11 July 2005

The dangers of xenophobia!

Ever since the Sun's '-up-yours-Delors-' headline and probably well before that, the French have been an instinctive target of the right wing press. Also in their sights are the BBC, Labour governments, asylum seekers and other disadvantaged minorities.

During the run up to the election, irresponsible front page headlines in the Sun, Star, Express and Mail were barely distinguishable from BNP propaganda. The press will do the bidding of their owners who predictably want to increase their market power and limit threats to their monopoly business empires from European competition and public sector rivals.

Of course its nothing new that the press manipulate people's prejudice for their own purpose, even Robert Tressell of 'Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' fame, wrote about how the press encouraged a hatred of foreigners almost a hundred years ago.

What is new is that, while the recent myths surrounding asylum seekers have been countered in the liberal media, little has been said in direct defence of the French. After seeing how far Fox news is taking this hatred of the French, I thought it might be time to say something in their defence.

The biggest gripes against the French seem to be related to the EU, firstly De Gaulle's 'non' when we applied for membership, then the 'excessive' UK budget contributions, and most prominently the 'wasteful' Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the 'expensive' French social model. But also the French are seen as arrogant, corrupt, anti British/American, the list goes on. I'll deal with these in turn;

Firstly, why did De Gaulle say 'non'? The answer is simple! The forerunner to the EU was a political project first and foremost and initially economically there were many risks. Right from the start Britain was invited to join but was opposed to and openly rubbished the chances of success of the EEC. In fact we did our best behind the scenes to scupper the project, even setting up a rival, EFTA. When this failed and it became clear that the EEC was becoming a huge economic success, we applied for membership. Was it any surprise that Europe questioned our motives? We can hardly blame the French for saying 'non' when it was our own cowardice in not joining at the outset thus avoiding the initial risks that cost us an entry penalty.

This is also the reason why when eventually Europe realised our intentions were 'honourable' and not just a trojan horse to scupper the project, they made us join on their terms. It was our own 'weak' bargaining position of a crippled economy that gave us high initial budget costs and CAP. Since negotiating the budget rebate in 1984, the UK has become a middling per capita contributor, so this should be less of a gripe now.

It is undeniable that the CAP is wasteful and needs reform, but Europe and the US have always had to support agriculture and rural areas, simply to protect the environment. To do otherwise would be to the detriment of everyone. The UK used to support it's farmers to a similar financial extent even before membership.

Even the case to scrap subsidies to help developing world countries is suspect. It is cheap air travel and the power of multi-nationals that keep farmers underpaid rather than subsidies to developed world farmers. To remove subsidies ignores the environment. It would be much better to tax air travel proportionate to environmental cost. Also, rather than dump surplus abroad, we should produce for the local market.

Then we come to the 'expensive' French social model. This is the crux of the right wing fear of the French and Europe in general- 'higher taxes'. What is the point of having better public transport, education and health if rich people can't afford their second homes and yachts? Well thats not quite how they put it, but they might as well! The argument they use is that we can't afford a social model like Europe has, because this means our businesses can't compete with low labour costs in Asia. Haven't we got this the wrong way round and the French got it right? Shouldn't we be more worried about stopping low wage exploitation in the developing world rather than stopping social protection in our own country?

Then, as for the charge that the French are arrogant, this mostly refers to their attitude 'not to speak English'. It seems to me it is we who are arrogant to expect everyone else to learn our language.

The charge of French corruption might be justifed for the southern parts of France where nepotism and 'rule bending' are taken to a new level and not even viewed as corruption, but why does the US avoid this label with its massive corporate funding of politicians and electoral irregularities. In the UK it seems we have a more dignified form of corruption through tax avoidance, that because it stays within the law is not viewed as such.

As for being anti-British/American, with all of the above, if they are (and there is no evidence that they are because the French like British/US culture as much as everyone else), can we blame them?

Overall, all of this xenophobia and racism propagated by our media is based on nationalism, which is in itself an irrational belief. We even need to be careful with how we present all this talk of 'London blitz' spirit and 'Great' British attitude. To believe we are 'superior' to other cultures may make us feel good but we have to remember it is also arrogant, and isn't that one of the things we say we dislike about the French?

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