Ardern makes a French connection
At times, France has been a nightmare prospect for this country, from the Rainbow Warrior to various Rugby World Cup encounters. Yet right now, France looks like becoming a key ally in New Zealand furthering its wished-for free trade agreement with the European Union, a deal which the government has identified as its main trade priority this year.
To that end, PMJacinda Ardern’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron was definitely the most significant stop on her recent, triumphant tour of Europe.
On one level, the chemistry between the two leaders shouldn’t be all that surprising. Ardern and Macron have a lot in common, starting with climate change policy. In December, France imposed a ban on all future oil and gas exploration, with a total phase-out of existing fossil fuel contracts by 2040. New Zealand has announced a similar phase-out, but one that’s more conservatively timed, by 2050. Basically, any local industry that’s dependent on fossil fuels has been given over 30 years notice to prepare for the transition.
Even so, one might have expected considerably more friction with the leader of France – given that a trade deal with the European Union would probably send a surge of farm exports from New Zealand onto European markets. In the past, agriculture has been the main stumbling block stopping this country from winning better market access to Europe. From Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac, France has been the most staunch defender of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) that underwrites farmer incomes across the continent.
Over the past six months though, Macron has shown himself to be noticeably less engaged with the CAP than his predecessors. In a fiery speech at the Sorbonne last September, Macron said it was high time to review ‘‘without taboos’’ whether the CAP was still fit for purpose, adding that he was not convinced it was. Agriculture is a shrinking part of France’s economy, and there are question marks over the CAP’s continued affordability, once Brexit has taken place.
At heart, Macron is a technocrat who sees France’s future as being in added-value processing, arms sales, and hightech commerce. The politics involved are difficult, however. Macron and his fellow technocrats are already seen as being too much in bed with the global financial elites, and he cannot afford to be seen to be simply jettisoning the farming sector – given that the doughty small farmers in the country’s rural and provincial towns still occupy a revered place within France’s sense of national identity. A recent rash of suicides among French farmers has been a testament to the anguish already being felt.
Clearly, Macron wants to reform French agriculture – and it could be politically useful for him to be able to blame some of the necessity for transition upon EU-wide trade initiatives, such as an FTA with New Zealand. Overall then, as we try to promote an FTA with the European Union, it could well be that France – instead of being an automatic obstacle – could be our sympathetic backroom partner.
Ultimately, Ardern’s rapport with Macron on climate change policy (and on agriculture’s role within it) can only help our efforts to win greater access to European markets.