France

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How far will the French government go in selling off some of its extensive portfolio of assets? In its last budget, the government said it would sell up to €4bn in shareholdings to raise money to pay down debt, or to invest in other companies. This could foreseeably include selling off parts of the government’s stakes in energy companies such as GDF Suez and EDF. But more may be necessary.

The ongoing conflict with the European Union over France’s persistent deficit, which according to the finance minister Michel Sapin cannot now be closed before 2017, is damaging France’s reputation as well as the all important relationship with Berlin. Some action is needed to buy German acceptance of a new timetable. Selling assets in itself would not solve the problem but could reduce debt levels and produce much needed revenue. As a concept, however, privatisation is still considered toxic in France. The terms of any sale will have to reflect these political constraints.

Any Brit commenting on France has to be careful after the childish abuse from Andy Street, the managing director (for the moment) of retailer John Lewis. France has its problems, as any Frenchman will tell you, but it is not “finished” or a country where “nothing works and nobody cares”. Mr Street should visit the thriving areas of the South West. He should remember that France, supposedly so hostile to globalisation, has 31 companies in the latest Fortune 500 listing against 28 each from Germany and the ultra-global UK. I hope that the Franco British Council, the Colloque and the other institutions that have laboured for years to build good relations with France are evidence that Mr Street speaks for no-one but himself. 

On Wednesday the cabinets of the France and Germany will hold a joint meeting in Paris. The occasion is highly symbolic – both in the way in which normal state-to-state relationships have replaced war in Europe, and in the continued commitment of the neighbours to maintain their alliance whatever their short-term political and personal differences. But the discussion this week could also produce substantive results.

President François Hollande, to the surprise of French business as well as his German visitors, has proposed that the two countries should work to achieve deep co-operation on energy policy. He compares this to the Airbus project which in his words “saved us from becoming a branch plant of the US economy”. The initial reaction to the idea in Berlin has been lukewarm. There is a general fear that Mr Hollande will do everything possible to get Germany to fund French debts. One German told me last week that Mr Hollande should “get on his scooter and stick to what he does best”.

That is a very shortsighted view. Energy policy is going wrong because we are accustomed to thinking within narrow national lines. Each individual country has to achieve whatever is the target of the moment – a 30 per cent cut in emissions; a 20 per cent share for renewables and so on. This is a suboptimal approach. Individual countries can achieve their targets but the costs of working in an atomistic way can be enormous. One of the greatest advances of a complex society is that different people do different things. We do not all grow or kill our own food every day. The case is best spelt out in Robert Wright’s brilliant book Nonzero

Anglo-French relations could hamper negotiations over UK nuclear power stations. Image by Getty

Another European summit, and another step in the progressive disengagement of the UK from the core of Europe. I wonder if the UK government appreciates the impact of what is happening on the real world of business? Let’s take just one example. Relations between Britain and France are at a very low ebb. No one is throwing plates but there is now a mood of mutual indifference, which, as anyone who has lived through a bad marriage will tell you, is worse.

I was in Paris this week visiting the Banque de France. The Banque’s senior management were as ever exquisitely polite, but the sense of distance from the UK was unmistakeable.

Anglo-French relations are always complicated but the current round of problems really began with Franςois Hollande’s visit to London at the end of February. Mr Hollande was at that time a candidate rather than Le President de la Republique. He was clearly ahead in the polls and judged likely to win by the most experienced observers of the French scene. But Mr Cameron, usually a model of politeness when it comes to personal relations, refused to see him. 

Few countries can afford to turn away from the prospect of developing 5bn bbl of oil, but France, as ever, is exceptional. François Hollande, the socialist president, has refused to allow hydraulic fracking. In France, fracking is associated in the public mind with shale gas – a form of energy which is thought of, alongside Anglo-Saxon banks, McDonalds and other manifestations of globalisation, as fundamentally un-French and therefore bad.

France has plenty of shale gas which will now never be developed, presumably. The president’s announcement did not mention the country’s ‘tight oil’ resources. The question being asked in Paris is whether Mr Hollande knew just how great the prize of tight oil could be. 

By the end of this week bids must be in from the consortia seeking to develop the UK’s new generation of nuclear power stations. It is decision time but the irony is that the key decisions will be taken in Paris rather than London.