Europe

French come out fighting for their economic reputation

Total headquarters, Paris Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Total is one of France's biggest companies

France's economic leaders are on an international PR blitz to convince the world that things back home are not as bleak as they may seem.

First of all it was Prime Minister Manuel Valls who brought the message to London that: "My government is pro-business." He even said it in English.

And the youthful Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron has been to the UK, on a new counter-charge against "le French-bashing".

As he told French journalists who came with him: "Whether we like it or not, the Anglo-Saxon press are the opinion formers in Europe.

"So if these opinion formers continue to say that France isn't reforming, then that is how we will be perceived."

Macron's argument is that the anti-French mood in London economic circles may have been justified some time ago, but it has been overdone - and today it is out of date.

Maybe it was the much-publicised remarks of John Lewis chief Andy Street that persuaded him enough was enough.

After a visit to Paris last month, Street famously said that France was "sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat", a country where "nothing worked", and he advised investors to "get out quickly".

Though he explained them away as a joke, the comments have cut deeply on this side of the Channel.

Cliched attacks

Many French people who broadly agree with the prevalent critique of their country - that it is overtaxed, over-regulated and hooked on public spending - feel that the attacks are slipping into cliche. Not everything is black.

So what are the arguments that a Valls or a Macron can deploy to show that France means business?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Macron is a former banker

The first items in the case "for"' are Valls and Macron themselves. Both are men with a proven interest in business-friendly reform.

Valls has bravely flown the flag for many years, even when it meant near-total isolation within the Socialist Party.

He is where he is now, at the helm of government, not because socialists converted to his ideas, but because President Hollande ran out of alternatives.

As for Macron, he is a 37-year-old former banker at Rothschilds (enough said, his enemies argue) who after two months in office has already made a personal contribution to the jargon of the trade - Macronomics.

Macronomics basically means pushing reform as far as possible, consistent with the facts. These facts are that Macron is also a member of the generally business-averse Socialist Party, and that most French voters are emphatically not economic liberals. But he pushes anyway.

So Macron has made clear his opposition to the 35-hour week, and raised the idea of negotiating with companies to find ways round it.

He has spoken of the excessive "generosity" of the French unemployment system, and of the need for shorter benefit periods in order to encourage a return to work.

Key legislation

His first actual reform comes next month with a law on activity and growth - a hydra-headed piece of legislation intended (among other things) to open up protected professions like lawyers and pharmacists, widen Sunday trading, ease local planning controls and simplify workplace arbitration.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Valls is interested in business-friendly reform

Most analysts share the view that the law will make a difference, though not a huge one, in promoting growth and job creation.

But when combined with the year-old "responsibility pact" - which lightens the tax burden on business - it shows that French policy is now firmly wedded in principle to the benefits of supply-side reform.

As Macron himself said in London: "Our [economic] model is coming to its end. We need to reform the country, for the sake of the country."

The other big argument in the Valls-Macron case is that - pace the French-bashers - France is still an economic giant.

Its array of multinational big hitters - from oil producer Total to lesser-known companies like services provider Sodexo - is as impressive as you will find anywhere.

There is every bit as much - maybe more - managerial flair and technical know-how in Paris as in London or elsewhere.

French business schools may not all be world-class, but there are plenty of them - which shows that new generations are being prepared for the real economic world.

And contrary to the caricature, innovation is as prized here as anywhere else. Look at the runaway global success of the internet flash sales pioneered by Vente Privee.

Attractions remain

A new report has done a little to boost morale by pointing up some of the attractions that continue to draw investors to France.

The study, by the French Agency for International Investment (AFII), compares France with 14 other OECD countries on a number of criteria such as tax, research and development, infrastructure and so on.

Not surprisingly roads, railways and electricity all score well, as do quality of life and birth rate. Less predictable are France's first place - above the US - in tax incentives for R&D and its fourth place in worker productivity.

And the AFII also finds that in the famously weak area of competitiveness, France is beginning to improve - moving up from 13th position to 10th. In other words, the endless warnings about the high cost of labour may have yielded results.

Of course the case "for" is only one half of the picture.

The other side is the familiar litany of gloom: the millions seeking work; the debt at nearly 100% of GDP; the 57% of GDP taken up by public spending; the departing talent; the high social charges; the bureaucracy.

A week of protests is being planned at the start of December by the main business federations, who say that - for all the new language coming out of Paris - companies are still buckling under to new decrees and demands.

Two new regulations are causing particular grief: one that requires companies to manage special pension rights for workers in demanding jobs; and another that gives employees a say when an entrepreneur wants to sell his company on.

"Companies in France are supposed to manage everything except their products and their clients. How on earth can they develop and take on new staff?" says Stanislas de Bentzmann, of the business association CroissancePlus.

Sadly for Macron and Valls, that cri de coeur from the distressed French entrepreneur is still the better story for the opinion-forming "Anglo-Saxon" press.

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