I’ve spent the week in cobblestoned squares, listening to French presidential candidates argue that their country’s way of life is threatened by forces from beyond its borders. It’s a popular refrain these days: As economies falter, people fear the economic and human waves sweeping in from beyond.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has led the way, pledging to reintroduce trade protectionism, reinstitute passport checks and cut immigration. His challenger François Hollande has also suggested more protectionist policies and less immigration. As a result, four out of five French voters now believe that globalization is bad for their livelihoods, and that borders should be closed to foreign investment and immigration.
As I listened to these warnings, I couldn’t help thinking about how my week had begun in London.
On Monday morning, I paid the electricity and gas bills by writing a cheque to a French company. We buy our heat and light, as do 5.7 million other British families, from EDF Energy, a state-owned French company that provides a quarter of Europe’s electricity.
Then I took the garbage bags to the curb, where they were collected expertly by employees of the French company Veolia Environnement. Its 331,226 workers provide garbage collection, water treatment, street lighting and public transportation in 77 countries.
I hit the road, avoiding the tide of Renault Clios and Meganes and Peugeot 207s, among the most popular cars in Europe, together accounting for almost a million vehicles sold each year in the 27 European Union countries.
At the Underground station, I boarded a train built by Alstom, the French engineering company with 85,000 employees in 70 countries. They also built the nuclear reactors that provide my electricity. The train was guided by the Underground’s signalling and control network operated from a central hub in Waterloo Station by Thales, the French company with 68,000 employees in 50 countries.
En route, I made some travel plans. I’ll need to be in Munich, Warsaw and Barcelona in the next while, which inevitably means staying in one of the 5,000 hotels owned by the French company Accor, whose 145,000 employees in 40 countries run the Sofitel, Mercure, Ibis, Pullman, Novotel and Motel 6 chains.
French companies are impossible to avoid. They employ 4.5 million people outside of France and account for almost a fifth of all the investment in Europe. If you want to buy groceries in most parts of Poland or Greece or Portugal, you have little choice but to go to one of the 13,000 giant supermarkets of France’s Carrefour chain. France’s banks dominate finance across the continent – which is why they are so dangerously exposed to the Greek and Spanish crises. France doesn’t suffer the blows of international capitalism – it metes them out.
In fact, French investment abroad is twice the size of outside foreign investment in France. And if you strip away finance flows and look only at the industrial economy, French companies do 14 times more business abroad than foreign companies do in France. This is hardly a country that will, in the words of Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign speech, “dilute itself into globalization.” The French are the globalizers, not the globalized.
What about the human flood? I thought about that as I stepped off the Underground in the corner of Kensington known as “petit France” for its baguette shops and brasseries. London is home to 300,000 French citizens who take advantage of Europe’s open borders. There are two million French living abroad, an outflow that’s approaching the number of foreigners coming in.
As I had lunch with a Parisian expat scholar, I saw people heading to the local lycée to vote early in the presidential election. We now know that slightly more than half of those London French cast their ballot for a candidate, Mr. Sarkozy, who has promised to outlaw foreigners voting in local elections.
And then Thursday, a great many of those same French citizens went to another polling station to cast a ballot for the London mayor, because as European foreigners, they have full rights to vote in Britain’s local and national elections.
Mr. Sarkozy said he’d end Europe’s open borders because immigrants, notably Muslims, aren’t integrating in France. In fact, every study shows French Muslims have the highest rates of social integration, adopting the language, the family sizes and the liberal attitudes toward premarital sex and homosexuality at Europe’s highest rates, and even becoming as atheist and religiously unobservant as French Christians.
The problem is that nobody gives them jobs. And the larger problem within France is not foreign capital, but the fact that people have trouble creating jobs. As with so many countries today, their leaders are searching in vain for outside enemies when the real problem is right in front of them.