France is a frustrating place. She ought to be the richest country in the world. She boasts a beautiful climate, a perfect location at the heart of Europe but looking out to the Atlantic, a wide range of natural resources, more signature products than any other nation, a global image that is associated with sophistication and prestige, a population prepared to seek their fortunes beyond her boarders, good international contacts leftover from her days as a colonial power, and a cultural tradition with tangible cash value.
The latest evidence of that last asset is the proposal to build a theme park near Paris celebrating the life and times of the Emperor Napoleon I. If that sounds eccentric, consider two facts. First, France already makes huge amounts of money from its history and art, from the Louis XIV at Versailles through the Impressionist painters to Asterix the Gaul, who already has his own theme park, the success of which has encouraged the Napoleonic investors.
Second, the Napoleon name is already one of France’s – many – successful brands. The Emperor has, amongst other things, a pastry and numerous cognacs named after him – which is ironic because he was noted for his moderation in eating and drinking, at least by French standards. A chicken dish named after one of his battles, Marengo, has a slightly better claim to a genuine connection, and there are a number of sites and events associated with the great man which attract the many people, often high-achievers and therefore high-spenders, from around the world who like to think of him as a role model.
Yet, although Napoleon is a business success story, he may also be a fitting symbol of the reason why France is not as wealthy as the sum of her assets suggests she ought to be. The French have always admired strong rulers – Richelieu, Louis XIV, and Napoleon, among others – and the ostentatious centralised government they impose. It is no coincidence that the word dirigisme – meaning state direction – comes from France. While this has had some positive advantages in terms of keeping a diverse nation together, the negative side is that it has prevented the natural entrepreneurial abilities and inclinations of the French people from developing to their full potential.
Intelligent people in France have long seen the dangers of this. The last two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy, were both elected on a ticket of reform, but both became bogged down in a war of attrition with the vested interests of the ruling bureaucracy, and both lost their nerve when they were put to serious tests. However, for all Mr Sarkozy’s failings, and there are many, there can be no hope for France in the probability that he is about to be defeated by a man who believes his country’s problems can be solved by a 75% tax rate.
Perhaps it takes a Napoleon to run France – but France needs a Napoleon who understands basic economics.