PM sets out France’s priorities at home and abroad

Ambassadors’ conference – Speech by M. Edouard Philippe, Prime Minister

Paris, 28 August 2019

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Minister,

Ministers of State,

Ambassadors,

Reforms in France

“Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.” I would gladly have asked our French Ambassador to the Holy See to translate this phrase for us, which we owe to Horace and which means something like: “Even the good Homer sometimes nods off.” I got the feeling that last year, in view of the dry issues I chose to discuss about the reform of the state’s networks abroad, some people may have followed the example of the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I’ll do my best not to repeat that, and I hope you will too.

It’s customary to say France is an unreformable country. I’ve always heard it said, sometimes turned into a theory pitting the Anglo-Saxon world – where reform is said to be possible, fuelled by a silent electric motor plugged into a direct current – against France, where only brutal revolution is possible, driven by a backfiring internal combustion engine. I’ve never believed in that.

When I started taking an interest in public life – in 1981, who knows why – the price of bread was regulated. You paid in francs. You did your national service. And decentralization hadn’t yet taken place.

Since then, things have changed considerably. And our country, despite what we may hear, say or believe, has profoundly transformed. Very often, we’ve benefited from the full effects of these transformations years, even decades after they’ve been implemented. I mentioned national service; all of us in this room remember the debates around that decision. It may have been disputed. And it may still be in certain respects by some people. But it enabled us to gradually adapt our military tool and give it a strength and professionalism that contribute to the pride we have in our country. And what’s true at national level is true at local level: towns and cities (Bordeaux, Le Havre, Nantes and Lyon) have profoundly changed under the impact of public policies.

More recently, we’ve carried out transformations, some of them very powerful. Transformations relating to difficult issues. Complex issues. Things we regarded in many respects as being unreformable. I’m thinking about rail transport and the reform which led, among other things, to the disappearance of rail-worker status at SNCF. About orientation in higher education. The creation of the Parcoursup very profoundly transformed the way our young people gains access to higher education. And it will very profoundly transform the way we envisage the first cycle of higher education. I could add to that the reform of unemployment insurance, or of the baccalaureate. So yes, France is transforming. Very profoundly. In virtually every area of economic and social life. And that will continue. Because our enemy isn’t movement but the status quo.

That was the purpose of Act Two of the five-year term, which I presented to Parliament in June during my general policy statement. Since you probably followed it live – despite a considerable time difference for some – I’ll spare you a second version. The aim of this Act Two is basically to continue the transformation of our country while changing the approach. It’s about ensuring we replace the rapid vertical push of the beginning of the five-year term with the horizontal power of consultation. Make no mistake, the approach is different, but the pressure being applied to prepare the future of the country and French people is identical.

Preparing the future means speeding up the ecological transition of our economy and society. We’re doing so with bills enabling us to create new mechanisms. This will be the case with combating waste and economizing, in Parliament in a few weeks’ time. We’re doing this through investment mechanisms enabling us to transform the way we envisage, for example, the energy renovation of buildings. We’re doing it through diplomatic action, and you know all the levers of that. We’re doing it in every area of public action, to protect biodiversity and support the transformation of our agriculture. It’s never a simple exercise, but we’re convinced it’s an essential exercise.

Preparing the future also means establishing a universal pensions system. A system that provides the same rules for everyone in a country with 42 different pensions systems. A system which, gradually and without jeopardizing acquired rights, will put an end to special regimes. And encourage people to work longer, in order to take account of changing life expectancy. We’re going to take time to consult. With union organizations: I’ll be hosting meetings with their representatives next week. But also with the French people, as part of an open debate where every situation will be mentioned and examined.

As John Steinbeck wrote without malice at the beginning of Chapter 25 of a curious novel entitled Cannery Row, “It’s all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them.” Well, let’s not ignore a few indicators and results. Especially when those results derive from the transformations which you’ve carried out or are prompting.

We’re gradually obtaining results in the employment field. Continuously. Unemployment is falling and is at its lowest level for 10 years (8.5% and even 8.2% in metropolitan France). Job creation is at its highest in the commercial sector and in SMEs.

We’re gradually obtaining results in controlling public expenditure. In 2018, the public deficit was markedly lower for the second consecutive year, at 3% of GDP. We’ve managed to stabilize the public debt for the first time in 10 years. This genuine fiscal discipline means public spending fell by 0.3% in volume in 2018: that’s unprecedented, and every government department contributed to that result. What’s also unprecedented are the tax reductions! Reductions in corporation tax but also in personal income tax and, of course, the abolition of the residence tax; by the end of the five-year term, these will amount to €30 billion.

Our country has obtained results in the field of foreign investment. For the first time in 10 years, France has overtaken Germany. It’s close behind the UK. Our country remains, by a long way, Europe’s leading country for welcoming industrial and R&D investments. It’s a field where we can still do better and where each of us can play an active role. You’re aware of the impact of the meetings organized in Versailles in 2018 and then in 2019. We’re going to continue organizing those meetings, and I’d like you constantly to explain to foreign economic stakeholders what we do, and the reasons why investing in France is a good idea.

We’ve obtained results in the foreign trade sphere, where you’ve supported the rollout of one-stop shops in our regions and abroad. It would probably be a little dishonest to see a cause-and-effect relationship between this and the historic level our exports achieved in 2018. However, we can see in these good figures the impact of a country that is becoming more competitive. For the first time in a long time, foreign trade is again contributing to GDP growth.

We’ve also obtained results in the tourism field. The 2018 figures were exceptional. Those of 2019 – which will have to be consolidated – should also be satisfactory. And I’m no longer talking only about tourist numbers but also about tourism investment and average spending per foreign tourist. And with Atout France being attached to Business France, bringing us closer to the source markets, we should have every chance of ensuring this continues.

Let me also say a word about welcoming foreign students. We’ve conducted a very fine reform. Difficult, but so very necessary. With the goal of attracting more foreign students, in a very competitive environment.

But this development shouldn’t happen thanks to cost competitiveness but because we provide excellent pathways and are capable of selecting the best [students] when they’re not in a position to come to France. So it’s a change of approach, and I know it’s caused a big stir in universities and diplomatic posts. Our goal is to make our higher education system very attractive. I’d like to say that while fees increased in 2019 – an increase which, by the way, takes us to levels still much lower than what other European countries charge for hosting foreign students, and very much below the real cost of education – there’s been no reduction in the number of foreign students in France. If we believe the latest pre-consular figures, the number has even risen by 2.4%. This means we must be part of this initiative, which will transform our way of welcoming foreign students. We’re also seeing some interesting trends such as a 20% increase in the number of students from India.

All these results are especially remarkable because you’ve obtained them while implementing the CAP22 reform, with everything this transformation has entailed in terms of questions and indeed concerns. One year on, the bulk of the work has been done and done well, and I want to thank you for that.

French diplomacy

We now have a formula which is taking shape and becoming clearer, with, on the one hand, a Quai d’Orsay that thinks about how best to distribute the state’s networks abroad, country by country and sector by sector, but is also the guarantor of that proper distribution, and, on the other hand, ambassadors who have all their embassies’ support resources at hand and can suggest the necessary changes to their teams depending on the political priorities set for them.

You may know the advice Choiseul is said to have given Talleyrand, as recounted by Chateaubriand in his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: “You must not bury yourself under papers, you must simply find men who sort them out. Then the day will have more than 24 hours.” We have the men – and the women – who sort out the papers, namely you. But the best way of not burying yourself under papers is to limit their proliferation, by eliminating superfluity and silo-working. Jean-Yves Le Drian will tell me whether his days are indeed longer than 24 hours.

That, in a few words, is what we’re doing to increase and roll out France’s influence around the world. I could add the launch, at this ambassadors’ conference, of the new “Brand France” structure abroad, which will apply to all the state’s networks and their operators beyond the borders. You will be their local guarantors.

Because a country’s power doesn’t depend solely on its diplomatic staff or its armed forces, however professional and talented they are. It depends also, and even above all, on those millions of French people who create, innovate, produce, train, teach, administer or settle abroad.

It’s also customary to talk about France’s level of power in the world. The President said yesterday that his aim was to enable France to remain a balancing power. We must know whether France has the technical, diplomatic, military, economic and human resources to uphold its interests, values and world vision. During the G7 summit the President reminded those who might doubt it that we are this balancing power. We must continue to work in that direction.

France’s role in Europe

France will continue to do so in Europe. We’ve just experienced European elections. I won’t go back over their results or the debate, which I personally found useful. Indeed, it’s always useful to clarify things when political forces are rebuilding themselves or indeed breaking apart. And judging by the turnout figure for French voters, I wasn’t the only one to find it useful. During the debate, the President had an opportunity to set out his vision of a “European renaissance”. And that’s the vision we’re going to bring to life with the new European Parliament and the new Commission. There’s no lack of issues. Personally I’d pick out two main ones, at least for the next few months.

The first is obviously Brexit. A year ago we had a reasonable likelihood of organizing an orderly departure by the United Kingdom. That likelihood is now markedly lower. The government’s responsibility is to prepare the country to face every eventuality, particularly the most difficult ones. In April 2018, the government and the departments worked on implementing a national plan to prepare for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union without a deal. I myself officially launched its implementation on 17 January 2019. As you know, a law promulgated on 19 January 2019 authorized the government to legislate by ordinances in a number of priority areas. We currently have a full legal framework covering seven ordinances, eight decrees and several administrative orders,to face up to a no-deal exit. We’ve also recruited additional public employees to cover border checks, in particular several hundred customs officers and vets. In a fortnight’s time, around mid-September, I’ll be chairing a meeting with all the ministries concerned, in order to maintain the maximum level of mobilization. I know you’re all following very closely, and sometimes with a little surprise, how this issue is developing and the decisions being taken by our British friends, but we must be ready and defend our interests.

The second major priority is overhauling Schengen. Europe is a fully sovereign area which determines and controls who enters or doesn’t enter its territory. And that’s why we must certainly “put Schengen back on its feet”: internal freedom on the one hand, which is a precious acquis, and external control on the other. The one can’t be envisaged without the other.

As the President said, France, together with a good many of its partners, will make proposals to this effect. We’ll also have to discuss the issue in all its dimensions, working even more closely with the countries of origin and transit on issues of readmission, the conditionality of our assistance and access to visas. The clearer, stricter and firmer we are on these issues, the more we’ll create the conditions in our democracies for calm debate.

Finally, we’ll have to accentuate everything we’ve implemented in France. So we’ve managed to create a sort of continuum in the state’s action in this area, extending from prefectures to embassies. We now have the means to carry out detailed monitoring of illegal immigration rings. As I said in my general policy statement in June, we’ll have to face up –without excesses but without false modesty – to certain realities in terms of migratory pressure – to ensure, for example, that asylum seekers choose France for its values, its language, its culture and not because its system is more favourable than those of other European countries, and also to protect the national treasure that the right of asylum is. In September, Parliament will have the opportunity for the first time to debate these issues. And the government will draw the necessary consequences.

Basically, the challenge for Europe is to rebuild its sovereignty, to regain that “control” the French President was talking about yesterday, in a world where power relationships now prevail. The danger is that Europe might exit through the back door of history, and become a playground for other powers. That means giving ourselves the means to resist pressure, particularly the extraterritoriality of American laws. It also means – as the President wants – rebuilding the relationship with Russia, despite the difficulties. I myself worked towards this by hosting a meeting with Dimitri Medvedev in Le Havre last month.

France’s global role

So France will uphold its values in Europe. It will also uphold them around the world, not in order to “reform the world” but rather to prevent that world “destroying itself”, to echo a famous utterance by Albert Camus.

Because it will have escaped no one that this world, our world, is destroying itself in the true sense of the term. “Physically”, “biologically”, in all the countries where you live, including, of course, in France. Like many people, it took me some time to realize that these challenges are as urgent as defending employment or security. And like many people, I now regard them as decisive for employment, the competitiveness of our businesses, our health and, ultimately, our security. I won’t go back over the announcements I’ve made. I’d just like to stress the total planetary alignment between what we’re doing in France, what we want to do in Europe and what we’ll be upholding internationally. And to show how linking those three dimensions is the only way for us to have effective ecological diplomacy. The President yesterday gave a reminder of how busy the diplomatic timetable is on these issues.

Our world is also threatening to destroy itself from inside as a result of the deepening of inequalities and the lack of prospects, including in our industrialized countries. I won’t go back over the crisis we’ve experienced in France, which in many respects isn’t over. I can’t help thinking the unhappiness expressed in France has also been expressed elsewhere in other forms. I think the terrible conjuction between the reduction in the middle classes’ purchasing power over 10 years, the lack of prospects for individuals and their children and the sense of distance from any decision-making are no longer solely national but truly international concerns, and that, in a way, the reduction of inequalities is gradually becoming a global public order issue. That’s why the President wanted to make it one of the central themes of the G7 summit in Biarritz.

Lastly, our world – the world of rules, of respect for human dignity, of private life, of fair contribution – is also destroying itself the more virtual it becomes. On this issue too, public opinion is changing, demanding more control, rules, regulation and responsibility. And the proactive, responsible discourse France has maintained for some time now is gaining ground, especially because that discourse – open to innovation but firm on principles – is accompanied by initiatives. For example, at the OECD France will be hosting the equivalent of the IPCC for artificial intelligence, just as it hosted the Tech for Good summit. It also issued, together with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the Christchurch Call to Action To Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. These initiatives originate or are built on in our country, in France, and we uphold them in Europe. You can’t be “real” when it comes to making money and virtual when it comes to abiding by the rule of law. It’s like a bug in the system.

Craft and Consciousness (1)! Sometimes, everything is in the title – particularly this one, the transcription of a conversation in 1963 between Steven Marcus, an American literary critic, and Norman Mailer. To be honest, the conversation – which features in a collection with the equally evocative title of Pieces and Pontifications – doesn’t have much to do with international relations. It deals with the importance of style in literature. But ultimately, it’s not only in literature that style is important, but in diplomacy too. The past few days have also given us some potent illustrations of differences in style.

In any case, that title, Craft and Consciousness, seemed to me to sum up your mission quite well. It consists in putting your huge expertise in French diplomacy at the service of our values and of a kind of conscience, whether it be appealing to the conscience of state or non-state decision-makers or conveying the individual and collective consciences that are expressed. I’m thinking of the conscience of the young generation. And as Mailer very rightly says at the end of the conversation, in the best-case scenario you touch the conscience of your age and thus, indirectly, affect the course of history, the history that comes just after you. I get the feeling that those who come just after us are counting on us and on you more than ever.

Thank you./.

(1) The French translation given is Savoir-faire et Conscience. The French conscience can also be translated as “conscience”.

Published on 06/09/2019

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