saw as under-funding of education and, especially, inadequate support for students entering higher education – though her remarks were rebutted by, among other, Jonathan Portes, who pointed to recent
changes in policy and the Blair government’s commitment to expansion in student numbers.
Pierre Razoux counselled against simplistic comparisons across the Channel. Political economy in the two countries was “path-dependent”: you could explain the shift in a liberal direction in the UK in the 1980s by reference to the financial crisis of the previous decade when the International Monetary Fund had to tender an emergency loan. Thus, the British model of public-private partnership was not going to be applicable in France where the private sector tended to enter public provision as a concessionnaire.
And, said Isabelle Lescent-Giles, there’s
differentiation between the two countries in their business cultures, one influenced by engineering and its emphasis on security and reliability, the other by finance – though the “MBA culture” was now spreading in France. Still, there were marked differences in conceptions of the public realm, Chantal Hughes remarked,
some of them stemming from this divergence in the cultural weight of engineering in the two countries. Take nuclear power, where French policy and attitudes are remarkably different from the UK’s. Behind that (the point was made by Helene Masson and others) lay profound
differences in conceptualisation of the state and its relationship to economy and civil society. The Jacobin tradition was by no means exhausted in France!
How does this generation unite and divide on
That said, there was nothing fundamentally awry in Franco-British relations. Speakers, led by Yves Censi,
lined up to endorse this view. The Francophile tradition in UK politics was long and deep. Its restitution depended only on political will – there to be mobilised
Conference co-chair Simon Atkinson backed this up with
reference to polling data. But first he noted that French remains the first foreign language taught in English schools while trips across the Channel to France were hugely popular, at least among people living in the south of England. Warm feelings about France were registered in
surveys: the French are proverbial good at romance and food, though not necessarily in that order, while the British were perceived (by themselves at least) as good at television, sport and music. Older British people aspired to live in France and hundreds of thousands owned property there. Laurent Bonnard remarked that many tried
living in France only to return home, finding life there wasn’t so idyllic.
(put here MORI: Moving to the EU
But an earlier remark by William Vereker about the UK
possessing some strong attraction for younger French people was disputed. If, as he claimed some 250,000 French people aged between 25 and 35 lived London, as many British people of the same age lived in Paris, someone asserted. In one intervention, Jeannette Bougrab
noted tartly that she was one of 60m who had chosen to remain in France.
M Bonnard said images of each country were often anachronistic. People in Britain still thought of France in 1980s terms, along with trains a grande vitesse.
Jeannette Bougrab urged participants to remember the differences that existed within the territory of the UK. In France state and language were co-eval while in the UK the state encompassed more than one nation and several languages. Participants from Scotland and Wales urged caution about grand, UK-wide references. John Edward
recalled the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France before noting that Queen Elizabeth was not head of the established church in Scotland.
(Put here MORI: Different aspects of Britain and France)
James Tugendhat wondered if some of the debate about difference really reflected the modern experience of business where executives did move between countries. Archetypal French companies L’Oreal and Pernod Rickard were run by British managers. Perhaps the problem – this
was to be picked up in the seminar’s recommendations for action – was the relative absence of exchange of staff in the sphere of politics and public administration.
Seminar participants agreed that both countries faced similar fissures, over gender, employment and ethnic minorities. Public attitudes were not markedly different nor, allowing for institutional differences, were policy responses. What the seminar showed, however, is that the language and conceptualisation of questions of cohesion and integration are distinct on either side of the Channel. French Thirtysomethings can muster a
“republican” rhetoric similar to their elders. UK Thirtysomethings, like the generation before them, prefer a lower key, pragmatic approach to social integration, mixed with a slight, but typical, diffidence about definitions of Britishness. Raj Jethwa noted that unemployment among young workers from ethnic minorities in the UK was up to three times that of their white contemporaries. Young workers were pressured to attain in the education system, expected to move jobs: he wondered if things were much different in France. He noted that the pay gap between the genders had been growing in France as in the UK, suggesting that neither the French nor the British employment models were working especially well. Both left some groups marginalised and excluded. One failed to maximise security and the other left too many unemployed, said Sunder Katwala – was there a “third
way” between them?
The countries faced similar questions when it came to the balance between work, family life and leisure, said Laurence Laigo. Of course there were differences. She noted the large gap in labour productivity rates with the UK underscoring France by up to 25 per cent. Trade unions faced similar problems. Membership was in decline as the age profile of the workforce increased; in both countries unions needed to renew themselves while confronting globalisation. She extolled the way UK unions had integrated themselves into European institutions and welcomed the leadership of John Monks, director of the European Federation of Trade Unions
Both France and the UK have substantial Muslim minorities and, on the evidence of this seminar, their condition, prospects and integration are matters of deep anxiety to Thirtysomethings even if, as we saw above, there is no straightforward generational take on solutions. British participants were puzzled at the agitation in France over recent months about appropriate wear at school and the law banning religious symbols. French participants were puzzled at what they feared was complacency on the British part about fundamentalism in their midst, contrasting as they saw it not just with France but with the Netherlands and Germany as well.
Jeanette Bougrab focused attention on the French
tradition of laicite, and the consistent, even severe, separation of the state from expressions of religious affiliation in public spaces. She sought to enlighten British participants about the debates that have been going on among French feminists, on the French left and right on where tolerance and understanding should end and
the assertion of universal values should begin. France had no official religion. The school, said Mathieu Flonneau, were not just educational institutions, they belonged to a broader, civic tradition, binding students into the state: they are ecoles de la republique.
Differences of view between France and the UK could be mapped not just in regard to schooling – take your
approach to monarchy or even to the regulation of gambling, he said. In the UK you allow things then regulate them; in France restrictions are imposed, but exemptions allowed.
The policy question was integration. But did traditional models of assimilation apply any more? They were intact in neither country. Against them, said Jeannette Bougrab,
ran a current of fundamentalism impacting on the school curriculum as on the gender mix in schools. Its eddies were visible on the streets of Amsterdam and in attempts to silence criticism of Islam as blasphemy. The object of policy must be co-existence, she said, but on the basis of certain values that were non-negotiable. Some of these values had to do with the position of women; she was worried that women had failed to protest at abuses in such countries as Iran. But there were other positions in the debate about whether Muslim girls should be permitted to wear headscarves and veils to school. Mathieu Flonneau
noted a paradox of integration in France, that younger generations were finding it more practical to learn and use English, regardless of their ethnic background
Don’t take women for granted, Laurence Laigo warned,
they are not “an economic given”. Attention had to be th paid to women’s sensibilities, especially now, at the 30anniversary of the passage of the French abortion law.
We share attitudes on migration and minorities, according to Simon Atkinson. In both France and the UK
some two thirds of the population think the number of immigrants should be reduced. Those attitudes were closely linked to respondents’ sense of Britishness and Frenchness, and in no simple Front National/British National Party way. People wanted immigrants to be prepared to take on established customs and values. But what if – this point was made later in the seminar in discussions about the future of France and the UK in Europe – national identities were themselves in flux?
Anwar Akhtar drew on his own experiences of growing up in an ethnic minority community, separated by race and religion from his white working class contemporaries. Social exclusion remains a fact of ethnic minority life and he warned of how fundamentalism exacerbated it. Leadership in some Bangladeshi communities in the UK was “feudal”. He described younger people dropping out of school, unlettered and unknowing – they often had no
conception of the Holocaust, he said, and became easy prey to reactionary preachers of religion. But engagement with some minorities had to begin overseas, Anwar Akhtar said: a new UK foreign policy was needed for Afghanistan and Iraq. Much could be done at home, with mentoring programmes and better integration in and of schools. The arts had a role, Fiona Laird asserted, in integrating
communities. Language was however an issue. Addressing the possibilities of more fruitful British-French interchange, she worried about the reluctance of English speaking audiences to hear or see anything other than English in film or theatre. It was wrong to say British culture was not open but its penetration by contemporary European material, including drama from France, was slight.
How does this generation unite and divide on Europe and transatlantic relations?
As discussion turned to the future of Franco-British relations, twin questions were raised, about UK membership of the European Union on the one hand and French coming to terms with a changed EU on the other. Was there a generational colouring to this discussion? Perhaps Thirtysomethings from the UK are more fatalist about Europe than their elders. Not less committed nor any less convinced that the future of their country has to be “European”, but weary before their time about the possibilities of shifting opinion in the UK. As for their French contemporaries, the note struck at the seminar was more puzzlement: where would France fit in a EU with 25 members; would the fabled relationship across the Rhine just keep ticking over, taken for granted rather than celebrated; what on earth could they do about the behemoth across the Atlantic? Debate over Europe had migrated inside political parties in both parties, it was suggested. But where were the “big figures” to present new phenomena to a new generation that had no sense of Europe’s history?
(put here MORI: Who are our friends?
And Cultural identity)
Nick Clegg, a former MEP, characterised differences
between France and the UK this way. The Franco-German motor had made the construction of Europe an “entirely uplifting affirmation of peace”. For the British membership of the EU and its predecessors was merely an “unavoidable fate”. The genius of the EU had been its
capacity to hold and sustain these different views. Could that continue as the transatlantic relationship broke
down, the potential entry of Turkey changed Europe in profound ways and some common security policy was hammered out? Could the institutions contain differences in the way they had?
(Put here MORI: EU membership: good or bad?)
Arnaud Leparmentier said Europe for the French had some of the characteristics of a battleground after a major defeat. “Their” Europe was a minority game. The UK had
won the latest rounds. But, he quipped, while the British knew what they don’t want from Europe, the French don’t know what they do want. The strategy being pursued by President Jacques Chirac was opaque but what we and he knew was that in a Europe of 25 Tony Blair was going to find plenty of allies. Like Nick Clegg, he said the European Union had to come to terms with the
“transatlantic model”, which he characterised as free exchange of goods and capital plus strong diplomatic ties to the United States. Other pressing issues were the admission of Turkey and the development of common EU institutions and common tax policies. As for the constitution (M Leparmentier said), the UK point man Peter Hain had networked well and made great gains in the face of declining French influence, compounded by French diplomats’ “arrogance”.
But don’t both Blair and Chirac lack a strategy for Europe, asked Richard Whitman. Like Arnaud Leparmentier, he noted how the UK government had pretty much got what it wanted from the negotiations over the European constitution, though you would not think it from official reactions – no celebration at all. Perhaps that derived from a lack of self-confidence about where the UK finds itself.
(Put here MORI: The EU must adopt a constitution)
And that stemmed in large measure from the British-American connexion. “The disastrous US”, in Laurence
Laigo’s phrase, outside good and evil, committing absolute error under President George W Bush. It has a different culture not least from the UK’s, she argued –
those references to homosexuality and God’s place in political rhetoric were foreign.
Not surprisingly, given the closeness of Prime Minister Tony Blair to President Bush, the UK minister David Miliband took a different tack. His theme was greater rather than less cooperation across the Atlantic. Together the EU and the United States constituted between 60 and 65 per cent of world GDP. Unless they worked together they would both we worse off. The nearest he