European harmony a key lesson from 'made in France' experiment

I read an interesting report in Le Figaro this week about a young French journalist who had set himself the task of using products that are 100 per cent "made in France" for an entire year.

The conclusion? It was almost impossible for him to achieve this goal, and certainly not without incurring extra expense and spending a great deal of time trying to find basic products such as a refrigerator. "It was a full-time job," said Benjamin Carle, whose exploits are to be televised on French TV next week.

Carle's experience of living 100 per cent "made in France" is of course anecdotal and on a small scale, but he paints an interesting picture of a country that has become extremely reliant on products from other nations. The French government, grappling with high unemployment and an economy teetering on the brink of disaster, is now trying to turn back the tide by playing the patriotism card, urging consumers to "buy French" to boost employment. As Carle's experience shows, this is probably too little, too late.

Even in the telecoms market, pressure has been placed on France's mobile operators to "buy French", meaning largely "buy Alcatel-Lucent" kit. Now, the "French" card is also being played by Altice, which finds it has to play up its French credentials as it seeks to achieve a merger between SFR and Numericable.

In an interview with Les Echos, Altice founder Patrick Drahi was challenged on the fact that he lives in Geneva, and his company is based in Luxembourg and listed in Amsterdam. His response was to assert that a merged SFR/Numericable would be absolutely "made in France": it would be based in France, pay taxes to the French government and use French equipment manufacturers. Such promises will indeed have a positive impact on French government ministers, who like to take a hands-on approach to corporate affairs (see Alcatel-Lucent's recent efforts to reduce its workforce there).

This focus on national interests is understandable amid the continuing economic malaise, and all countries rightly focus on looking after the needs of their citizens. But a too heavy-handed approach sits slightly at odds with a simultaneous desire to see Europe regain its leading position in the mobile sector to drive growth and employment across the region. The GSM Association recently sent an open letter to the European Commission that was endorsed by a number of leading CEOs and set out what they believe will be the success factors for an effective EU telecoms single market.

In summary, the letter called for a "harmonised" approach to spectrum, consolidation and regulation in order to put Europe back in the driving seat and also generate growth and employment.

Perhaps we need to get away from "made in France/UK/Germany" and focus on "made in Europe" to achieve these goals. In a single telecoms market, harmony will be hard to achieve if there is a single-minded and somewhat blinkered focus on making people and companies buy products that are more expensive, of lower quality or simply not available.

Benjamin Carle partly resolved his refrigerator problem by hanging his milk and yoghurt outside his window, which is clearly far from a sustainable solution.--Anne