By Paul Busharizi
You see it everywhere. In the 2km straight, length and width of the Avenue de Champ-Elysees, lined by trees, gardens, shops and bracketed by the historic monuments of the Arc de Trionmphe and the Place de la Concord; In the intricate detail in design of Palais Bourbon, which houses the French parliament or the vastness and extravagance of Versailles, the final centre of power of the French monarchy before the revolution; In the efficiency of movement, the thinking behind their work and their way of life.
You are left in no doubt that you are in the midst of a great culture - long in history, deep in tradition and durable as a civilisation. One easily gets carried away. But the French are not all style and no substance.
They are the fifth largest economy in the world, they are the second largest agricultural exporter, never mind that less than 5% of the population is involved in agriculture, and they are on the cutting edge on various scientific fields from avionics to environmental engineering.
French history is still being written, but how they got to where they are holds useful lessons for Uganda and other African countries. The French Revolution is the event in history that we all know, but it’s how they got to that place that is useful to examine for us.
Basically, the ruling elite of the time concentrated more and more resources in their hands – one just has to look at the palace of Versailles, which is approximately the size of 10 soccer pitches and has 2,300 rooms, to understand this. This unbridled rapaciousness was financed by the taxes paid by the underclasses, who were sinking further and further into poverty.
The realities of the two classes were so out of sync, a situation best illustrated by Marie Antoinette’s reported admonishment of the hungry Parisians, who were calling for bread: “Let them eat cake.” The politics of a country are said to have matured when there is a functioning state, observance of the rule of law and accountability to the people by the political class. The French revolution led to a more accountable ruling class, after numerous stops and starts thereafter.
With accountable government comes security of property, and with this comes the growth of the private sector, important because a country is only as strong as its private sector. The private sector pays taxes but in return demands security of property, a working economy and usable infrastructure or they withhold their taxes at best or vote with their feet at worst.
The private sector is important for beyond paying taxes; they create jobs and extract value from harnessing the factors of production. Governments do not create wealth; they facilitate the private sector to do that. More than 200 years after the French Revolution this collaboration between state and business has resulted in at least 40 of the Fortune 500 top companies in the world coming from France.
The extravagance of the French monarchy, while providing some of the world’s fi nest tourist attractions today, symbolise a period of insensitivity and abdication of their role as the stewards of public resources for the benefit of the people. No such monuments to ego can see the light of day in a democratic environment, because their construction takes away resources from financing social services and other public goods.
The parallels with Africa are quite obvious. We find ourselves wallowing in poverty despite the vast bounty of our continent largely because of unaccountable governments. In a meeting with the Anthony Bouthelier, the boss of the French Council of Investors in Africa (CIAN), in Paris last week, he was dubious about claims that there the continent’s poverty is for lack of cash. “You have too much money. The problem is that your leaders bank it here, in Europe. And it is not necessarily lent to investors coming to Africa so there is next to no benefit to you,” he said.
A replay of the French Revolution on the continent is unlikely – the guillotines went out of production a long time ago - but is unnecessary as well. But the lesson has to be that unaccountable government cannot go hand in hand with a thriving private sector – one has to give. And for the sake of the continent, we hope it is the unaccountable governments that buckle first and make was for a thriving private sector.
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