Arnaud Montebourg, the minister in charge of all things corporate in France (officially, le ministère du redressement productif), seems much in favour of … all things French.

Companies are encouraged to stay in France, to produce locally, to hire locally. Recently, Mr Montebourg questioned the transaction between the French Alstom, which invented the TGV decades ago, and the American General Electric, which is interested in buying important chunks of Alstom.

Earlier this year, Mr Montebourg discussed lithium mining, saying that

Nous recherchons du lithium, par exemple, un métal fondamental pour les batteries des véhicules électriques … Avec notre nouvelle compagnie minière, nous protégerons nos intérêts nationaux.

In the quote above, Mr Montebourg argues that France is looking for lithium, a key metal for electric car batteries; with its new mining company, it can protect its national interests.

Mr Montebourg’s stance raises the question of why the national interests should be protected. More fundamentally, what exactly are these national interests in apparent need of protecting?

Answering this question is tricky. The concept of “nation” is rather vague and includes diverse individuals and institutions. It is not clear who Mr Montebourg has in mind when he talks about national interests.

Consider the case of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles exchange one form of energy (i.e., fuel) for another (i.e., electricity, which, in France, is produced mostly from nuclear sources). While the likelihood of a nuclear accident is tiny, the consequences of such an accident are dramatic and hardly in the national interest, as the recent case of Japan illustrates. What does it mean for the national interest when lithium batteries are used in electric cars? How do people in France, especially those who live close to nuclear reactors, feel about that national interest? 

There is the question of electric cars itself. Is it in the national interest to produce electric cars? Companies could invest in other ways to get people moving. If the French government is encouraging the production of electric cars, those other ways may not get the attention they deserve. What about investing in cars that are cleaner than electric ones? What about extending the public transport network? What about thinking about ways to reduce the need for transport? Perhaps pondering those questions would also be in the national interest.

While the notion of national interest gets thrown around a lot by Mr Montebourg, the details of what is implied by national interests are not. There is little thorough debate on the individuals/groups who benefit from or get harmed by policies said to be in the national interest. A lack of debate … would France, the country of philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, consider that in its national interest?

Your thoughts?

Photo by pellethepoet, published by André Bruel, Angers

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