The Observer

The Retreat from Globalization Is in Full Flight

It is said that a true American is someone who wears an Italian suit, drives a Japanese car, eats Thai curries, and uses a Korean-made computer to email his congressman and complain about the U.S. trade deficit. Conversely, an authentic French person wears Parisian haute couture, drives a Renault, eats foie gras – and complains to their député about the high cost of everything. And the trade deficit.
© Hervé Pinel

Welcome to the world of economic patriotism, the more respectable name for economic nationalism, in which the prosperity of the heartland is defended against attack from forces without or within. Some observers make a distinction between patriots, who love their country for what it does, and nationalists, who love it whatever it does. In economic terms, the distinction is a little different. In one view, a country’s economy is inextricably linked to the cultural values that define the true-blue nation, existentially menaced by globalized trade flows. Nationalism is therefore a vital fightback. In the other view, economic preferences in troubled times should be linked to concerns for one’s homeland. Thus the response is patriotic.

The concept of economic patriotism is hardly new, but in recent times it seems to have become identified rightly or wrongly with France. Patriotisme économique was the title of an influential 2006 book which argued that a nation-centered worldview would lead from “war to economic peace.” In its current sense, the term entered the international debate when a French prime minister wielded it against a U.S. conglomerate that was mulling a bid for one of his country’s corporate crown jewels, a major dairy producer. The company was then declared “strategic,” a move ridiculed at the time by American and British observers as a “strategic yogurt” policy. Oh how times have changed.

A belief that the country can be sufficient unto itself has long been part of the French national imagination (and is now being exploited by at least one of the candidates vying to unseat the incumbent president). When the first oil crisis hit in 1973, for instance, the government ran an ad campaign reminding the population that although France might not have oil, it was brimming with bright ideas. (This tenet was later framed in a popular ditty: “They’ve got oil but nothing else/We’ve got good wine, bread, etcetera.” Ouch!). During the 1980s and 1990s, campaigns with the tagline Acheter français (Buy French) appeared fairly regularly in response to growing disenchantment with globalization.

By the beginning of this century, however, the slogans had aged and, in any case, were downright embarrassing since whole swathes of the French population were swigging Coke, scarfing burgers, and flocking in droves to Disneyland. To keep the barbarians of globalization at bay, the sporadic campaigns of yesteryear were forged into a coherent strategy. The then president and economic neoliberal Nicolas Sarkozy dubbed it “Produce in France” – possibly unaware that he was recycling a slogan coined thirty years earlier by the French Communist Party – while his successor, the socialist François Hollande, upped the ante by turning economic patriotism into government policy and setting his sights on reindustrialization.

© Hervé Pinel

The movement kicked off with the industry minister posing for a magazine covershoot in a Breton-themed sailor top, a wristwatch made in Franche-Comté, and clutching a Moulinex food mixer. The message was certainly loud and hopefully clear: “French Is Best” (even if the raw materials for all three products were imported). Initial reactions to these and other official efforts were broadly negative, with forceful complaints about the higher prices of homespun goods (“I tried buying French and nearly went bust”) or the near impossibility of bypassing non-domestic products: One Parisian famously stripped his apartment of anything foreign-made and was left with just a table and chair.

The challenge, as made clear by President Hollande, was to be more competitive without sacrificing France’s cherished yet costly “social model.” If the lofty ambition to fully reindustrialize was largely unworkable, encouraging local production and consumption was feasible. And it worked. Patriotic purchasing gradually became trendy, as consumers sought out French brands, in everything from food to fashion, that offered a reasonable domestic/import price gap. More significantly, at the macroeconomic level, the French proto-protectionist stance once belittled by Anglo-American politicians became a Europe-wide policy plank. The French worldview had taken over, and “strategic yogurt” became “strategic sovereignty.”

Keenly aware of the pecuniary and patriotic potential of these shifts, the public authorities beefed up the buy-French campaign at several levels, notably the MIF Expo – the official (if ugly) moniker of the Made in France fair, which launched in 2012 and has since gone from strength to strength. The rationale, according to the event’s founder, is to stop importing what can be manufactured at home and to “consume local” in order to preserve jobs and know-how, and protect the environment. Such is the success of MIF Expo that it now attracts hundreds of exhibitors and is an essential stop on the PR or campaign trail for politicians of all stripes. The “home-made” message also has grass-roots resonance: Citizens’ initiatives are flourishing, and networks have been set up to help small and craft business overcome distribution and marketing hurdles that larger firms are able to cope with. In many cases, Fabriqué en France has become a sales argument rather than a price deterrent.

Of course, France is not the only nation to pursue economic patriotism. And neither are such policies new. George Washington famously bragged that his family consumed “no porter or cheese” unless it was made in America. Protectionist legislation from Smoot-Hawley to the Buy American Act has always been a political lodestar for presidents up to and including Joe Biden. But the national-interest debate has shifted radically and universally since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the realization of dependency on global supply chains. Advanced economies were shocked to realize that they had long ago outsourced the manufacture not only of high-end medical equipment but also simple, everyday things such as surgical masks and gloves.

The need to refocus on domestic production and consumption became paramount. Since then, encouragements, incentives, and full-scale policies to make and buy locally are becoming the norm, across all sectors of almost every economy. Here in France, a new vocabulary is being coined, along the lines of la consommation patriotique (patriotic consumption). The agriculture minister even called on citizens to display le patriotisme alimentaire (food patriotism) by eating nothing but French-produced foodstuffs. Die-hard patriots can even buy a tricolor-bedecked toy dog from the “official” online souvenir shop of the Elysée Palace.

It is tempting to dismiss all of this as another passing phase. Yet, a statistic published in November is both eye-catching and revealing. A recent poll by a strategic consultancy and an independent think tank found that, despite the ongoing coronapocalypse, nearly 80% of the notoriously glum French population declared that they were happy, a full ten-point gain on two years earlier. Respondents cited renewed attachment to their local roots, environment, friends, and terroir (food, traditions). This might mean that, in future, local politicians will receive more kudos and fewer gripes about the cost of living. The trade deficit, however, is another matter.


Article published in the February 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.