‘Buy French’, a questionable panacea for industrial woes

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'Buy French' and 'Made in France' have become the new catchphrases for candidates in the French presidential election, but the concept is questionable at least, writes Mathieu Magnaudeix, from Mediapart.

Mathieu Magnaudeix is a journalist at Mediapart. The following article is reproduced in content partnership with EURACTIV (read original article on Mediapart).

"'Buy French' and 'Made in France' have become the new catchphrases for candidates in the French presidential election, amid claims that economic or industrial patriotism is the way to revive French industry and reverse a de-localisation of businesses and jobs abroad.

While President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party advocates a "new economic patriotism",  Socialist Party candidate François Hollande proposes a policy of "industrial patriotism" , with prioritisation of aid for companies that "re-localise" their manufacturing.

Sarkozy, while presenting a planned 'social' VAT – raising VAT to 21.2% from 19.6% to allow for a corresponding reduction in the welfare contribution charges paid by employers (see more here) – argued, with a liberal dose of wishful thinking, that it would serve as a tool for combating de-localisations and reducing imports, the measure being aimed at reducing labour costs to boost France’s competitiveness.

Centrist candidate François Bayrou has based his campaign in industrial centres, even calling for the nation to make a “national obsession” of a return manufacturing in France, with the creation of a specific 'Made in France' label.

Far-Right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen has adopted a staunch protectionist stance, promising, if elected, to pass a 'Buy French' law which she claims would create 500,000 industrial jobs over five years.

Green Party deputy Yves Cochet, promoting ecology candidate Eva Joly in a recent interview on radio station France Inter, also joined the chorus. He exhorted listeners to buy "wooden toys from the Jura" because "We are fed up with all that plastic shit for children at Christmas".

The trend appears like a cyclical political cry. As featured in the video below, a 1990s advertising campaign by the Chambers of Commerce and Industry exhorted consumers to buy French with the slogan "Nos emplettes sont nos emplois", roughly meaning "Our shopping saves our jobs".

France is far from unique in this. In the United States, President Barack Obama, who faces an election in November, has also been telling Americans to buy American-made goods to boost the flagging economy. But this Franco-centric approach can be seen as both a sign of the political class’s paralysis in the face of the economic crisis and an attempt to respond to a deep identity crisis, particularly among lower- and middle-income voters.

'Political charlatanism'

The numbers behind France’s de-industrialisation are stark. Despite a string of official 'Made in France' campaigns, a report from the finance ministry’s Treasury Department found that France lost two million industrial jobs between 1980 and 2007.

Since the crisis of 2008-2009 a further 100,000 jobs and nearly 900 industrial sites have disappeared, according to a report commissioned by financial daily Les Echos from economic observatory Trendeo. New creations account for only half this number, but of course they are not located in the same places.

recent editorial in daily Le Monde pointed out that during the period 2000 to 2008, the share of industrial employment in France fell from 16% to 13% of the economically active population, while manufacturing represents 16% of added value in France compared with 30% in Germany and 22% in the eurozone overall.

Christian Larose, former secretary of the textile and leather federation of the CGT trade union, one of France’s largest, admits he is irritated by politicians’ new-found fervour for 'Made in France'. He recalls how a CGT campaign in 1976 to defend the country’s textile industry, a sector that has been largely decimated since, then fell on deaf ears. Referring to the Lejaby lingerie factory at Yssingeaux in Auvergne, which was narrowly saved from closure earlier this month after a string of high-profile political interventions, he said: "I get angry when I hear Bayrou today, or the PS [Socialist Party] rediscovers the moon, or when I see [prominent Socialist Party figure] Arnaud Montebourg turning up at Lejaby. It’s a bad joke, they just want to get votes. We struggled for years in those factories in a deafening silence," he said.

Larose recalls what he was told at the end of the 1990s by the then secretary of state for industry, Christian Pierret, a Socialist. "He told me that to sell power stations, Airbuses or TGVs we had to accept being paid in clothing. In other words, the textile industry was our currency in international trade."

The acceleration in de-localisations in recent years, with wide media coverage of the trauma involved for individuals and regions, gives French workers the impression they are in direct competition with workers in other European countries or in emerging economies.

This perception is confirmed to some extent by the report from the Treasury Department, which estimates that about 45% of the 2 million industrial jobs that disappeared between 1980 and 2007 were lost because of foreign competition.

Even so, a number of economists doubt that campaigns to buy French-made products would successfully rescue industry and jobs.

Olivier Bouba-Olga, economist at the University of Poitiers’ Centre for Research on Economic and Financial Integration, says such slogans merely show that politicians still have "a fairly archaic vision" of the economic system. "They still see it as an economic war between nation states competing with each other, although the global economic system is increasingly inter-dependent and its processes are highly fragmented," he said. "Politically, this line can bring in votes. But it is in a sense pandering to people’s fears … and in large part avoids addressing the problems."

Alexandre Delaigue, economics professor at Saint-Cyr, an elite military school, said the question of goods made in France versus imported products was only a small part of the overall picture. Three-quarters of French production and consumption involves services and commercial activities that do not enter into the arena of international competition.

Jean-Luc Gaffard, economist at the French economic observatory OFCE, who has just co-authored an analysis of the revival of such nationalist slogans in French political debate (available in French here), described the trend as "political charlatanism".

"We are in total denial of reality,” he said. “‘Buy French' is a diversion to avoid talking about the essential topics.”

"At a time when industry’s situation is worsening, and this has been gaining speed since 2009, they fail to consider the consequences of the austerity plans being put in place by governments in France and in Europe. Because the fall in household revenues will affect consumption of durable goods, cars for example … which are in part produced in France." 

Bayrou, the centrist candidate, is one example of this paradox. He has made his suggestion for a recognised label for French-made products a focal point of his campaign, yet he advocates one of the harshest austerity policies of all the candidates.

'No major vector for growth'

Economists envisage a number of fundamental difficulties in the idea of a 'Made in France' label. First and foremost, it is increasingly difficult to define any one national origin of a product."This notion doesn’t really have any sense any more as production is organised in a value chain on a global scale nowadays," said Delaigue, professor at Saint-Cyr. "The iPhone is manufactured in China, but China’s share of added value is in reality very small because the components come from Japan, South Korea or Germany."

Gaffard, of the OFCE, underlined that the declining  purchasing power of French households will also limit the appeal of a 'Made in France' policy. "Goods made in France are more expensive, therefore you are addressing the middle and upper classes," he warned. "As income inequality widens, the richest 10% become more prepared to buy this type of product. … But the others, the majority of the population, still cannot do so. Therefore you cannot conceive of 'buying French' as a very major vector of growth."

Bouba-Olga at the University of Poitiers advocates an entirely different approach to industrial regeneration. "Rather than praising the fact that products being sold in France are also being made in France, politicians would do better to explain how our industry can better play its role in the process of the global division of labour," he said.

"The right industrial strategy would indeed be to make more products or components of products which others do not know how to make, so as to create wealth and not be too violently exposed to competition from other countries." 

Such a strategy would require massive investment in research and technical innovation, he said, as also in marketing and what he calls "organisational innovation" – particularly in small and medium-sized businesses where management is often inadequate.

Bouba-Olga also says politicians should not let their overall approach to industry be coloured by pessimism. "Yes, factories are closing, but industry in France continues to survive, with competitive sectors that sometimes have difficulty in recruiting because few young people want to work for them and training is closed down."

English version: Sue Landau (Editing by Graham Tearse)

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