The current election campaign is lending weight to simplistic proposals like the slogan “buy French”, which evokes the need for France to re-industrialize. And to accomplish this, what could be simpler than to convince the population to buy native products designated with a special label? This is also more politically correct than advocating a straightforward return to protectionism. Employment is expected to benefit, along with the balance of trade. But if we look more closely, not only is it difficult to identify the geographical origin of products, but even if that were possible, any preference that these products might enjoy could well wind up in job losses. This solution for dealing with the need for re-industrialization ultimately reflects a refusal to get to the bottom of the problem.
Can we really define what it means to “buy French”? Does it mean buying the products of French companies? What about buying products made in France by foreign companies instead of buying products made abroad by French companies? These simple questions show that it is not so easy to pin down what is “Made in France”. One major difficulty is that the final goods produced in a country usually incorporate intermediate goods manufactured abroad. It may even happen that the components of a final product are manufactured by a competitor in another country. The iPhone is emblematic of this fragmentation. Should we refrain from purchasing intermediate goods from low-wage countries even though this makes it possible to produce final goods at a lower cost and boost exports by being more competitive on price? Those who think so should no longer be touting German industry as an example, since everyone knows about the growing share of imported inputs in the production of the final goods Germany exports (OECD, Measuring Globalisation: OECD Economic Globalisation Indicators 2010, p. 212).
Imagine, nevertheless, domestic consumers who are able to identify products with a high labour content and are ready to make sacrifices out of a spirit of economic patriotism. Don’t the polls tell us that over two-thirds of consumers would be willing to pay more for French goods? While there are doubts about whether they would actually do this, it would be risky to ignore the opportunity cost of such a choice. Buying more expensive products simply because they are French reduces purchasing power. Other goods and services would not be purchased or would be bought for less abroad. The balance sheet for employment is far from certain.
Should this exercise in economic patriotism actually materialize, it would be a way that consumers form attachments to certain types of products, in this case based on their place of manufacture, which would in turn reduce the intensity of competition. This could lead the companies concerned to cut back on their efforts to become more competitive on price and other factors. Why, indeed, should they shell out for expensive and risky investments when have a guaranteed customer base? It’s a safe bet that they will not do this much, if at all. The national economy would then be locked in a low technology trap, doomed to slower growth, obviously with damaging consequences for employment in the medium and long term. This would also deprive the economy of the means to innovate and improve the competitiveness of its products.
Finally, it is likely that the willingness to buy French products would benefit products that replace goods made elsewhere in Europe rather than goods made in developing countries, either because the latter are no longer manufactured at all in France or because the price differences with French products would still be prohibitive. Ultimately it would not be possible to avoid further shifts in production to low-wage countries, with the consequent job losses. Furthermore, from a European perspective the non-cooperative character of this kind of measure could lead our European partners to adopt reciprocal measures, which would be detrimental to exports and employment.
The slogan “buy French” masks a refusal to see that the downturn is a global phenomenon which calls for a comprehensive response at the European level, and a refusal to consider a proactive industrial policy that takes into account the realities of supply as well as demand.
This is not just a matter of looking the other way. France is undergoing a deindustrialization process that threatens its capacity for growth. But who can deny that this phenomenon has accelerated with the crisis and that this acceleration is set to increase as the general austerity measures and restrictions on bank credit further undermine domestic and European demand for consumer durables? Unless we are willing to accept that an entire segment of industry in France and elsewhere in Europe is destroyed, with no hope of ever returning, and with as a consequence still greater disparities between countries and sharper conflicts of interest, it is clearly urgent to support this kind of demand.
Is this kind of support “the solution”? Of course not: propping up demand will not be enough, as an industrial policy aimed at strengthening the supply side is also needed. The point is not to protect domestic production nor to promote the conquest of foreign markets through competition on taxation or social charges, but to stimulate investments designed to produce new goods and services, which is the only way to create stable jobs. Rather than try to rely on dubious slogans, the goal should be to consolidate production that has the advantage of being high quality in terms of design, safety and reliability, and which corresponds to what French and European consumers genuinely want.