x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Greek lessons spell trouble for touchy French

What if an economist chooses to study the economic impact of the Land Cruiser on the streets of the UAE?

In a long, and it has to be said, unaccountably dreary article about the economic stars of the future, The Economist concludes by defining the dismal science: "Economics is what economists do - the best of them anyway." This is refreshing to learn, because I always thought economists did other things, such as play golf or work out why drug dealers always live with their mothers. However, it is also rather unhelpful.

What if an economist chooses to study the economic impact of the Land Cruiser on the streets of the UAE? Is that still economics, or just a diverting way to spend the time? It would be nice to think that some of those economists working on Wall Street might have alerted us to the imminent arrival of the greatest slump since the Great Depression, but perhaps that was asking too much. There was a time when economists had grander aims than peering at the world, adding up the numbers and concluding that it is all about economies of scale. This month, 200 years ago, a Frenchman called Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born. If he is remembered at all, it is for one phrase: "La propriété, c'est le vol!" (Property is theft.) This motto is often wrongly attributed to Karl Marx, thus making Proudhon a virtually forgotten man.

Why should we care about him? Surely he is just another long-haired Frenchman with a beard and a penchant for causing trouble? He was born on Jan 15 1809, the son of a brewer. He grew up in Besançon, then moved to Paris. He became a journalist and pamphleteer, but in reality he was an economist. The French Revolution of 1848 - much less well known than its celebrated predecessor of 1789 but still worthy of consideration - was the moment he had been waiting for.

He wanted to take power away from capitalists. He came up with his own theories on reform, including the establishment of a people's bank, La Banque du Peuple, which would offer interest-free loans to its members, most of whom were workers. Despite being an anarchist, he disapproved of the violence of the 1848 revolution, instead urging peaceful conciliation. He rejected capitalism, but also split with Marx. It is hard to put one's finger on what exactly he did believe in, although he tried to boil it down to three words: agricultural-industrial federation. "All my political ideas boil down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralisation," he said.

Few people now would agree with his assertion that "property is theft"; indeed, many would argue that property ownership has enriched the lives of millions. His slogan would be updated by an advertising agency to "Property is Freedom". This is exactly what he himself said later, in 1865, in Théorie de la propriété: "property may be considered as the triumph of freedom". However overlooked he is now, his legacy is worth considering as a warning to how discontent can grow. If you cannot afford a property, or the house you have just bought is beginning to lose its value, or you cannot get a job, you could turn violent and take to the streets.

If religious fundamentalism is Europe's greatest threat today, anarchy could be tomorrow's problem. Just last month, we saw Greek youths rioting in the streets, and the problem has not gone away. Why? One was quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique: "They give banks money; the young they shoot at." There is a whole generation of Greeks known as the "700 euros". This is the amount of money a university graduate can expect to earn for a month's work - if they are lucky enough to get a job at all. Hardly enough money to feed and clothe yourself, never mind buying a car or a house. It is not surprising they are malcontent. Those who don't get a job gather in cafes until the early hours drinking Nescafé frappé and plotting civil unrest.

With the possible exception of France and Sweden, few countries nowadays pay even lip service to social equality. But when graduates in the EU take to the streets with a grievance, it might be a signal that something is fundamentally wrong with a country or an economy. It must be tempting for Europe's politicians to crow about the strength of the euro, for example, but if that has the effect of creating mass unemployment - even president Nicolas Sarkozy is predicting it will hit 10 per cent in France this year - the benefits are questionable. Something for economists to consider, unless they are otherwise engaged.

I had no idea the French were so touchy - although I should have realised from their actions in the past, such as blowing up the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior, that they don't like being criticised or thwarted. But I was quite surprised when my observations on life in France during the economic crisis - a country I am proud to call home - were greeted with a hearty rebuke by the chargé d'affaires in Abu Dhabi, Vincent Floréani, in the form of a letter to the editor. Bang goes my invitation to the Bastille Day fireworks, I thought.

French friends I showed the letter to were amused, and amazed at the brouhaha. "I think the climate in Abu Dhabi might be a bit stressful for the diplomats in place, and due to the importance of the stakes some people, probably quite clever, might lose their sense of humour," wrote one. "France has never enjoyed any significant growth in the past 20 years, crisis has been a quite common state of affairs and this is why the present crisis will not affect France as bad as other countries, probably because of the state domination." He suggested that I challenge Mr Floréani to a debate "in order to show that reality is not always what technocrats think..."

In your court, Mr Floréani, although I prefer that you debate with my friend, Jean-Claude Mas, who among other things is a Birmingham Business School graduate and The Guardian newspaper's French Winemaker of the Year. Mr Mas knows France better than I do; and besides, his accent is more authentic. rwright@thenational.ae