Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Pierre Mauroy

Pierre Mauroy, French Prime Minister 1981-84, died last week, and there were nice tributes from across the French political spectrum.

Variously described as France's first Socialist Prime Minister, or at the least the first Socialist Prime Minister under the Fifth Republic (i.e. since 1958), Mauroy was recognised as a real person, with a large and approachable personality, who had paid his dues in the gritty left-wing politics of northern France, unlike the slick management school types who succeeded him. And he was responsible for some admirable initiatives that have stood the test of time, most notably in championing the abolition of capital punishment in France. You could well add extension of the national health service to more people and for more procedures, and you might possibly add some decentralisation measures in a country that was, and is, pretty tightly run from Paris.

You have to acknowledge the personal qualities of the man, and you have to recognise that in much of what was to happen next he was President Mitterrand's agent rather than the prime mover himself. Indeed, he was very much under the thumb of Mitterrand and Mitterrand's appointed minders. It's also the case that pre-Mitterrand's election Mauroy was personally keen to avoid the degree of rupture with free markets that the more radical Socialists wanted, and went on to see introduced.

All that said, you'd also have to say (though the French obituaries haven't) that the French economic rot either started or accelerated on his watch. Many of France's current fiscal and competitiveness issues either got underway, or took a decisive turn for the worse, during his term of office. Widespread nationalisations - this at a time when privatisation was about to sweep through the rest of the western world - a lowered retirement age (to 60), paid holidays increased to five weeks, the workweek reduced to 39 hours (a precursor of the later Socialist move to 35 hours), big rises in the minimum wage, in pensions, in family allowances, and all done without any apparent appreciation that loading extra costs on this scale onto French businesses affected their ability to compete internationally.

When the French economy, understandably, wilted under the burden - unemployment rose, inflation hit 12%, the then French franc had to be devalued - Mauroy was forced to change tack and bring in what we would now call "austerity" policies, some of them realistic (shutting down uneconomic state enterprises), some of them (as nationalisation had been) anachronistic at the time they were implemented. Wage and price freezes had done their dash in both the US and the UK by the late 1970s: reaching for them in the France of the 1980s was, simply, out of touch. And Mauroy was replaced when his drive to curb private education got up the noses of even the usually public-sector-friendly French.

It makes you remember that policies, and politicians, matter, and especially at critical periods. New Zealand was especially badly served by having an economically inept set of policies and politicians at the helm when OPEC 1 hit and the UK joined the then EEC, and again when OPEC 2 hit. I can't help feeling, despite the understandable tributes within France, that the same is true of Mitterrand (in particular) and, sadly, to some degree of Mauroy, too.

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