Event Highlights: France Today – What Is France, Where Is It Going, and Where Is Its Place in the World?
On Tuesday, April 17, the Center for the Study of Europe, in cooperation with BU Study Abroad, hosted the French Consul General Christophe Guilhou, for a talk on “France Today.” William Keylor, Professor of International Relations and History and a member of the Center’s executive board, introduced the Mr. Guilhou who, though unable in his diplomatic role to discuss the upcoming French elections, nevertheless had much to say about Europe’s second largest country.
He began with the positives: France is a wealthy country of 65 million people, with the highest birthrate in Europe. It remains a significant economic power – it is Europe’s second largest market – and a popular tourist destination.
He then addressed some of the challenges: economic growth is insufficient and France is facing major problems in terms of competitiveness. Industries are migrating to places where labor is cheaper. According to Guilhou, France needs to re-adapt its economy in order to remain competitive. It’s social system – once ranked as the best in the world – is under strain. While life expectancy remains very high (second only to Japan) and the care system continues to be very good, there are problems financing it – current deficit levels are unsustainable. Finally, France continues to struggle to integrate its minorities, mostly workers from North Africa. France is engaged in reform, he said, including pension reform, and offers some of the most attractive R&D tax incentives in Europe – but the challenges remain formidable.
Guilhou took a moment to correct the image of France as a country of lazy people. He said in fact France is the third most efficient country in terms of hourly labor productivity, and there are fewer strikes in France than even Germany. It is the third investor around the world.
As for the French language – it is spoken by 250 million people in approximately 50 to 60 countries around the world.
He went on to explore the questions: “What is France in Europe and how Europe impacts France?”
Europe today has a population of ~500 million people; taken as a whole, it is bigger than US and has a higher GDP than the US. According to Guilhous, the European project is working, and France – a founding member of the European Union – has no choice but to continue the integration process. Meaning, France will have to accept some from governance from Brussels, including taxation.
Guilhou could not ignore the Eurocrisis. He argued that the Euro has been a success story, reminding listeners that the currency has remained stronger than the dollar throughout the crisis. European inflation continues below 2%, average public debt across the Eurozone is 85% of GDP (compared to 100% in US), and the Euro represents 25% of world reserve currency (the dollar is about 33%). More importantly, the struggling economies of Ireland, Portugal, and Greece together comprise only 6% of Eurozone economy. He blamed the crisis on “cheap money” (when the Euro was created, interest rates were retained at low German levels, which incentivized borrowing over debt reduction) and also on the “political” decision to include Greece with no conditions.
He said unequivocally that France will not leave Eurozone (he did not think it would be possible for Greece to leave either), that France will continue to pursue deeper integration and to reinforce the Euro while reducing its public deficit, adapting reforms that will allow it to become more competitive, and accepting new discipline from Brussels.
Finally, Guilhou took up France’s role in the world. Over against the view that France and Europe are declining powers, he asserted that Europe today represents 31% of global GDP. France continues to play a role in international security efforts in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries. It is, moreover, a vital economic partner to the United States. The transatlantic relationship accounts for ~50 percent of world GDP. US investments in France alone are greater than those in China and India combines. French companies in the US employ more than 500,000 people, and the same is true of American companies in France.
In sum, Guilhou argued, France continues to be an important player on the global stage. It is facing challenges adapting to the global economy, but its future remains solidly within Europe. Only within Europe will it return to competitiveness.
Beyond the debate on France’s decline and French “exceptionalism,” a question remains. Can France, and other countries of its stature, play a significant world role in the future?
In his October 25 lecture at Boston University, Nicolas Tenzer, author of The World in 2030 and When France Disappears from the World, claimed that a significant role is possible for France, but it will require major changes in the country’s organization and attitude towards diplomacy, the transparency of its political and civil institutions and its presence in developing countries and market.
Presently, said Tenzer, the risk of France disappearing from world stage is very real: France is a declining power, faced with trade deficits, and competition from emerging market – to say nothing of the limited place of the French language and France’s limited presence in academic networks.
But there’s another side to the story: as a nuclear power and a member of the UN Security Council, France plays a leading role in the G7, G8, and G20. France has the third largest network of embassies and permanent missions around world, an impressive record of pubic service, and is home to a number of leading international companies.
The truth, Tenzer stated, lies between the two assessments. He went on to list the eleven criteria on which he assessed France’s power and potential. Among the most salient were France’s presence in “expertise markets” around the world; its presence in academic networks, especially in emerging countries; shifting anticipations of power in tomorrow’s world; the presence of civil society experts in state level decision making; the end of delimited zones of influence, especially in former colonies; the rise of the international technical organizations (e.g. World Bank); the capacity of Europe, and France’s power within Europe; and finally, the capacity of France to develop an “international mind set.”
His “to do” list for France included the following advice: France must reinforce its strategic capacity, increase the number of international circles within France (where, for example, there are no departments of “international relations”), and continue work in area of international development. France must improve its capacity for activity, especially through information sharing, partnerships with international organizations, and university networks. It must pursue bilateral relations with key countries, especially Asian countries. A better strategy in Africa, not just in the former colonies, is also necessary.
As for Jean Monnet’s predication that France would “disappear from the world” and leverage its power through Europe, Tenzer said, in response to a question, that a federal Europe is not in the immediate or even near distant future.
This discussion with Pierre Vimont, Ambassador of France to the United States, and Klaus Scharioth, Ambassador of Germany to the United States, moderated by Alan Berger, Senior Editorial Writer at the Boston Globe, took place on October 10, 2007. It continues a series of debates with European Ambassadors, organized by the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University with the support of the European Commission Delegation in Washington DC.
Pierre Vimont was appointed Ambassador of France to the United States by President Nicolas Sarkozy on August 1, 2007. Mr. Vimont joined the Foreign Service in 1977. He was posted in London from 1978 to 1981 and then spent the next four years with the Press and Information Office at the Quai d’Orsay. From 1985 to 1986 he was seconded to the Institute for East-West Security in New York. Returning to Europe, he held a variety of appointments, including deputy director general of the entire Cultural, Scientific and Technical Relations Department from 1996 to 1997 and director of European Cooperation from 1997 to 1999. He was ambassador and permanent representative of France to the European Union from 1999 to 2002 and until August he served chief of staff to the minister of foreign affairs.
Klaus Scharioth served as State Secretary in the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin from November 2002 until March 2006 prior to becoming Germany’s Ambassador to the United States. He entered the German Foreign Service in 1976, and has held positions at the German Embassy in Quito and the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations in New York. He served as Political Director and head of the Political Directorate-General from 1999 to 2002 and Head of the International Security and North America Directorate from 1998 to 1999. He was also Head of the Defense and Security Policy from 1996 to 1997 and Director of the Private Office to the NATO Secretary-General in Brussels from 1993 to 1996.