French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire, whose book Le Nouvel Empire: L’Europe du Vingt et Unième Siècle (The New Empire: 21st-Century Europe) came out in April, addressed the American Chamber of Commerce yesterday to present his vision for a new form of capitalism and a strong Europe. His stance is especially pertinent right now, with Brexit imminent and Europe facing parliamentary elections on May 23-26.
Le Maire, a former member of the conservative party Les Républicains and currently affiliated with Emanuel Macron’s La République En Marche!, sees the strengthening of the European Union as vital to its very survival. In his talk, he laid out his program.
“How many Brexits will it take,” he asked, “how many Donald Trumps, how many high scores for extremist parties in Europe before everyone understands that capitalism must change and the structure of Europe must change?” When these structures are rebuilt, he continued, they will lead to increased prosperity, peace and European solidarity, allowing Europe to become what it should be: a new empire and the continent that is the best place in the world to live.
Reforming capitalism involves responding first of all to the needs of workers who want to live decent lives. “We have to listen to peoples’ cries of distress as well as the aspirations of the new generations,” he said, adding that “people must be paid correctly for their work. There is no dignity in working if your salary doesn’t cover your rent and transportation, if you can’t take your children to a restaurant or the movies, or take a vacation. Work must pay! It must not be exploitive.”
The second element of his prescription is sustainable development. “If you talk to young people today, you’ll discover that they’re totally uninterested in politics,” he said. “What interests them is the state of the planet, global warming, biodiversity. Economic success is impossible without respect for the planet and its resources. Capitalism must be sustainable or it will not be at all. Growth must be sustainable or it will not be at all.”
Changing capitalism also means redefining the respective roles of business and the state. Le Maire believes that the state must continue to play a major role in public services and maintaining the public order, but “not in running the shops, hotels and parking lots in its airports” (his government’s plan to privatize Aéroports de Paris has met with loud opposition from many quarters in France).
He sees the need for a greater role for entrepreneurs and companies, which they must help to define. “A company must have meaning, must define its raison d’être,” he said, using as an example the case of banks and insurers. To banks that help finance coal mines or coal-burning power plants, he wished “good luck in finding new clients.” On the other hand, banks that invest in the reduction of clients’ carbon footprint will succeed, he said.
The fourth step in changing capitalism involves the “rebuilding” (Le Maire mostly avoided the use of the word “reform”) of the outdated 20th-century tax system based primarily on taxing manufactured goods made by companies that have low profit margins, an approach that makes less sense in the digital age. Le Maire has been vocal in advocating the taxation of the profits made on data (the French National Assembly passed a “Facebook tax” in April that would levy a 3 percent tax on revenue made by large companies on digital activities).
He is also in favor of a minimum tax on companies to help avoid tax evasion. “I am categorically against the tax evasion of large multinationals that make profits in France but pay their taxes in fiscal paradises or don’t pay any taxes at all. It revolts me.”
To strengthen Europe, Le Maire wants to see the EU become a political rather than just an economic entity; give an equal voice to all member countries; and get rid of the unanimity rule, which often stymies decision-making, and replace it with a “qualified” majority (“Compromise: yes,” he said.”Consensus: no.”).
“Europe must be a political project with values and a culture. It must have borders, ambitions, strength and the capacity to defend its interests.” If the EU does not pursue a political agenda and present a united front to counterbalance rising nationalism and political extremism in Europe and around the world and the increasingly aggressive American and Chinese powers, it will be committing “collective suicide,” he said. The result would be the continued rise of nationalism and the dismemberment of Europe.
One question that was not addressed during Le Maire’s talk was his use in the title of his book of the heavily freighted word “empire” – raising the old specters of colonialism and territorial aggression. Let’s hope that the English translation of his book, if there is one, will bear a different title, since the ideas in it deserve to be heard. They seem especially important today, May Day, as a small but noisy group of Frexiters gathers on the Place de la République to call for France’s departure from the EU.