The body of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s wily finance minister, is encased in a marble tomb in the Church of Saint Eustache in central Paris. But if you believe Arnaud Montebourg, the enfant terrible of French politics, his spirit is still very much alive, 330 years after his death, and about to spark a new, digital-age industrial revolution in France.
Montebourg, 50, an ardent opponent of globalization, has for the past 15 months served as the nation’s “Minister of Productive Renewal,” in charge of industry, a post that — in theory — gives him leeway to implement some of his more radical ideas. He spells them out in a book published on Sept.18, “The Battle for Made in France.” Invoking Colbert’s grandiose interventionist approach, it is a strident call for industry to be protected and nurtured. Among other things, Montebourg insists that the outsourcing trend of the past decade needs to be reversed; he dreams of the day when televisions, textiles and toys will once again be made in France, as the nation recaptures its manufacturing glory.
Montebourg’s political fortunes hit a low point in December 2012 when he threatened to resign after being overruled in a very public clash with the London-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. President François Hollande personally asked him to reconsider, and today, he seems to be back in favor.
On Sept. 12, Montebourg and Hollande stood shoulder to shoulder at the Elysée Palace to announce a new direction for French industrial policy. A video made for the occasion starts with a solemn pledge that “France is reinventing itself.” With Vivaldi music swelling in the background, images of great inventors and inventions of the past give way to more forward-looking activities, such as medical biotechnology and cloud computing. These are some of the 34 sectors Montebourg and his team have singled out, with the help of McKinsey and Co, as the standard bearers of French industry of tomorrow.
He describes the plan as “participatory Colbertism,” a concerted attempt by the state to underwrite the future prosperity of the nation by targeting manufacturing sectors. Where Colbert focused on glass and cloth for tapestry, Montebourg is putting the emphasis on nanotechnology, big data and other digital industries.