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Our recipe to make France great again

Two pairs of brothers – all four young graduates – have published a book on what they see as France’s biggest problems.

Called La France?! Regards Croisés de Quatre Jeunes sur leur Pays it is a hard-hitting view on the changes they would like to see. OLIVER ROWLAND spoke to one – Bertrand Mathieu, 28, a graduate of the ESC Chambéry Savoie business school, originally from Languedoc-Roussillon

What qualifies you to say what’s wrong with France?
In the book we only talk about things we’ve got first-hand, day-to-day experience of: things which we’ve suffered from.

I’ve been unemployed and so I think I’m more qualified than a minister to say what’s going on in the Pôle Emploi [job centre]. When you’re registered unemployed and they suggest jobs for you to apply for that are already filled, for example, that’s not the way we’re going to remove unemployment.

It often happens because the job details are not updated. It’s very badly-managed – but when a minister visits a centre for a photocall with the press, he’s never going to know that, because people will be afraid to talk about it and he is so far above it all, he’s oblivious.

Each of our chapters is about what really goes on, not a view from behind the tinted windows of a ministerial limousine.

Now I’m in politics myself I can see that when ministers do visits, the little they see is very tidied-up, it’s a kind of role-playing. When we go into housing estates, for example, nothing is organised and people discuss things freely with us.

For the book we did about 100,000km acrossFrance: we were at the closure of the Mittal factory at Gandrange, near Metz in Moselle, and talked to the workers. Or we were at Marseilles for the strikes in the port. For a lot of chapters, we really went out into the field.

My brother is a Sorbonne graduate, but the only work he could find when he graduated was on the tills at Carrefour. So when he’s talking about university reform he knows what he’s talking about. When I graduated I worked in a small business, so I wrote about that.

When you see the level of abstention at this year’s departmental elections, or the state of crisis of the parties, the book’s message is that politicians should not have a monopoly when it comes to talking about the state of France.

Tell us about yourself?
My brother and I don’t just have a totally
Gallic outlook – we lived abroad for eight years, five in the Netherlands and three in Norway – and our mother is a language teacher. When we were abroad she taught French to English-speakers, and now gives English lessons to the French at the mairie of Paris (my father is an oil industry geologist).

I’ve also visited other countries – Sweden, Denmark – and I did language stays in London high schools. Now I work for [UMP] Senator Jacques Blanc, for the Lozère, a department in Languedoc-Roussillon.

My brother, Vincent, lived in Sheffield for a year as an Erasmus student, and for a year in Switzerland, and he did a year in the British School in the Netherlands, so he’s bilingual.

We can look at France with perspective and make comparisons. Vincent very much likes the practical attitude of the Anglo-Saxons, very focused on results. In comparison, we French talk a bit too much.

How did you all meet?
I met Ronan Datausse [co-author with brother Pol] when we were in our fourth year of business school – he was at the ESCM Tours- Poitiers. Discussing things, we realised there were things that weren’t working as they should in this country, so we decided to act and get past the stage of just talking about it.

Your outlook is quite right-wing; believing in values of work and self-reliance and you’re not admirers of the spirit of 1968 Back then there was a kind of putsch, overturning solid and historic values but, really, they did it to take power and take top posts. When I hear someone like Daniel Cohn-Bendit now, making out he is so working class, when he has a house in Germany, one in Belgium, one in France in the 7th Arrondissement… it doesn’t add up. The soixante-huitards are a caste who took the top jobs and as long as they don’t retire they will be pulling the strings and nothing will move.

If people in France are grumbling, it’s because salaries are too low; purchasing power is too low. Everyone agrees with that. There are certain themes above party politics. Where people differ is on what to do about it.

You believe that France should be much more than it is?
Absolutely, in everything that France takes up, it’s incapable of doing great things. Look at how the Olympic Games went to London, the French project sank. The winter Olympics could have been at Annecy. We have ideas but don’t put them in place. That’s why our book’s cover has two Mariannes, a normal one and one whose head is drooping, looking tired.

What’s going wrong?
We’ve lost the taste for hard work because, notably, salaries are too low, and the French state of mind, what with the unions and so on, they’re bringing France down.

Look at the CGT in Marseille who are killing the port, to the delight of the ports of Belgium or Italy. The union, with its whims, its bonuses, its holidays, ends up by making everything uncompetitive and the country makes do with small results. We lack initiative and ambition.

We’re not against social security, I was unemployed and I thank the state for its effective unemployment benefit, but at the same time we can’t completely rely on that and it can’t take precedence over freedom of initiative and flexibility.

It was disappointing that the Attali report, which made many recommendations for making France competitive, was not followed up. It was a good idea and people were consulted from different sides of the political spectrum and from different countries, but in the end it resulted in compromises.

People expected a lot of change when Sarkozy was elected…
That’s true, but even if he has to carry a lot of the blame, at the same time his ministers have an enormous amount of responsibility; they’ve not done their jobs as they should have done. Each time he had ideas there were brakes and opposition and he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.

What’s your take on the immigration debate?
When politicians talk about immigration, and I would include Sarkozy, they have a view that’s too Paris-centric, focused on the banlieues [housing estates in the Paris suburbs], problems of violence on Paris local transport etc; but it’s not the major concern for most people in the regions.

However, in a chapter on the ghettos, I say I can understand the violence of young people in the banlieues because if you put any human being in dirty, neglected tower blocks then they will feel annoyed. They feel they are not listened to, their surroundings are dirty, they can’t find work, and eventually the only way to make themselves heard is to smash everything.

Immigration in itself is not something to get too hung up about.

The book also looks at the school system: what’s going wrong there?
When my brother was at the British School in the Netherlands, for example, there were cookery classes, a lot more manual activities, things that differed from the more classic, intellectual French style. The British do more to support and motivate. The French system is more repressive. It’s dominated by left-wing unions, who want to create generations of future socialists. We are not well prepared for work.

We are taught things that are very theoretical – but not what recruiters are looking for.

You also describe the university system as “worn-out and old-fashioned”
If you look in the Shanghai classification [of world higher education] we are very poorly placed. In sciences, we are OK, but not the humanities. A lot of people come out and work at McDonald’s or in supermarkets. It doesn’t prepare you for working life. The recent reform of universities by [then Higher Education Minister] Valérie Pécresse was to give them more independence, to manage their own budgets and work more closely with big business, so things can work more like the big American universities, with real campuses, real partnerships with business, real professional masters courses.

It needs more state funding and the unions should take more of a back seat.

What do you mean by a rigidity in the job market regarding diplomas?
Your diploma is like a tattoo. I came from a business school and it was hard to get into politics, because I had not been to ENA or Sciences-Po. If you study marketing, you can’t become an accountant; if you do HR studies, it’s very hard to go into law.

Even if you go back to study and retrain, people look at your original diploma. The system lacks flexibility and chances for reorientation, and it’s to the country’s loss as people are forced to keep doing the same thing even if they’ve great talents for other kinds of work.

Do French businesses lack ambition?
If you look at the French car market, for example, compared to the Germans, we don’t know how to make top of the range cars any more. They are hard to export, there are problems with their reliability. I worked in outdoor clothing, for a French company and then an American one. There was no comparison in their outlooks, or their turnovers. The French prefer to meet the minimum, rather than take chances – of losing, of course, but also of achieving much more.

Should the French take more pride in themselves?
The French are not filling their lungs properly, they are a bit shrunken and limp. They should put their shoulders back and take a deep breath and go for it. They mope too much – as if they enjoy complaining.

What aspects give hope, nonetheless?
When the will is there, we can achieve. People who succeed in France are those with a real killer instinct. When you want to be entrepreneurial it’s hard, but if you manage it, you can succeed everywhere. Deep down the French are made of good stuff. They’re clear-thinking, but we are nonetheless, sapped by the ideologies of 1968 that got us into the habit of doing the least possible and just cruising along. The Connexion October 2011 News 9

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