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Youth and Leaders Summit

Speech by the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe

(The spoken text shall prevail)

Mr President,
Distinguished Professors,
Ladies and gentlemen, French and international students, dear friends,

It was a good idea to invite me, Mr President. You know, spending so many years in your company when I was very young gave me a very real experience of what inequality is. I’m talking about the inequality between a man like yourself: amiable, well read, sharp, witty, elegant from birth or very soon thereafter, and the ordinary garden variety of student, like myself at the time. The students who sweated blood, hitting the books and struggling with essays to earn lower marks than yours on the whole. And, in contrast to your always impeccable appearance, they came out of the ordeal with frantic gazes, wrinkled shirts and aching backs.

Since then I have done my utmost to close the gap. For example, I regularly come back to the school you direct, despite a schedule that is somewhat busier than it was twenty years ago. It's always a good idea to go back to school from time to time. Especially when it is a "free" school that teaches you to think freely about the world you live in. Furthermore, besides reading books, I can think of nothing that is more invigorating than rubbing elbows with students. All the more so when these students are getting ready to succeed, to put it politely, the people they are destined to meet. The famous decision-makers, of which, as I gather from the title of this event and from your invitation to me, I am one. Therefore, we are all future decision-makers or future ex-decision-makers. It’s a very good thing.

It’s a very good thing, because decision-making is a huge responsibility. No pressure, but the world, your world and, more importantly, your children’s world, will depend more or less on the decisions you make. Big and little decisions. Conscious and less conscious decisions. That’s the way it is: you cannot evade your responsibilities. You can be sad or alarmed. Or else, you can be happy about it, because it means you can take action. At every level. When decisions are good, when they are a step in the right direction, there are no small decisions, only helpful decisions. Albert Camus put it in a way that I find quite comforting: “Superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that’s all”. (Speech at Brooklyn College, New York, 1 May 1946).

Now, more than ever, there is certainly no lack of challenges, of “superhuman tasks”. But when we take a closer look at these challenges, we see that they all have something in common, they all have inequality as a cause or a consequence. Generally speaking, if we are not careful, these inequalities will build up, be self-sustaining and widen.

I saw as much in my former life, as the mayor of a large city. Obviously, as Prime Minister, this issue and this responsibility are on a different scale.

I/ The fact is that the world today is facing a cruel paradox

1/ The world has hardly ever been so prosperous and the prospects for economic development greater

Global GDP grew by more than 3% in 2017. These trends are not seen only in Asia or the United States. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, should see growth of more than 3% in 2018, according to the World Bank's forecasts.

2/ Yet, prosperity has hardly benefited to so few

27%. That is the percentage of global growth captured by the wealthiest 1% around the world. This is what has shown the first report by the World Inequality Lab launched by Thomas Piketty.

The world has never had so many billionaires. At this rate, the Forbes ranking will be as thick as a phone book! In the United States the wealth of the super-rich has soared to levels not seen since the roaring twenties when Jay Gatsby was still staring at the blinking green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock: the top 0.1 percent own more than 20% of the country’s wealth… But the new fortunes being made are not always clustered where you would think. China now has more billionaires than any other country. And last year, Beijing became the global billionaire capital, ahead of New York.

Such concentration of wealth undermines the cohesion that our societies are built on. This is true in the United States, where everyone is talking about the collapse of the middle class. The same middle class –“the great middle class” depicted by Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor or Philip Roth - that was the driving force behind America’s economic power after the Second World War when small property owners turned to white collar employees.

3/ More worrying, new causes of inequality have emerged

a/ The digital divide

Less than 50 percent of the global population has Internet access. In 2017, the connection rate in Africa was 23%.

And yet, digital technology is to progress what electricity was in the twentieth century or coal in the nineteenth century. Individuals, businesses and territories that cannot "connect" to the rest of the world will be left behind.

That's why, one of the first decisions that the President of the French Republic and I made was to ensure access to high-speed and very high-speed Internet connections everywhere in France.

b/ Climate change is the great inequality

The President of the French Republic stressed the point in his speech at Xi'an in China on 8 January 2018: “We know that the disruption hits the poorest countries hardest (…). This is the double injustice of climate disruption. The most vulnerable countries are the ones that are not yet developed and they are now afflicted by the consequences of damage from previous decades and even centuries. We have a special responsibility in this matter.”

People who are much more qualified than I am will tell you about it in greater detail. In the French Government, we have a highly qualified person for this issue. I’m talking about Nicolas Hulot.

For those who are interested, when I was about your age, I read a book that was fascinating. It was a bit frightening too. This book, which is really an essay, is called “Collapse”. The author, as you undoubtedly know, is Jared Diamond. It is difficult to sum up the 600 dense pages of the book in a few words. You simply need to know that the author makes an unflinching study of how environmental damage affects certain societies. And that reading the book was enough to convince me to change our behaviour radically.

Nothing I just said is news to you. That is why I will not talk more about the facts. You don’t need to travel far to see inequality. You can see it in your own neighbourhood. Inequality is in literature, read Hugo, Zola, Dickens and Steinbeck. Inequality is a perpetual subject of inquiry for economists, from Marx to Rawls. Open any newspaper and you will see inequality in the photos, in the articles, showing us inequality that we would like to think of as from another time.

There are several attitudes possible for dealing with this: we can ignore it, saying that, after all, inequality has been around since the world began. Or we can be sad about it, without doing anything more. Or we can be disheartened: where should we start, and more especially, with whom? For what result? Or we can eliminate it. The right response, the right attitude, the one I choose, is the latter.

Once we have decided to eliminate inequality, we need to do it the right way. Let’s simply remember that history has provided ample and sad proof that total freedom, and total equality, both have tragic consequences.

II/ So, what are our solutions?

1/ First, at the national level

You'll have to admit, Mr President, that summing up will be a challenge. The subject would warrant a second speech on general policy lasting about an hour and a half without a break. Unfortunately, neither you nor I have the time for it. So, I will just mention a few actions. Here they are:
  • First of all, protecting everyone in France from absolute poverty. For a Government, this means raising minimum social benefits, as we have done, to keep pace with the rising cost of living and ensuring that those in need have real access to benefits. Very often, the people entitled to the benefits don't even know about them.
  • Second, reducing inequality means ensuring that everyone, everywhere in France, has access to essentials, such as medical care, public services, transport solutions and quality Internet connections. Of course, we cannot carpet the whole country with major amenities. But we can do some things that are both very simple and very helpful, such as boosting telemedicine, facilitating online administrative formalities and developing different modes of transport.
  • Reducing inequality means investing in our most precious assets: knowledge and skills. Most importantly, this means investing more in those with the least, the least well off school children, dropouts, jobseekers and workers who need new skills to keep their jobs. In a mobile and rapidly changing world, this means providing better protection for people through school, apprenticeships and career training. Skills are the best protection and the most powerful means of advancement.
  • Reducing inequality means providing every citizen with a safety net when things go wrong. After all, we are all potentially vulnerable. One day, we could find ourselves jobless, ill, bereaved or elderly. In such situations, there must be solidarity.
So, in a few very brief words, there you have what a Government can and should do. Imperfectly to be sure. I have absolutely no pretention of solving the problem once and for all. In this area, as in so many others, modesty is required. Especially when you take action at the international level.

2/ Because we must also take action at the international level

As I said: the scope for action is smaller. But that doesn’t mean that a country, such as France, which is heard and sometimes admired, should not take action. For France holds a special place among nations. And one of its greatest strengths, and a reason people listen to France, is that it tries to provide solutions for global injustices. What are these solutions?
  • An unwavering commitment to defend common goods, especially the climate. Obviously, this means providing financial support for initiatives. It also means providing support for what we call “adaptation”, in other words, projects aimed at eliminating the already very real effects of climate change.
  • The President of the French Republic called for a revitalisation of multilateralism at the last General Assembly of the United Nations. It means encouraging the involvement of countries that have been more discreet until now. I’m thinking of China, for example. Its participation in COP21 was absolutely crucial.
  • Recasting and increasing our Official Development Assistance, since global crises are fuelled by inequality and feelings of injustice. The President of the French Republic has made a commitment to increase this assistance to 0.55% of gross national income by 2022. Supporting equal opportunities for development: access to education, as well as to health, food and energy.
I needed a conclusion worthy of the subject and fitting to the challenge. Some may find the challenge a bit overwhelming. I found my closing words in the work of Camus. Him again. You see, I love men and women who love freedom.

In a speech given in 1956, entitled "Call for a civilian truce in Algeria", Camus said: “A strong heart, intelligence, and courage are enough to overcome fate. All it takes is will: will that is not blind, but firm and deliberate.”

So, this is what I wish for you, what I wish for all of us: firm and deliberate will. And I know of no better place to forge that will than right here at Sciences Po.


22 January 2018