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“No one in the elite of the 1990s knew what an SME was!”

Por a book signed by an énarque – and the author, inspector of finances, managing director of Bpifrance for nine years, is one of the most eminent specimens of the high public service -, we can say that it is hard-hitting. Nicolas Dufourcq, whose job is partly to help industrial SMEs find financing, wanted to understand how and why France had become so deindustrialized since Jacques Chirac’s first five-year term. He therefore questioned in the manner of a memoirist 47 entrepreneurs, political leaders, trade unionists and civil servants “who lived through these dark years”. The result ? The deindustrialization of France 1995-2015 (published by Odile Jacob). 384 terrible pages which narrate by the menu how our country, once rich in so many industrial sites and so much technical know-how of great value, was able, by an incredible suicidal movement, to empty itself of half of its factories and a third of its industrial jobs, thus tipping entire sections of its active forces into mass unemployment. Maintenance.

Point : your work begins with a long analysis which you have titled “the drama”. Why did you choose this term?

Nicolas Dufourcq: The deindustrialization of our country is indeed a tragedy. It is enough to cross the French regions to see how so many valleys have been emptied of their factories. Following a succession of gigantic errors, the country lost a third of its industrial jobs and reduced industry to only 10% of the gross domestic product. It is a violent shock, comparable to the rural exodus of the years 1950-60. Except that if the rural exodus had been partly absorbed by the civil service – many children of farmers became civil servants – deindustrialisation was not absorbed: it was accompanied by mass unemployment in these territories. Workers, who proudly wore their overalls, lost part of their identity when they lost their jobs.

Who are responsible for this deindustrialization?

The responsibility is collective, I do not create a hierarchy. Let’s say it’s a common political soup gone wrong, in which the French imagination plays a big role. Families traumatized by the shocks of the 1970s advised their children against working in industry; at that time, National Education became very ideological and anti-productive, very often with a discourse on the factory worthy of Zola; and the mass media were broadly on the same line. The responsibility of the industrial bosses of the time is also engaged. In the 1990s, there were many who did not question themselves, or who propped up on an extremely vertical management operation, dated, where everything was regulated, sometimes even clothing in the factory. Young French people at the time no longer wanted it, while their German and Eastern European counterparts still accepted authority.

Unions also have their share of responsibility…

In some companies, they have made life for bosses at least exhausting, at worst impossible. Joint action, which is specific to France, has also led to a very sharp increase in the cost of labour. This increase could no longer be offset as before by devaluations, since France had entered the euro. In addition, the unions have fought for a very long time against the reductions in the burden. When François Hollande decided to do the CICE, in 2013, it definitively closed thirty years of ideological debates on the advisability of making reductions in charges, while, in the meantime, our competitiveness was deteriorating before our eyes. And yet this was done at the cost of a terrible rebellion against the Socialist Party. The state has a massive responsibility. François Mitterrand put an end to our nuclear program. Lionel Jospin’s government did the 35 hours, which was a disaster for the industry. And under the second mandate of Jacques Chirac, nothing was done to help industrial SMEs, with the exception of the Dutreil law of 2003, to facilitate the transmission of family businesses, and of the public bank Oseo, in 2005, of very modest size at the time, to help them finance themselves.

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Why did our political and economic elite see nothing coming?

I was the rapporteur for the Minc commission on France in the year 2000, in 1994. I was thirty years old and I had already created two SMEs – a plastics company and another in the agro-food sector. But I never imagined that such a profound deindustrialization, that is to say a territorial drama, could be possible. Moreover, around the table of the commission, which brought together around thirty senior officials, no one imagined it. Was it for lack of lucidity? It was a France where no one in the elite knew what an SME was. The only known entrepreneur was Bernard Tapie! When there was the succession of the Single Act, the Gatt agreements, the creation of the Euro, the enlargement to the East and the entry of China into the WTO, nobody It is said that it was a perfect storm that was coming, and that an industrial policy was therefore needed to protect the weak, on the model of the common agricultural policy 40 years earlier. The industrialists did not seek to defend themselves as did the farmers, who were listened to by the political leaders.

What is striking is the very degraded image of industry in France in the years 1990-2000, whereas this is not the case with our neighbours. How to explain it?

The State, under Pompidou, embodied industry. Every week, he received at his table the bosses of SMEs. But Giscard, although a former finance minister, has decided to focus on societal issues. Then, we experienced terrible industrial crises at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s. The coal mines, the steel industry… Pierre Mauroy took bolts in the face during his travels in the North; it was however his stronghold, the period was violent. In parallel, a very powerful anti-productive current rose from the left which culminated in the 35 hours. The economist Jean Fourastié had convinced many people for a long time that we could make a country without factories. So we put the package on services. In the trade union apparatuses, the representatives of the services, in particular public, have taken power from the hands of their counterparts in industry. The left has become a left of public service, and no longer a left of industry. In Pierre Bourdieu’s great book, La misery du monde, which the Tout-Paris bought when it came out in 1990, there was not a single line on SMEs! I read it again, and it hit me. The French mittelstand was deemed unable to suffer.

China’s entry into the WTO cost France 270,000 jobs, including 100,000 direct jobs in industry. Why did our leaders not anticipate the rise of this country?

In 1994, I remember that we went with Alain Minc to Germany to discuss with the consultant Roland Berger. We were ten years after the peak of the Japanese threat, during the Tsukuba Universal Exhibition in 1984. Alain Minc asks Roland Berger this question: “If it took us ten years to absorb Japan, how can we do to absorb China which is equivalent to 20 Japans?”. Roland Berger replied that he saw no other solution than… protectionism. In the Minc report, which reflects the debates of the commission, there is however hardly a line on China. Apart from the boss of Axa and that of Legrand nobody talks about it. A few years later, the United States signed a free trade agreement with Beijing, then the country joined the WTO. With the consequences that we know. At that time, the Chinese did not want to buy anything from foreigners except machinery to run their factories. And these machines, it was the Germans who made them.

Arcelor, Alcatel, Péchiney… you list our missing flagships. And it’s chilling!

Each of its companies has its history. With regard to Péchiney, it is that of a privatization which went into a spin – while that of Saint-Gobain was a success. Pechiney’s major mistake was the takeover of American Can. Instead of building aluminum factories around the world, which was his specialty, he dispersed, just when China, Russia and Brazil, which were rebuilding, needed aluminum . Concerning Arcelor, the State succeeded brilliantly in the recovery of Usinor. But the management of Arcelor did not want to believe that a foreign group like Mittal could attack it. It was said in high places that Mittal did not know business grammar. We have sinned by arrogance. As for Alcatel, it’s yet another story: that of technological looting by the Chinese. We could also mention the case of our chemical industry, with the disappearance of Rhône-Poulenc. In 2000, the German and French chemical industries were on an equal footing. Today, France has only one multinational in the sector, Arkema, when the Germans have five! Why ? Because we sold our large chemical companies by apartments.

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You recall that in 2003 three-quarters of young French people wanted to become civil servants. Is the situation different today?

Fortunately, we have changed worlds. There is a huge entrepreneurial appetite in French society. According to a study commissioned by Bpifrance, which I lead, a third of French people have been entrepreneurs, are one, or are toying with the idea of ​​becoming one day – that’s huge! 30% of French doctoral students say they want to create their startup. And many young people prefer to work on their own, as auto-entrepreneurs, rather than as employees. There is an immense desire for freedom.

And now ? Have we really taken the path of a reindustrialisation of the country?

Yes. After the 2008-2009 crisis, and the “whatever the cost” launched by Mario Draghi, Europe emerged from the logic of budgetary austerity imposed by Germany and its finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble, which allowed us to invest in innovation and in our businesses. But a lot remains to be done. The French administration must move from a “gendarme” model to a “project” model. There must also be a considerable acceleration of the deadlines for the rendering of court decisions in industrial cases. Then, we must invest massively in industrial innovation, this is the role of the BPI with the capital of France 2030. On taxation, if we can further reduce production taxes and preserve the Dutreil pact, while simplifying it will be fine. Finally, in the same way that everyone was responsible for deindustrialization, everyone must do it for reindustrialization to work. Including National Education and mass media, such as continuous news channels. The German government could never have pushed through its reforms in the early 2000s without massive media and popular support.

For popular support, it is not necessarily won. In his conclusion to your book, the former president of Airbus and PSA, Louis Gallois, says he fears that degrowth and anti-scientism will develop too strongly within the new generation. Do you share his fears?

Decline in the sense of a negative annual GDP is not the solution: it would result in a social explosion. The French are attached to the welfare state. Retirement, education, apprenticeship… With a declining GDP, we cannot finance all of this. You have to tell the French. The young people who quit AgroParisTech, who have been talked about recently, would do better to create companies to help decarbonize the country. This debate on degrowth reminds me of the one we had thirty years ago on unemployment: some said then that the solution to combat it was to work less. But that was wrong! We now know: the solution to unemployment was not to work 35 hours, it was to work more.

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