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Posted on 7-5-07

Whose Got Democracy?

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Democracy is the one-and-only political idea most people agree on.

But its not a simple idea `The Middle Way'.

Democracy and the theory that one form of democracy really is better than
another. Meanwhile the French Presidential election has placed democracy
on the table yet again in the very places assusmed to be its heartland.
The article below is by Martin Newland, May 6 2007, The Observer
 
My brother-in-law, who lives in Paris, told me last week that the
televised debate between the French presidential rivals Segolene Royal and
Nicolas Sarkozy, watched by 20 million people, appeared to electrify the
city even more than last year's World Cup final, where France lost to
Italy. 'Politics here is far more of a spectator sport and many even use
sporting terminology to describe a particular verbal sally by one
candidate or another,' he told me. 'The next day, when I dropped the kids
off at school, all the parents were clustered around the gates, staying
for hours discussing the great debate. The French love a verbal punch-up.'
 
Twenty million viewers. And this on top of an 85 per cent turn-out in the
first stage of an election process that finally ends this weekend. It is a
far cry from Britain's recent democratic record, which has seen dwindling
voter turn-outs over successive general elections. The relative lack of
outrage at the impending coronation of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister is
further evidence of a nation that has lost its appetite for the kind of
all-out, raunchy, knock-down, democratic bunfights that we regularly see
unfolding on the other side of the Channel.
 
Ms Royal refers warmly to Tony Blair's model of 'Third Way' politics,
while Mr Sarkozy is a great admirer of British deregulation and devotion
to free-market dynamics, but when it comes to public participation in the
life of the nation, the French clearly have something to teach us. I have
to admit to being increasingly irritated at the tendency of British
commentators and politicians to present the election as France's
last-chance saloon, for in most things that combine to make up a decent
quality of life, from health to literacy, to gentility and solicitude for
the vulnerable, France has us beaten.
 
Mr Sarkozy did not appear too convinced of this when he came to London
three months ago to address expatriates who had fled high unemployment in
France to find work in the City's booming financial-services sector.
Referring to London as possessing a 'vitality' that Paris sorely lacked,
Mr Sarkozy exhorted the crowd to return home - after casting their vote
for him of course. 'France is still your country, even if you are
disappointed by it,' he said, at the same time promising less regulation,
more jobs and other free-market reforms.
 
The BBC's Crossing Continents took up the theme, broadcasting a
documentary on how French graduates are flocking to the Square Mile. But
the BBC should follow up its investigation with a comparison of how each
country treats its citizens once they move from the freedom of youth to
buying a house, getting from A to B, educating the children, staying
healthy and growing old. For the fact is that British migration to France,
at just over 40,000 a year, outstrips French migration to Britain. Most of
those who leave cite what they see as a declining British values system,
the soaring cost of living and poor public services.
 
London might be rich in 'vitality', but its pleasures are far more
accessible to the super rich and tax-favoured non-domiciled billionaires
than for the rest of us who are priced out of the housing market and
forced to commute from an ever-expanding hinterland on a transport system
that is as expensive as it is inefficient. I sometimes feel like
apologising on behalf of my country to tourists at underground stations,
rendered speechless by the cost of travelling a few stops on our glorious
Northern Line. Research presented to the Foreign Office by Montesquieu
University, near Bordeaux, shows that many Britons moving to France come
from English urban areas in a bid to substitute overcrowding, soaring
crime rates and high prices with 'things people associate with a typical
French village that they feel no longer exist in Britain'.
 
Mr Sarkozy's visit lent extra weight to the arguments of our commentators
who seem to accept that Britain's free-market system and relative lack of
regulation automatically leads to a superior quality of life. But I grow
increasingly frustrated with our assumption of superiority over the
French, whose society in many ways is happier, healthier, better-educated
and more carefully nurtured than ours.
 
The Telegraph's Simon Heffer contends: 'While much of the rest of the
world moves on through the application of free-market economic
disciplines, France is demoralised, impoverished, overtaxed and in
despair.'
 
But any Barbour-clad, Telegraph-reading member of my Kent community, when
asked about what is most irritating about Britain, rants about poor
retirement income, high taxes in return for substandard public services,
the high cost of living, the decline of civility and the decrepit road and
rail infrastructure. These polemics often go in tandem with heartily
delivered supremacist rants about Europe in general and France in
particular, where performance in every aspect of Middle England's quality
of life index is demonstrably superior. Yes, France is in dire need of
economic and social reform, but the British would do well to look closer
to home before labelling the country a society in crisis. French tax rates
are higher than Britain's, but in France, the public services work. In
Britain, they are, at best, mediocre. Both countries have high tax
economies based on redistributive principles, but it is France that is
better at fulfilling its social contract with its citizens.
 
I have first-hand experience of the British exodus. Recently, my in-laws
moved to France. They follow my parents, who made the same decision two
years ago. And they follow my brother-in-law, Dom, who moved to Paris
years ago with his wife. My wife's parents are now settling down, among a
growing band of British exiles, on the banks of the Charente, 600 miles
from their children and the home they have known for a large part of their
married life. Nearby Jarnac's population of around 5,000 has been swelled
by 150 British families over the past few years. They are not all old
people either, but families with children who are renovating properties
and starting businesses.
 
My in-laws were finding it increasingly hard to cope with the cost of
living in London and with inadequate health care. My mother-in-law, who
has Parkinson's disease, has just found out that she is entitled to free
weekly physiotherapy, a treatment deemed essential by French doctors, but
not mentioned by her carers in Britain.
 
My father-in-law, who currently pays 500 a month for private medical
coverage to supplement care by an NHS he already funds through taxation,
expects now to contribute just 100 a month in the form of an insurance
payable by French citizens (or their employers) to accompany state funding
of the health service. My father pays less tax on his pension than in
Britain, and the same will apply to my father-in-law when he registers as
a resident.
 
My parents, who live near Angouleme, south-west France, are similarly
surrounded by middle-class Brits who mutter darkly about about failing
British health care, the country's dilapidated infrastructure, spiralling
crime and the rising cost of living. My parents too have been joined by
growing numbers of younger people with small children,families who are
buying up the older properties and transforming them into gites.
 
Many young people are lured to France by its taxation system which, unlike
Britain's, rewards fecundity and fidelity with tax breaks. Dom's third
child arrived a few months ago, entitling him to a significant reduction
in income tax. His carte famille nombreuse allows them half-price metro
travel around Paris and half-price travel on the excellent national rail
network. And the municipal authority, concerned at the lack of affordable
housing for growing families, has capped his mortgage repayments.
 
Dom, who is a graphic artist, could not return to Britain even if he
wanted to: 'Where would we live? How would we live?' he says. 'Even if I
was earning two times what I earn here, it would not be enough to get a
mortgage, let alone a comparable quality of life. The children would have
a worse education; the family's health would be a big concern.'
 
So my experience shows me that France, despite its manifest social and
economic problems, is kinder to those who are starting out on the road to
family and responsibility, and to those who have reached the end of that
road, and who should be able to expect, after a lifetime of paying tax, a
comfortable and secure retirement. Mme Royal might admire 'New' Labour's
'Third Way' political and social model, but I can't help feeling that it
is the belief that a government can be all things to all men - that
near-unrestricted capitalism, for instance, can happily cohabit with
comprehensive welfarism - that has created a British social model that is
more confused and sclerotic than the French one.
 
In Britain, where the mainstream parties are tearing each other's throats
out in the battle for something called the 'centre ground', choice is
limited and voter turn-out low. How can David Cameron talk about patient
choice, but eschew market principles in the NHS, defend the bloated public
sector but campaign about the waste of public money, or defend marriage,
but also uphold civil partnerships as of identical status?
 
Despite their admiration for Mr Blair, both candidates in the French
election offer distinct visions for the country across the political
spectrum from left to right. If this country remains on its current course
after Gordon Brown's elevation, growing numbers on this side of the
Channel will feel they have a greater stake in France's future than in
Britain's.