My French-born wife tells me that the British press is anti-French. She is right, though I must add in its defense that, at least in its lower intellectual reaches, its xenophobia is of the equal-opportunity variety: it hates and mocks all foreigners without distinction. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the British have more popular terms of opprobrium for their European neighbors than does any other people. The French, however, have the best and most subtle insult of all: they simply call the Belgians “les Belges,” with the arch of an eyebrow, enough on its own to get them laughing with contempt.
When my wife tells me that the British press is anti-French, I reply that the French press is anti-British. This is irrelevant, of course, but true. For example, Le Monde recently ran an article on how the French “no” vote in the recent referendum on the European constitution had boosted Tony Blair’s program of economic liberalization.
“Albion has never seemed so perfidious or so lucky,” the article begins. We are apparently to take this observation as fact rather than interpretation, since the article appears in the news section of the paper. The perfidy of Albion is as much a fact as that its capital is London. Equally factual is the maliciousness of London’s glee at the referendum result—as opposed to the glee of the French electorate itself, apparently.
Albion’s plot was to encourage the enlargement of the European Union with so many new member countries in the East that the prospect of hordes of impoverished workers taking French jobs would turn the nation that practically invented the EU against its own creation. And everything turned out as planned: “The course of European history is now propitious to the desires of Albion,” the article ends ominously.
According to the article, the fundamental struggle is between Colbert, Louis XIV’s comptroller of finances, and Adam Smith, the ideological progenitor of market economics. Colbert was a statist, who nurtured industries that previously did not exist in France and founded many institutions under state direction. Adam Smith needs no introduction. Of course, they missed each other by 34 years, but their legacies fight on.
Many French voters rejected the European Constitution because they believed it was not dirigiste enough. For them, it left the unregulated marketplace too large a sphere of possible influence. The unleashing of market forces would mean that they might have to work longer hours and retire later in life, for example, and even allow employers to dismiss them if it was economically advantageous to do so. For their part, the relatively small number of French free marketeers thought the constitution was too Colbertian, too wedded to the already failing French “model.” Few saw the constitution as the solution to any concrete political, social, or economic problem.
For all the huffing and puffing on both sides of the channel, however, there are many similarities between the two countries, and the war of words is a phony war. In practice, if not necessarily in theory, Blair’s Labour government has come down decisively on the Colbertian side, increasing regulation and state activity to such an extent that only a few percentage points now distinguish the role of the state in the British and French economies. The French usually qualify British economic liberalism with the word sauvage: but while the contemporary British may accurately be called savage, the savagery is decidedly not in their devotion to the free market. Le Monde, as usual, misses the point.