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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 April 2007, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
France versus the world
Lucy Ash
Presenter, BBC World Service

Laurent and Florence
Students Laurent and Florence object to capitalist solutions

Many French people say they are anti globalisation, but paradoxically France has launched dozens of world beating brands and grown rich on free trade.

A poll recently conducted by an American university sent shock waves through the Finance Ministry in Paris. Researchers found that only just over a third of French people think a free market economy is the best system to develop the country.

By way of contrast, the survey found that a majority of citizens in 19 other countries were in favour of the free market, including 65% of Germans, 59 % of Italians, 66% of the British and 74 % of the Chinese. Even the Russians, many of whom have suffered in a painful transition to a market economy, were more favourable at 43%.

In a bar outside the National Library in Paris, I met two students, Laurent and Florence who told me globalisation is "scandalous" because it often means French jobs are lost to poorer countries with lower wages and harsher working conditions.

"I think globalisation today is the modern equivalent of the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean," says Laurent. "I am for human globalisation, but I am against the capitalist economic system and I think we need to make capitalism history."

Anti-business

Laurent's aversion to the market might sound extreme, yet it's not untypical in a country that fielded one Communist and three Trotskyite presidential candidates.

Patrick Fauconnier, business magazine editor
Mr Fauconnier despairs over French attitudes to business

Quite a few on the French right too are suspicious of free enterprise.

These attitudes have troubled Finance Minister Thierry Breton so much that he has decided to create a new organisation to make his fellow citizens more market friendly. It has got a distinctively Gallic name: Codice, or the Council for the Diffusion of Economic Culture.

Patrick Fauconnier, who edits a business magazine, is one of the Council's members. He describes the findings of the American poll as "serious and traumatic".

He says that the idea that profit is somehow unclean has its roots in French Catholicism and that business acumen is undervalued in French society.

"The brightest kids are encouraged to become engineers or lawyers or doctors. You only go into business as a last resort".

One-sided coverage

Fauconnier tells me he has come up with a formula to encapsulate the views of the average Frenchman.

Leading sociologist Gerard Mermet
Mr Mermet says success breeds affection

"Economy equals enterprise, enterprise equals CEO (chief executive), CEO equals profit and profit equals exploitation."

The main task of Codice, he says, is to educate French citizens about the way the economy works so they are better informed and less hostile.

The council plans a slick new website, pamphlets and campaigns in universities and schools.

Training journalists, says Fauconnier, is vital because economic stories are often covered in a one-sided way on French TV.

"When a factory closes or sheds jobs, for example, there are lots of emotional interviews with angry workers, but rarely any analysis of the reasons behind the company's decision."

Perverse and dangerous

In some ways, anti business attitudes are baffling, given that French multinationals are conquering world markets with everything from shampoo to nuclear power.

Francoise Holder, co-head of the Paul chain of bakeries
Ms Holder says hard work is crucial to succeed

A third of Europe's top 100 companies are French.

The French may moan about cheap, foreign imports undercutting their products, or jobs moving to China, but they seem to forget that their very own hypermarket, Carrefour, is the world's second largest retailer after Wal-Mart, and is making huge profits in China.

But even France's most successful firms cannot count on the affection of the public, says leading sociologist Gerard Mermet.

"Many people don't have a positive view of these flourishing enterprises. They wonder if they have stayed French or whether they have turned into these awful multi nationals who play the perverse and dangerous game of globalisation."

Red tape

To some extent, such misgivings are understandable since nowadays French multinationals create most of their jobs abroad.

Philippe Bloch, coffee shop proprietor
Mr Bloch says he might leave France to try his luck in the US

That is partly because many business people say it is easier to operate overseas than in France.

Francoise Holder, who co-heads the Paul chain of bakeries, is one of the country's top businesswomen.

She complains about high corporate taxes in France and about the 35 hour week, which she says "unleashed a hurricane or tsunami" on working culture in France.

"The main obstacles we've come up against over the last 20 years, it's true, are in France rather than abroad."

"We have franchises in faraway places like Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia or Japan and we can find good managers there who are willing to work hard and so have been very successful."

Low expectations

It is worth remembering though that French labour productivity is still the highest in Europe and France has more foreign direct investment than anywhere in Europe except the UK.

Bernard Spitz, a former government advisor
Mr Spitz says young people will not accept paying for the old forever

For Philippe Bloch, who set up a French chain of coffee shops, the main problem is over-zealous employment legislation. He protests that the Code du Travail, the book of labour laws, which runs to 2800 pages, is "bigger than the Bible".

Sick of state meddling, he says he may start his next venture in America.

"I'm not quite sure I want to re-invest the same amount of energy and effort and money in an economy that does not want me to create jobs.

"I think France has the unemployment it deserves, France has chosen unemployment. We have chosen to pay jobless people benefits to keep the peace."

But after the 2005 riots in many French suburbs, that peace is looking shaky.

France has an increasingly divided society. It is not just the gulf between those with secure jobs and the unemployed. The country is also on the brink of a war between the generations, according to Bernard Spitz, a former government advisor.

The premise of his latest book, Papy Krach, is that in the next 30 years the number of pensioners will double, but there will be even fewer people in work to support them. He thinks young people are being held to ransom by the ageing baby boomers and that they may refuse to foot the bill.

"Three quarters of young people believe, in France, that they are going to live less well than their parents.

"How can you expect a society to be dynamic, entrepreneurial and optimistic if they feel they are going to live worse in the future?"

You can hear "France Versus the World" on the BBC World Service on Monday 23 April, or you can listen via the website at www.bbcworldservice.com then go to "programmes" then click on "documentary archive".


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