Protectionism undermines European principles

French President Emmanuel Macron greets workers at the shipyard of Saint-Nazaire
French President Emmanuel Macron greets workers at the shipyard of Saint-Nazaire, which his government has recently threatened to “temporarily nationalize” (source: dpa)

Emmanuel Macron’s electoral success this year – first in winning France’s presidential elections and then his party gaining an absolute majority in the country’s National Assembly – inspired a widespread belief that France would become Europe’s leading defender of the four freedoms and a global spearhead for free markets. This was seen as important in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

Mr. Macron also promised to liberalize the French economy and reduce the role of the state. He used these selling points to differentiate himself from Marine Le Pen domestically and United States President Donald Trump internationally. Since President Trump was widely labeled as protectionist and Marine Le Pen as anti-European Union, it was not too difficult for Mr. Macron to make an effective differentiation.

France’s about-face

Fincantieri, an Italian state-owned shipbuilding firm, owns and operates several major shipyards in Italy and abroad. It acquired a majority stake in STX – a French company that holds a shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast – from Korean owners. The French government owns a minority stake, and the former administration had agreed to the sale.

But now the “socioliberal” French government is threatening to “temporarily nationalize” the shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, pretending to protect “national interests.” With this measure, Paris simply wants to force 50-50 joint French-Italian control.

France is not only undermining European principles, but also liberal ones

Unsurprisingly, this is unacceptable for Fincantieri, since it would frustrate efficient management. While it can sometimes be legitimate for governments to claim they are protecting national interests, this time it seems it is just a cover for the French to discriminate against foreign ownership.

The irritation in Italy is understandable. After all, France, like Italy, is a founding member of the EU and its actions violate the European principle of equal treatment. Indeed, President Macron’s government is creating national exceptions for France while pushing for denying them to the United Kingdom in Brexit negotiations.

With this initiative, France is not only undermining European principles, but also liberal ones. It is a protectionist measure.

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