France is dancing on a volcano, and Europe may go up in flames
The economy is on the slide, but the French are convinced their 'model’ is still the best
There is a general perception that the French have an innate understanding about the quality of life
By Felix Marquardt
8:11PM BST 25 Jul 2013
During the Bastille Day celebrations this month, François Hollande declared – to the incredulity of pretty much everyone in France – that “the recovery is here”. There are no particular economic indicators that would suggest this. Consumer spending and manufacturing remain at historic lows; growth in the third quarter is expected to be zero; the OECD has predicted that unemployment will actually be worse next year; and only this week a senior member of the FPD, Germany’s junior coalition partner, pronounced that he was “very worried” about France, arguing that Hollande’s decision to raise taxes was “fundamentally wrong”.
As an Austrian-American born and raised in Paris, and still living there, I have always been intrigued by the French faith in the French way. No other country – save the United States – is as persuaded that it embodies a universal model for human societies. Indeed, like so many other politicians before him, Hollande seemed to be displaying an absolute faith not in economic statistics, but simply in his nation. This is France, the president seemed to be saying, so voilà.
France does, to be sure, boast many assets. There is its famous healthcare system, one of the world’s highest quality and most generous. A country of engineers, France rightly prides itself on having some of the best infrastructure. It has by far the largest number of corporate champions for a country its size, across a host of sectors. Its family policies have produced Europe’s highest fertility rate. Then there is the general perception that France offers a better work-life balance, and an innate cultural understanding about quality of life: great food, what the British writer Roger Cohen has called “the only wine worth drinking”, unrivalled fashion design, some of the world’s grandest old buildings – and lots of paid holidays.
But a system whose economic performance is mediocre in times of prosperity and plain lousy in times of crisis can hardly purport to be a “model”. And sadly, the same advantages that make the French believe in their system are also what make the country so unprepared for reform. World-class public infrastructure and the safety net of the welfare state have kept the French relatively shielded from the worst effects of the financial crisis so far. But they have also shielded them from reality. The reality is that France is dancing on a volcano. Add to that a tradition of posturing among politicians (President Hollande recently decreed that the eurozone crisis was “over”) and a chronic lack of courage among the political class in telling their constituents the truth (that the current system as it stands is doomed), and what you get is a people who live in la-la land.
There is no lack of proposals for reform – an abundance of action plans have recommended all sorts of ways to reduce public spending, shrink the debt, reduce unemployment, reboot the economy and, in short, save France. But another national attribute is such a driving passion for ideology that conversations about politics or the economy are unlikely ever to lead to action, since the debate tends to be more about who has the loveliest ideas rather than who is best at dealing with reality.
Believe it or not, some of the harshest attacks on Hollande’s presidency come not from the Right but the Left. Many are actually arguing that the government has sold out to conservative ideology. It almost makes you feel sorry for him.
Yet the emperor has no clothes – and the sting of reality is going to be harsh when, please pardon my French, la merde hits the fan. As a result of a protracted recession and high unemployment, more and more people in France have stopped spending. Foreign investment has dropped, and there is little chance France will meet its budget targets, creating a downward spiral that has many – not least the Germans – worrying that one of Europe’s biggest economies might follow the path of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
This claim will doubtless anger many in France, despite their insistence that they love a good, heated debate. The French judge an utterance not only on its merits, but also by who is behind it. They tend to think that you need to be a woman to express views on gender, homosexual to have an opinion about gay rights – and French to judge the French système.
This is not about Schadenfreude. France’s decline and fall is a tragedy not just for those of us here in Paris, but for the whole continent. As Metternich once said: “When Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” Or, as Rainer Brüderle, that German minister, said this week: “If France doesn’t get back on its feet, that would be tragic… we can’t manage without France.”
It’s not just the economic impact – much as the British may scoff, France remains an important and influential ally, playing a crucial role in the global conversation. And at a moment when the European project stands at a particularly crucial threshold — effectively, integration or death — the continent, and the world, really can’t afford to lose France. Both for its own sake and for everyone else’s, the country needs to wake up.