The French have often briefed against the Anglo Saxon way. They dislike our success at banking and financial services, disagree with policies that allow more freedom and flexibility to set up in business, to take a job or find a new employee, to encourage enterprise. President George Bush was not completely wrong if he did famously say the French have no word for entrepreneur!
President Hollande set out on an interesting economic experiment. He was cheered on by socialists and bien pensant commentators on both sides of the Channel. Where the UK cut the top rate of tax he would increase it. Where the UK cut the tax rate on business, he would squeeze them harder to get them to pay their fair amount. Where the UK would curb the rate of increase in public spending, he would promote growth through a bigger public sector. Mr Miliband was egging him on, and used to refer favourably to the French experiment. Though he no longer is so keen on the French model as an example to us, he seems keen to copy parts of the policy nonetheless.
So how has the French leader got on? He is now very unpopular. The French economy hovers around another recession. Unemployment stays stubbornly above 11% compared to 7% for the UK. Youth unemployment is especially high. France has many areas of high deprivation in the big cities. The gap between Paris and the rest remains very large. 400,000 talented and hardworking French people are now working in London. Those recently interviewed by the BBC have told us they love the greater freedom, flexibility and positive environment London gives them to start up and grow a business.
It would be wrong to write Paris off. It is the only other great city in Europe besides London in terms of scale and prosperity levels. It still has many fine businesses and brands and many talented people who have not left. Similarly, it would be wrong to be complacent about London’s current success. Hidden in the figures is a decline in London as a financial centre relative to New York, thanks to tax and regulatory policies followed by the EU which are having more and more influence on the UK. Paris has lost a lot to London, London has lost high earning business activities to Switzerland, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
However, today France has deeper social and economic problems than the UK. Mr Hollande says he does not want fundamental reform of the EU or any Treaty change. The UK is pressing for it. If Paris wins this battle, as some expect, then that might merely hasten the UK’s exit when the people vote. Outside the EU the UK could pursue an agenda more friendly to business, jobs, success than we currently can achieve inside the EU. Then the gap between London and Paris would grow much greater in London’s favour. Does Paris want that outcome?