Prime Minister's speech to the French National Assembly
Tuesday 24 March 1998
President, Prime Minister, Ministers, Deputies: I am delighted to be able to speak to the National Assembly today, and am most grateful to you, President Laurent Fabius, for inviting me to do so.
Britain and France are both countries of achievement, and ambition. Many things link our countries. Our deep sense of nationhood. Our pride in our history. Our military prowess. Our science and engineering. Our standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the great struggles of this century. Our political engagement on a global scale.
Our lawyers, police forces and even National Libraries are linked. Our film industries have co-produced 80 films. France leads the world in fashion but with three Britons heading major French fashion houses. Some 1500 French and British assistants take part in the world's largest annual exchange of teachers.
France is the holiday destination for a third of everyone from Britain going to Europe. Five times as many holiday visits are made from Britain to France than the other way round. And spending by British tourists in France is three times the total spending of French visitors to Britain. So we've got some ground to make up.
But some 100,000 French people are believed to be living in Britain now. This is a different kind of cohabitation, and, like the other kind, also successful.
More than trade and work, we exchange ideas and tastes, too. About fashion. Food. Design. Lifestyle. Culture. The other night I had the pleasure of watching Juliette Binoche at the theatre, in 'Naked'. She was wonderful.
Between the people of our countries there is a genuine contact. It is real. It is rooted. And it matters.
And today, France and Britain face the same challenges of profound economic, social and political change.
To some, the New Labour Government in Britain exhibits what they call an ideological confusion. How can you say you are of the left but welcome business into Government? How can you help the poor but say you are in favour of wealth and an absence of penal taxes on it? How can you introduce greater competition and yet say you are in favour of job security? How are you against too much power being vested in Government but in favour of social action?
But to me, there is no confusion. There is, instead, an attempt to make realistic sense of the modern world. It is a world in which love of ideals is essential, but addiction to ideology can be fatal. It is a world in which people seek from their Governments not dogma and doctrine, but a strong sense of national purpose, underpinned by clear values.
Above all, it is a world in which ordinary people see change happening at a pace and depth they find frightening. They seek security amidst the whirlwind. They try to retain some control over their lives as change hurls them this way and that.
Our task as modern Governments, is to help them do it. But here is the dilemma. People know that change cannot be resisted. There is no comfort in isolation. It doesn't work. But neither do they want change to control them, to rule them. So: our task is to equip people for change, to shape its impact, to make sense of it, to embrace it in order that we make it work for us.
In case anyone should doubt the nature of change, just look around us. Global financial markets that can send currencies and shares soaring or falling. Mass media, music, art and communications that alter tastes, perceptions and national culture with stunning rapidity. New technology and competition transforming the world of work, bringing revolutions in jobs and industries. In turn, this breaks up traditional family and social structures, which are already feeling the effects of changes in social and moral thinking. Much of this is exhilarating. But its impact is enormous on the lives of our people.
What impresses me most is not the differences in the challenge this change poses for our countries. It is the similarities. And not just for countries like France and Great Britain that are at similar stages of economic development. But in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in the Far East, even in parts of Africa. All of us struggle with these two questions:
- how do we equip ourselves for economic change?
- how do we impose some order in the face of social change?
In other words how to provide security in a world of change. Our guide has to be our values. And here let me explain what I mean when I talk of a Third Way or New Labour. My conviction is that we have to be absolute in our adherence to our basic values, otherwise we have no compass to guide us through change. But we should be infinitely adaptable and imaginative in the means of applying those values. There are no ideological preconditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works. If we don't take this attitude, change traps us, paralyses us and defeats us. But it is modernisation for a purpose. These values: solidarity, justice, freedom, tolerance and equal opportunity for all, the belief in a strong community and society as the necessary means of individual advancement. These are the values that drive and govern my political life.
But to fulfil those values now, today, we need new ways of working, and of recreating the bonds of community life. In each case, it will mean a changed role for Government.
In economic terms, it has four consequences.
First, we must maintain strong, prudent discipline over financial and monetary policy, within financial systems that are open and transparent. There is no right or left politics in economic management today. There is good and bad. The situation in Asia has been an object lesson in why a lack of transparency and clarity leads to crisis. In Britain we have given the Bank of England independence in setting interest rates and we have dramatically reduced the budget deficit. The price is hard. Short-term interest rates have gone up; the spending squeeze has been unpopular. But long-term it must be right and will pay dividends.
Secondly, the role of Government becomes less about regulation than about equipping people for economic change by focussing on education, skills, technology, high quality infrastructure and a Welfare State which promotes work and makes it pay. This is the third way: not laissez-faire nor state control and rigidity; but an active Government role linked to improving the employability of the workforce.
Thirdly, we need specific measures to tackle the scourge of social exclusion. I mean that group of people cut off from society's mainstream, inhabiting a culture increasingly connected with crime, drugs, family instability, poor housing and education and long-term unemployment. Since taking office, we have launched the largest programme of work for the young and long-term unemployed Britain has ever seen. We have set up a specific unit: the Social Exclusion Unit, to co-ordinate action across Government Departments to meet this challenge. I believe in one nation, one Britain. There should be none shut out from its opportunities.
Fourthly, we need a new emphasis on entrepreneurship, small business creation and creating a climate in which our people are ready to take risks in becoming self-employed, in learning new ways of working, in recognising that starting your own business is a natural and sensible thing to do.
As proof of that, I am pleased to announce that Lionel Jospin and I have agreed that the British and French governments will work together closely on the specific issue of encouraging small businesses.
We are establishing a Franco-British Task Force, led on the UK side by David Simon, to examine specific ways in which public policy at national, and where appropriate European levels, would be made more positive towards the smaller business sector.
The Task Force will examine business start-ups and their early development. It will consider how we can get wider access for entrepreneurs to venture capital on the right terms. It will look at difficult questions such as regulatory structures, cost burdens and how an economy with a preponderance of small firms ensures an adequate supply of high quality labour to the business sector. We are asking the Task Force to report back by October 1998 and identify key areas for priority action.
None of this means that in Britain we reject the idea of basic fair terms of employment for people. The New Labour Government is introducing a minimum wage; trade union representation; and has signed the Social Chapter. What is more, I embrace with enthusiasm the notion that successful companies are those which value their workforce and regard them as partners in the enterprise.
But the partnership must show an understanding on both sides of the challenge the modern economy poses. The word "flexible" has a loaded meaning in the French translation. But for me it means adaptable. In the world of change, business and employees need to be constantly open to new ideas and new opportunities; constantly adapting so that change can be properly faced. If our labour market or our economy becomes too rigid, if it is too hard for businesses to function effectively or too expensive for them to employ, the result is merely another form of injustice. In truth, the best job security today comes not simply from legal protection but from having skills, making the most of your talent and having an active employment and welfare service that enables you to move on and move up.
In the end, none of our nations can compete in the old way. There is no future as low wage, low skill sweatshop economies with the rewards going to the few, in the hope they trickle down eventually to the many.
Nor is there any hope in maintaining the old processes of mass production, of intervention and control. Rather we use the power of Government to set a framework in which the potential and talent of our people is liberated, in which new businesses can be created and old ones adapted to survive. We called last week's Budget, "new ambitions for Britain". But it is ambition married to compassion. It is ambition for all.
The challenge is just as great when we analyse the state of our society. Ask any of our constituents what is their biggest worry; and large numbers will say: crime and the fear of crime. I remember in my constituency in the north of England, growing up there, when you could leave your door unlocked without any hint of fear, where elderly people were treated with respect. Yes, the young men fought as they always have. But there was not the sheer brutality and wickedness we see in our cities and even our towns today, crimes which leave numb our powers of comprehension.
For some, the objective is to get back to the old days. But it is an illusion, as indeed many of the best political lines are. In that north of England constituency, in those old days, there were 25 local mines. Everyone knew everyone. People worked together. At night in the club or pub they socialised together. Today, there are no mines left. The communities do not have that powerful glue to bind people together. But, of course, their standard of living is higher, they enjoy the good things of life in a way their grandparents never dreamt of.
Women have the chance to work. That is good. There are different attitudes to sex, sexuality, to the moral world.
Yet amongst the material wealth and freedom, people search for stability. We need to respond to that quest. We need to fashion some order amongst the disintegration. People want a society free from prejudice but not from rules. In Britain now, we are toughening up our youth justice system; there are stronger penalties for certain crimes. We have banned guns. We are taking new measures against drugs. Parents are being held more responsible for the conduct of their children.
We are trying to tackle the underlying causes of crime; fighting social exclusion, creating jobs, improving the worst estates in some of our cities. But also, here again a third way, we are examining how to strengthen family life, attacking truancy and indiscipline at school and insisting that our welfare system is there to provide opportunity, not be fleeced by fraud, abuse and people playing the system. The new contract between citizens and society is made up of rights, but also of responsibilities.
We should combine these measures with an absolute commitment to equality of treatment for all our citizens. We may be Conservative or Labour in our politics. But when it comes to race, we are all human beings. And we must never allow the evil of racism to disfigure our nations. That is one lesson Europe does not need to repeat.
In meeting both the economic and the social challenge we face, we need a new and changed concept of Government itself.
Our people have almost lost confidence in the very institution of government. They believe it is bloated, inefficient, and designed to look after itself rather than to help them.
It is only by reinventing the machinery of government that we can begin to reconnect the governed and those that govern them.
Government should not try to do everything itself, but work with private and voluntary sectors. The government should set the parameters and policy goals, but it does not always have to deliver the outcome itself.
Power should be decentralised. A project you in France started in 1982. The hardest thing of all for any government to do is to give power away. But we believe in subsidiarity not just for Brussels but for Whitehall and Westminster too. Power should be exercised as close as possible to the people whose lives it affects. We are passing legislation to devolve power to a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales, and we will do the same in Northern Ireland where we continue to work for peace.
The citizen should have clear rights and they should be properly protected. That is why we are going to pass a Freedom of Information act. That is why we require information about the performance of schools, hospitals, and local government to be made public.
Yet it is these same fundamental changes which call for new ways of working and organising our society that impel us to cooperate ever more closely between nations. Just over half a century ago, Europe was at war. Then for 40 years or more, the Iron Curtain descended. Now we are members of the European Union, and clamouring to enter are the former East European communist dictatorships. It is on any basis a remarkable achievement.
Yet here too the challenge of change confronts us. Let me first clear away any remaining doubts about the new British Government's position. Britain's future lies in being full partners in Europe. At Amsterdam, we played a constructive part in bringing about a new European Treaty. Now, as EU President, we are launching the enlargement negotiations and doing our best to ensure the Euro starts successfully.
As for Britain joining the Euro, there must be sustainable economic convergence between our economies. That does not presently exist. I have never made any secret of my concerns at the economic risks in EMU unless the economic conditions are correct. It is a very big step, which implies huge changes in our economies. We have said that a single currency in a single market makes sense and already British business and the City of London are fully geared up to dealing in and using the Euro. We will be prepared - do not doubt that - and will make a decision based on clear and unambiguous economic facts.
But you do not have to be a Eurosceptic, in any shape or form, to appreciate the deep concern amongst our peoples as to how they make sense and relate to the new Europe. They worry about their national identity. They find, let us be frank, Brussels and the European institutions often remote and unsympathetic. They ask what Europe does for them. It comes back to their search for control and freedom over their own lives, when they see so much change around them.
I believe these concerns can be answered. I believe too that France and Britain can help, together, to answer them. But we have to explain to our people what our vision of Europe is.
I believe in a Europe of enlightened self-interest. Without chauvinism. It is the nation-state's rational response to the modern world. If globalisation of the world economy is a reality; if peace and security can only be guaranteed collectively; if the world is moving to larger blocs of trade and cooperation and look at ASEAN or Latin America: if all this is so, then the EU is a practical necessity. I happen to share the European idealism. I am by instinct internationalist. But even if I weren't, I should be internationalist through realism. The forces of necessity, even of survival are driving us to cooperation. In the United Nations, in Bosnia, no less than in international trade.
But we politicians must constantly explain, and justify, our vision. For me, the spirit of Europe's development is the idealism of practical people; high ideals pursued with new realism.
I have little doubt Europe will in time move closer still. But choosing where and how to move closer will determine whether our peoples accept these changes or rebel against them. There is a sense in which there is a third way in EU development also. We integrate where it makes sense to do so; if not, we celebrate the diversity which subsidiarity brings.
In economic union, in trade and the single market, in the conditions of competition, it makes complete sense for us to cooperate ever more closely. How can we tackle the environmental challenges, pollution and the degradation of our planet, except together? How can we defeat organised crime and the menace of drugs other than together.
In all these areas, cooperation and integration over time is sensible and is clearly in our self-interest.
There is one other area in which France and Britain are particularly well qualified to cooperate: defence.
In defence we can and should do more together.
We are both nations that are used to power. We are not frightened of it or ashamed of it. We both want to remain a power for good in the world.
And we start off with great advantages. We both possess a minimum nuclear deterrent. We are both permanent members of the Security Council. We have without doubt the best equipped, most deployable, most effective military forces in Europe.
During the last government defence contacts between the military of our own two countries did improve. We set up a joint nuclear commission for the first time. We are also working together to harmonize our doctrine and procedures for peacekeeping.
More than that, on the ground in Bosnia, our soldiers led the UN Force, delivering vital aid through three winters of war. On the ground, Britain and French forces enjoyed the closest possible cooperation, serving under each others command.
I would like this process of practical co-operation to advance much further and faster.
Now is the time for a new initiative on the military side. We are in the final stages of conducting a major Defence Review. You are in the middle of the complex process of professionalising and restructuring your armed forces. When our review is complete, I am asking the Defence Secretary and Chiefs of Staff to report to me urgently on the scope for future Anglo-French co-operation. How we can create a capacity to deploy forces rapidly on a joint basis in future crises, where both countries agree.
I know that some feel that being close with the United States is an inhibition on closer European cooperation. On the contrary, I believe it is essential that the isolationist voices in the United States are kept at bay and we encourage our American allies to be our partners in issues of world peace and security. Strong in Europe. Strong with the United States. That should be our goal.
So in some areas, we integrate more closely. In others, how we run our education and health systems, welfare state, personal taxes, matters affecting our culture and identity I say: be proud of our diversity and let subsidiarity rule. We don't want a Europe of conformity, a United States of Europe run by bureaucrats.
A word of warning here, perhaps. We have an economic framework for the EU. We now need a political framework that is dramatically more relevant, more in touch than the present one. I say this quite apart from the pressure of enlargement. The next step for Europe is to match its vision of its economic role with one for its political and social role.
This political vision for Europe is necessary now more than ever. There is a political deficit, which our people feel keenly. As we enlarge, there is the opportunity for us to reconsider the essential mechanisms of political accountability and control. We have had the courage to create the European Union. We must now have the courage to reform it.
For Europe to grow and prosper, Europe must be close to ordinary people's concerns. Europe must reflect the wider social and moral values we all share. The construction of Europe must not reflect a technical commitment to the market-place, but a political commitment to community. Europe must reflect the best of our regional and national traditions. It must be founded on our heritage of freedom, and of social concern. It must be confident. Its economy must be dynamic, innovative and open to the outside world.
I want to work with you to achieve this. The first vote I cast was in favour of Britain entering the Common Market. As I watch my children grow up now, I want them to live in a Europe in which they feel as at home in the glory of Paris, the beauty of Rome, the majesty of Vienna as they do in their own London, where they enjoy a Europe peaceful, secure and prosperous because men like Monet and Schumann and, yes, Churchill had the vision to declare that the world they found was not going to be the world they would leave to future generations.
I believe that you, in France, share that vision with the British. So let us open up a new epoque in relations between Britain and France. Today I stand before you, conscious of the gap that separates me from the generation formed by the war. But pledging on my behalf, and on behalf of my country, that the friendship between Britain and France must be renewed.
That is my ambition: that France and Britain come closer together in a real entente, a deep entente, and in a genuine partnership with the other countries of Europe. Let us create together a new world on the old continent.