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Of Reversing Globalisation

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The mass murder in Oslo has re-focused attention on Europe's growing right wing parties. Most of these organisations have rushed to dissociate themselves from the latest anti-Islamic crusader, Anders Behring Breivik. The embarrassment, however, may be short-lived. Europe's economic crisis, with high unemployment and the steady flow of immigrants from North Africa, would suggest the protectionist and anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic sentiment is likely to grow.

The new battle-cry for ‘deglobalisation' in France is but one indicator that the xenophobia of the ultra-rightwing is finding common ground with what has long been the pet peeve of the French Left: globalisation. Unplugging the country from the global economy may be impossible, but emotions raised by rhetoric during a period of crisis are likely to weaken a liberal, open economy.

First came the March opinion poll, which showed the erstwhile marginal Front National (FN) party, under the leadership of the sharp-tongued Marine Le Pen, defeating President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party. Then came the FN's left turn and adoption of an anti-globalisation platform that is popular with the Left. Some of the Socialist Party's intellectuals have published books calling for the reversal of policies that fattened capitalists and shipped jobs to Asia and Eastern Europe. The title of the Socialist Party candidate Arnaud Montebourg's new book says it all: Vote for Deglobalisation. The Left is embarrassed that Le Pen has embraced its slogan and has been gaining attention with her call to oppose Islamism, halt immigration, junk the Euro and raise tariff barriers to protect the French nation.

Montebourg does not go so far as to suggest abandoning the euro, but refers to free trade advocates as fundamentalists and argues for setting up barriers to products borne of polluting industries and countries with poor labour laws. He justifies the barriers by saying that globalisation "has created unemployed in the North and increased the number of quasi-slaves in the South, destroying natural resources everywhere and taking away from people their hard-won right to self-determination".

Montebourg is unlikely to secure his party's nomination, but his and Le Pen's calls are finding receptive ears. A recent poll showed two-thirds of private sector workers see globalisation as a threat to their employment.

Even Sarkozy, a strong advocate of globalisation, has been furiously back-pedalling in a bid to improve his dismal poll numbers. "Globalisation is unquestionably a progress and there is no other possible strategy," he says. "But we have to regulate it to get out of the impasse it has created."

Regulating, rather than blocking, would be a sensible idea as 20 per cent of French GNP comes from trade. It is the world's fourth-largest exporter of services and the fifth-largest exporter of produces. French firms have not only expanded their markets, but have found growing opportunities to invest in the emerging countries. Thanks to France's educated workforce and fine infrastructure, it has attracted huge foreign investments that have created 2 million jobs. Anger is often directed at China for dominating the consumer market, but most imports are European products assembled in China, which remains a major importer of French goods, including a third of its alcohol imports.

Zaki Laidi, a professor at the prestigious Sciences-Po in Paris, says the call for de-globalisation is like saying "to live happily, let's go into hiding!" The fact is that there is no place to hide. The economies of France and most developed countries are too interconnected to survive disconnection. Those who call for buying Airbus to protect European jobs don't realise, he says, that half of the production of each Airbus aircraft is completed outside Europe.

The absurdity of the calls for deglobalisation is visible on a daily basis as nearly every consumer item is a product of global supply chain. Last summer, hundreds of French citizens queued for hours outside the Apple store near the Louvre to buy an iPad. Assembled in China from components produced in dozens of countries, all Apple products are symbols of globalisation.

To truly begin deglobalisation, its proponents should throw their iPhones, or for that matter any handset in the dustbin because they may not find any model that is produced in one country, let alone France. But facts seldom stand in the way of a catchy slogan.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-08-2011)