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Walker's World: Year of the frog

French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Walker
Paris (UPI) Oct 22, 2008
Given his prominence and his gift for self-promotion, it was perhaps understandable that many thought it was to honor French President Nicolas Sarkozy that 2008 was formally known as The Year of the Frog.

The super-Frog has, after all, been everywhere, with his beautiful new wife, the pop singer and former model Carla Bruni. They have been to Windsor Castle to stay with the queen of England, to Washington to visit President George Bush, to China and Japan and Moscow and Berlin.

And Sarkozy was in Canada last week before making a quick trip to see Bush again to persuade him to back a new summit of world leaders to draw up a new Bretton Woods, a new architecture for the global economy. Taking every advantage of his current six-month term as chair of the European Union's Council of Ministers to organize summits and conferences and special meetings to save the financial system, Sarkozy is not lacking in ambition.

But the Year of the Frog has nothing to do with him. It was, in fact, designed to honor and also to save the small amphibian creature whose survival is under great threat. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums this week released a report on progress in amphibian conservation in 2008, the Year of the Frog. Zoos, aquariums and many international partners declared 2008 the Year of the Frog to bring awareness to the plight of the world's amphibians and to launch an urgent effort to save them.

One-third of all amphibians are in danger of extinction, in part because of climate change and human encroachment on their habitats, and also because of a deadly fungus spreading rapidly around the globe. There are remedies. The Memphis Zoo, for example, this year became the first place to use in vitro fertilization to breed the critically endangered Mississippi gopher frog, a noble undertaking that might not be quite as critical as saving the world's financial system but is a worthy goal nonetheless. Particularly if you are a gopher frog.

No doubt Sarkozy will be suitably impressed, once he has a moment to turn aside from his mission to save the planet, restore peace to the Middle East, redesign the global financial system and convince the world that it was he, rather than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who achieved the financial miracle. The French press has been reporting that Sarkozy has been somewhat miffed that so much credit has gone to "mon cher ami, l'Ecossais" (my dear friend, the Scotsman) rather than to the president of France.

If it all works and the global economy is really saved, there will be more than enough credit to go round for Scotsmen, Frenchman, Germans, Japanese and even the Italians, who are currently trying to ensure that the big "save the world" summit takes place on their watch next year when it is Italy's turn to chair the Group of Seven meetings of the leading industrial powers. Then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will also get some of the credit. There might even be a little credit left over for President Bush.

The problem is that this is not 1944, when only the British and the Americans had functioning capitalist economies. They ran the non-communist world, so what Lord Keynes for Britain and its Empire and Harry Dexter White for the United States agreed at Bretton Woods would be accepted by the French, Italians, Dutch and eventually by the defeated Germans and Japanese. Keynes and White agreed on a dual-currency system based on the dollar and the pound, on financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that would follow Anglo-Saxon rules and precepts, and a general move toward free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades.

It will not be so easy today. The Japanese, Germans, French, Italians and Canadians, not to mention the Chinese and Indians and Russians and Brazilians, will also want to design the new Bretton Woods system. They will want roles for the yen and yuan, the euro and the rupee, the real and the ruble.

Sarkozy already has made it clear that he wants a move toward harmonized tax systems, which means a roughly common corporate tax rate around the world along with a closure of "tax havens," plus limits on the rewards and bonuses for executives. Sarkozy is even looking kindly on the proposal from Berlusconi and his finance minister for a ban on hedge funds.

Addressing the European Parliament Tuesday, Sarkozy proposed that European countries set up their own sovereign wealth funds to take ownership stakes (this means at least partly to nationalize) in key industries, for fear that falling stock prices will result in a massive sell-off of European assets to foreigners.

"I don't want European citizens to wake up in a few months and discover that European businesses are now owned in capitals outside of Europe," he said.

Sarkozy went on to suggest that European states should coordinate their industrial policies, in order to ensure that Europe is a place that continues to build "ships, planes and cars." The United States was pumping money into its auto industry and Europe should do the same, Sarkozy argued, especially since carmakers are being forced to reorganize their production systems in order to comply with climate-change targets.

"We can't be naive; we must protect our industry," he went on, adding that Europe needed a new governing system to coordinate industrial and economic policies within the eurozone.

"We don't have any economic government worthy of the name. We can't go on like this."

It is not easy to see how any U.S. president, Bush or Obama or McCain, could go along with quite such an overtly statist and social democratic system, which dismantles a great deal of the free market system and installs government in the driving seat. If such a European-style new financial system for the world is the price of the Year of the Frog, it is unlikely to happen.

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