Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sacré bleu! Et nos vacances?

Prime Minister and self-styled poet Dominique de Villepin, famously, idolizes Napoleon. In memory of the great man, he gave himself 100 days when he became Prime Minister on May 31 to sort out France’s problems that include rampant unemployment and a generally ailing economy. One wonders whether M de Villepin remembers that, actually, Napoleon’s 100 days ended in catastrophe for him. One assumes that the 190th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, just over a fortnight after de Villepin's assumption of the mantle was not even mentioned in his presence.

So far, his success has been so-so. Napoleon, as it happens, did build up a formidable fighting machine in the 100 days between his landing from Elba to his final collapse outside Brussels. (And he also faced the soldiers led by Marshal Ney, in one of my favourite stories, and asked them who would be the first to fire at the Emperor of the French? Allegedly, they all, led by Ney, abandoned the King they had recently sworn allegiance to and went back to the Emperor they had sworn allegiance to some years previously.)

Prime Minister de Villepin has done nothing so dramatic. He has introduced some very mild reforms that might make it easier for small firms to hire and fire but he has also threatened a battle on behalf of the French food company Danone, which must, according to him, stay in French hands.

Now, however, he has come up with something completely revolutionary. He has demanded that his ministers not take the full quota of the usual summer vacation of at least a month but stay near the battlefield of Paris. And if they must go on holiday for any time at all, stay in France.

That is not such a bad idea, since the tourist industry in France has suffered severe losses, what with the Americans deciding to boycott the country and others not finding that France is a particularly jolly place to go to at the moment.

De Villepin intends to spend one week in Brittany and one week in the south but his vacances will be punctuated by flying visits to Paris. One cannot imagine what for, as there is nobody in Paris and nothing can be done. Unless, of course, the minions have been given no time off at all. That might cause a revolution and no prime minister will risk it.

If this were a Feydeau farce, Mme de Villepin might start getting a little worried about all those lightining trips to Paris.

Other ministers are going away for a week or a fortnight at a time and they are all, led by President Chirac, staying in France. The Health Minister, mindful of the death toll of 15,000 in the heat wave of 2003 is not going away at all.

The reason for all this unexpected activity is that M de Villepin and his government have realized that France does not have a competitive economy. According to an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph, one analyst for the Paris Institute for Political Studies said:
“People are slowly realizing we can’t just all pack our bags at the same time and leave the country to its own devices. At least, we can’t if we want to compete in the world market.”
Unfortunately, there is a flaw in the argument there, that is peculiarly French. Neither the politicians nor, it seems, the analysts can get away from the idea that the way to make a country competitive is by political edicts.

One appreciates that certain legislation that will relax the various rules needs to be put into place and, one must assume, this will be done by prime ministerial diktat but it is not the presence or absence of ministers that will make France competitive. (Well, the absence might.)

It is the presence of those who work and run the wealth making private sector that is crucial to future developments. And there seems no evidence that anybody is taking shorter vacations this year than in any other. No doubt they need the time to agonize over the French conundrum and that cannot be done while you work.

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