Today's date:
  Global Viewpoint



Jacques Attali, an economist, was the founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the top aide to French President Francois Mitterrand. He talked with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels from his home in Paris about the French strikes and student unrest.

By Jacques Attali

Nathan Gardels: Recently, there were riots by unintegrated immigrant youth in the banlieues because they didn’t have jobs. Now mainstream students are protesting the most meager effort to make the labor market more flexible in order to create more jobs.

Also, French President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a meeting in Brussels because a French businessman spoke in English — “the language of business.” When Zhu Rongji was premier of China, he gave his speech at Davos in English because he wanted to connect to the business world!

Afraid to leave the 20th century, is France committing suicide in the 21st? This is the way it looks from America or Asia.

Jacques Attali: We must clearly distinguish between these events. In the banlieues, it was not “unintegrated immigrants” who rioted, but young people born French, in France. The unrest erupted because their rate of employment was too low: 40 percent unemployment! They were right to protest.

Their condition is unacceptable. And now there are efforts to change that condition. These young people are very creative and want to work. In fact, I’d say, they are the chance of the nation, as newcomers always are. It would be a terrible mistake here, just as it would be in the U.S. now, to try to stop immigration, which, in America, in particular, is the main source of its stamina.

The mainstream students are right in protesting against a law which would not make the labor market more flexible but would allow any boss to fire someone without any explanation, and therefore give the employee no legal protection for two years! This is not flexibility; this is tyranny.

Jacques Chirac was right to withdraw from the meeting in Brussels of the European Union, where French is an official language. It is not like Davos, which is an informal gathering of leaders where English is the working language.

France is not going down the tubes. It is still a very strong nation. It is number one in the world for foreign direct investment and tourism as well as in specific hi-tech sectors; it is number two in agribusiness. Life expectancy has been growing three months per year for 20 years now. Demographically, France has one of the best fertility rates in the developed world — 1.9 per woman.

Gardels: More than 20 years ago President Mitterrand gave a speech that you wrote for him about the center of gravity moving to the Pacific, a theme your returned to in your 1992 book, “Millennium.”

Whether prescient or premature when it was said, this is certainly the case today. We all know about China’s rapid rise and growth rates. Bill Gates says that China will sooner rather than later become a “broadband power.” South Korea already is, with nearly 100 percent broadband penetration into homes.

The productivity gap between Europe and the U.S. has grown. GDP per head — the broadest measure of productivity — in the 15 longest-established members of the European Union was only 73 percent of the U.S. level in 2005.

America, with its heavy-hitter economy but weightless culture, will go East with the flow. Won’t Europe be left behind in elegant retirement?

Attali: Europe is in a very dangerous moment: It is no longer a collection of nations, but it is not yet a united continent. It is therefore a very fragile set of regions without any head. But don’t forget that Russia is in Europe and that, with Russia, Europe has a common border with China. The growth of Russia and Central Asia will open a large Asian-looking frontier for Europe

Gardels: Is the idea of the French exception anachronistic in the 21st century? If it goes with the global flow, it will lose this identity; if it resists, it will be left behind, a geopolitically irrelevant wine-growing region and tourist spot. Is there a way out?

Attali: This is a caricature. France is still a very strong nation. The quality of life, which is amazing in France, will in the future be a (ITALICS) must (END ITALICS) to attract brainpower and high technology. France can become the next Silicon Valley. The newcomers, immigrants and their children will help. I am very optimistic for France. Its tragedy today is the poor quality and lack of courage of its political elite. But, historically, that is a marginal issue.