"I was really shocked when I read the Financial Times this morning that one of the candidates was pleading for more national champions and more protectionist action," huffed Neelie Kroes, competition commissioner of the European Union.
"It is outdated to talk about national champions. It is outdated to talk about protectionism."
Well, these ideas may be outdated at the EU Commission that sits in Brussels. But they are making a comeback in France, where Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading candidate for the French presidency, has emerged as an unabashed economic patriot.
Kroes was reacting to a FT report on a speech in Lille where Sarkozy ripped into the takeover of Arcelor, Europe's largest steelmaker, by Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel magnate. A "mistake," declared Sarkozy:
"Look at the waste of Arcelor, which we sold off on the cheap because we believed the steel industry was history. They got it wrong. They lied." Calling free trade a policy of naivete, Sarkozy promised an "industrial policy." He has in mind retaining industry and restoring manufacturing jobs to a France that has been losing both.
France's economic destiny cannot be left to the market, he told young entrepreneurs in Paris. Gen. de Gaulle himself, said Sarkozy, decided France must go nuclear for self-sufficiency. Today, 59 French nuclear plants today produce 78 percent of France's electricity, and France is the largest exporter of nuclear electricity in the European Union.
Was de Gaulle's decision a mistake? Would that the United States had gone forward, despite Three Mile Island, and done likewise.
Sarkozy sounds like a Hamiltonian. He believes in markets. He understands markets. But the country comes first. Decisions that affect the sovereignty and economic independence of the nation are not to be left to the invisible hand of a market that promises only the most efficient result, now, and not necessarily what is best for the nation.
Kroes, a Eurocrat, insists she is not trying to interfere in France's election. Yet her spokesman warns that should President Sarkozy pursue the proposals of Candidate Sarkozy, France will be confronted by the EU:
"You cannot prevent anyone saying they want a protectionist policy, but you can tackle it, if they take concrete measures," the spokesman said. Kroes "does not accept any kind of artificial obstacles to cross-border investment and takeovers, and we have demonstrated on numerous occasions that we will intervene."
Consider not only what was said here -- that the EU will confront a French president who acts in France's economic interests -- but the tone.
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