Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fish Story

The fishermen who have been blocking ports, fuel facilities, and autoroute exits have been urged by their leaders to get back to fishing after the government promised emergency aid of 110 million euros over two years to compensate for rising fuel prices. The details of this arrangement are a little murky at this point. On France2 tonight, Michel Barnier said that Brussels had approved the plan, but François Fillon said that the EU authorities had signed off only on a "restructuring plan" and that France had acted "unilaterally" to aid an industry that is an a "unique" structural position, squeezed by both rising fuel prices and intense price competition from imports. Demand for fish has increased by 50 percent over the past several years, but prices have fallen by 5 percent owing to foreign competition.

Fillon might well want to make this argument a little more forcefully, since truckers lost no time in demanding a government subsidy to help them cope with rising fuel costs; farmers are also grumbling; and then there are the airlines, etc. So the government had better come up with a principled argument to distinguish between the deserving beleaguered and the undeserving. Fillon, after detailing the structural weakness of the French fishing industry, fell back on sentimental arguments to distinguish fishermen from truckers: fuel costs hit fishermen directly, he said, because they share in the boat's expenses, and fishing is the most dangerous occupation in France and Navarre. Truckers are unlikely to be impressed by the first distinction and may well remark that fishing doesn't get any more dangerous when the price of fuel goes up, so why should danger be the criterion for who gets state aid.

"Compensate the losers" is a mantra that is often touted as a recipe for dealing with globalization's fallout, but compensation can be a politically tricky business.

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