29 June 2013
Nice, France – I’m just down to sea level from the 2,600 meter high mountain forts on France’s wild, vertiginous Alpine border with Italy.
The Cote d’Azur, or Riviera, is buzzing with summer activity: packed beaches, traffic jams, crowded restaurants, outrageously priced hotels and an armada of yachts jostling for scarce marina space.
Looking at all this opulence and conspicuous consumption one would not know that France is plunged these days into economic and mental depression. French call it “morosité.”
French are an excitable people. They often strike me as an unstable mix of Germans and Italians. When French spirits are high, they are unstoppable. Just think of Napoleon’s armies and the “furia francese.” But French morale can sink just as fast. Today, France’s spirits are down in the dumps.
Other nations would be lucky to have such problems. In spite of uncontrollable debt, high unemployment, strikes, and declining industry, bountiful France is still one of the world’s most beautiful nations and best places to live.
French have one of the world’s best, most responsive health care services. Its food, wine and culture astound and delight. TGV high-speed trains zip through the beautiful countryside. Unlike much of western Europe, France is a large nation with varied topography, and distinctive regions. Some 75% of French spend their lavish, six-week vacations in their own country.
French still read books, study history, and, for the most part, eat real food. Never mind all those silly academic studies that tell you Auckland, New Zealand is the best place to live, France is the world’s premier destination and place to live.
Now, the bad news. Glorious, beautiful, well-run France may be facing the end of its “bel époque.” French industry has been ruined by overly powerful unions and their political allies in the Socialist Party.
One would be crazy these days to open a factory in France with its absurd 35-hour work week, endless vacations, surly unions, strikes, and social costs that add 50% to worker’s salaries. Laying off workers during downturns or closing plants involves siege warfare, with posturing socialist politicians fighting employers at every turn.
In an ominous new development, French have taken to comparing their economic malaise to Germany’s vibrant economy where past tough structural reforms in the labor market modernized and made its industry competitive.
Thanks to German’s intelligent system of vocational training for youth, its youngsters are at work while 45% of young French are unemployed. No wonder. French universities keep churning out unemployable graduates in social anthropology, sociology, and film-making.
Government in France employs 56% of all workers, an unsustainable cost that, with retirement at 60 and unemployment benefits – now 32% of GDP – is bleeding the economy to death. Even President Francois Holland’s recent tax increases will not save the economy from ruin – and France from a possible euro crisis.
The problem is that many French know their gravy train must slow down but they can’t bear to change. “La vie en rose” is just too seductive. Special interests – farmers, teachers, truckers, transport unions – demand the “rich” pay the bill. They can shut down France.
But there are not enough ”rich” to foot France’s big bills – or America’s, for that matter. Many wealthy French are moving out of the country, like Gerard Depardieu, or quietly moving assets to more friendly locales. French fear that the desperate socialists will slap more and higher taxes on citizens and even on foreign residents. Louis XVI had similar cash problems.
France’s media is full of alarms all about how the industrious Germans are pulling way ahead, as if Germans were somehow a threat to France. This is potentially a very dangerous notion. The Franco-German entente is the rock upon which united Europe is built. Nothing must be allowed to endanger this architecture – particularly not envy, nationalism, and blaming the Teutons for France’s self-inflicted wounds.
What France urgently needs is another Charles De Gaulle who had the courage and strength to end the bitter war in Algeria in 1962 and bring stable government. A new De Gaulle must force drastic cuts in social welfare and spending, and force French to learn a new work ethic.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2013