Is France Really Over This Time?

Things like this don't happen to France.

Things like this don’t happen to France.

France in free falleconomic decline…on the brink of disaster. Those are some of the recent headlines about the French economy. It seems like we’ve heard it before (and I even blogged about it a few weeks ago), those rumors about the end of things as France has always known them, the aggrieved downfall of a once-great nation. But that was before the most intense and protracted economic crisis Europe has known since the 1930s. This time actually sounds different.

After decades of indulging in decline culture–that special brand of lyrical pessimism which the French could trademark–of foreign media scrutinizing the decline of this country perpetually preoccupied with the diminishment of its own greatness, the question that we’re hearing now is whether, economically, this is finally it for France. With its massive social spending, its enormous 90% ratio of public debt to GDP, its decades of investment in a government-subsidized quality of life that has made the “French way” famous, is France now on a Greece-like brink? At the end of a path of unsustainable spending that the government is simply failing or refusing to address?

Here is the alarmist interpretation of the current economic signals: “I’ve spent a good deal of time this past month reviewing the European situation, and I’m more convinced than ever that France is on its way to becoming the most significant economic train wreck in Europe within the next few years.” That’s John Mauldin, a (very conservative) financial writer in the Business Insider. If it’s extreme, it’s the extreme echo of a growing concern among Eurozone observers that France is ignoring some increasingly urgent warning signals.

The numbers, when you consider them all together and in the context of the broader economic context in Europe, are chastening. Most significant is France’s social spending which is among the highest in the world, at more than 30 percent of gross domestic product. Total public spending makes up about 56% of GDP, which makes sense when one fifth of all French people are employed in the public sector (that’s considerably more than Greece).

French unemployment is at a 15-year high of 11.2% and has risen for nearly 27 consecutive months (with a month of reprieve earlier this summer). Perhaps more significantly, economically and symbollically, French youth unemployment stands at 25.7%: that’s one quarter of the young people who can’t find work in a country which prides itself on the quality and prestige of its education.

The only real, significant and lasting solution is to cut public spending. That’s basic math. But that means making significant structural changes: rolling back France’s historic pension and unemployment systems (among the most generous in the world), cutting back on healthcare entitlements (among the most famous and high quality in the world), drastically reducing the number of the public sector employees, all those expenses that have forged the French identity, that are integral aspects of the French model, and French pride.

But the Hollande government, like nearly every government before it in the Fifth Republic (on the left or the right) has failed to make any significant spending reforms. The French have had it so good for so long (as I’ve mentioned in the past in this blog), no generation could possibly imagine that they would be the ones to do without, that something so harsh and inexorable would befall them. That’s not how things work in France. Or in French politics.

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François Hollande knows time is running out.

Instread of cutting spending significantly, the goverment has raised taxes and continues to raise taxes, to the point that last week Hollande’s own finance minister, Pierre Moscovici–in a clearly off-message moment–even talked about a “ras le bol fiscal,” a fiscal fed-upedness, a public sentiment of total saturation with taxes. Then just a few days ago, Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, declared that France has reached “the fateful limit of tax increases”. That’s the diplomatic equivalent in Europe of a very loudly whispered admonition: “Enough!” The IMF said the same thing in a report earlier this year, noting that tax pressures had reached “an excessive level” and recommending that the only lever France should be using to reduce its budget deficit is…spending cuts.

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The Economist was headlining on French denial over ayear ago.

The irony (and tragedy, actually) is that everyone agrees. The EU, the IMF — and President Hollande all agree that France must make sending cuts, because in the face of all these indicators it seems delusional not to. But without the political will, without the public courage to both agree on the economics and make the extraordinarily unpopular structural changes that everyone agrees are, at this point, actually urgent, then all this consensus is no more effective than a long-term smoker promising to quit and then lighting up as he agrees that smoking kills. Just one last cigarette. Every subsequent cigarette becomes that one last drag. Usually that kind of behavior is called denial.

There is another consensus that seems to be growing among observers, and that’s that François Hollande does not, in fact, have the political will to quit. France sees itself as a natural leader among nations, and as a naturally enviable model democracy. France is proud and protectionist, and that now seems to have become a blinding pride, and a defensive protectionism. Part of the problem may in fact not be anything more complex than denial, denial that France–a country like France!–could be in these kinds of economic straits. Denial of the risk and the urgency.

Serge Gainsbourg never quit smoking.

Serge Gainsbourg never quit smoking.

Maybe things will work out. Maybe the economy in Europe will improve on its own, maybe the timid signs of the beginning of a recovery in the Eurozone will give way to a real recovery, resolving France’s unemployment and deficit issues on their own. Maybe France will be able to surf that wave, to pass under the radar, to get lucky. Lots of people never quit smoking, right?

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Hello, This Is France Speaking, Are There Any Leaders Out There?

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The French Socialist Party is currently gathered at their annual summer summit.

As the August Paralysis (see my previous post about this) comes to an end, France is beginning to reawaken, with the politicians taking the lead. The great tradition in French politics is for each party to regroup in “Summer Schools,” which are informal summits that take place in lovely seaside spots or the south of France with a lot of networking and genuine hammering out of agendas. But while the Hollande administration gathered this week for a seminar with the theme “France in 2025,” and the Socialist party gathers now for their weekend summer school in La Rochelle (a pretty port town on the Atlantic coast), the opposition UMP party is…bickering. A lot.

And they’re bickering about something that probably seems very strange to the uninitiated. The different (and quite hostile) factions of the UMP are arguing about the right to perform a restrospective assessment of the Sarkozy presidency. It seems like an odd thing to forbid, since what else has any observer been doing since the moment the former president lost his bid for reelection. It also seems like an odd thing to forbid in a democracy! As though the president were some divine king figure whose actions were too sanctified to judge–at the risk of committing a crime of lèse-majesté. (This in itself says a lot about the way the figure of the president is perceived in France, and the way Sarkozy is, for the most part, perceived in his own party).

But here’s the thing: that fomer president is in the midst of doing what no other leader of a democracy in Europe–except Berlusconi in Italy–has ever done. After having failed to be reelected as president, he is unofficially making plans for a comeback to run for president again.

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Fomer French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made an official comeback in early July.

An assessment by his own party of what Sarkozy accomplished during his five years in office will undoubtedly highlight many accomplishments, but it’ll mostly be the occasion for the UMP party leaders who don’t support a comeback to enumerate all his mistakes and political miscalculations. It’s a very public way of undressing the emperor before he’s even made his first real sortie as a presidential candidate. For an election, by the way, which doesn’t take place until 2017. It’s also a missed opportunity for France’s primary opposition party to be focussing on the Hollande government actions at this crucial back-to-school moment.

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France in 2025?

In the French media this week, there was an interesting unity in the criticisms of both the right wing and the the left wing strategies at the moment. On the one hand the Hollande government was actually ridiculed for deciding to dedicate the opening cabinet meeting to speculations about the country 10 years from now, while the right-wing opposition was criticized for being narrow-mindedly focussed on their own past.

Neither party, it seemed, was talking about France…today.

When an Illegal Substance in France Is Not What You Think

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When it comes to the technology of making babies, the United States is often considered the Wild West: if you have the means to pay for it, pretty much anything is legal—egg donors, sperm donors, surrogate mothers, picking your child’s sex, and any combination of the above. Yet France, where very little is legal when it comes to assisted reproductive technology and all of it’s highly-regulated, is actually becoming an even wilder West, with women and men taking things into their own hands—illegally.

This July, a judge in Nantes, the capital city of the Loire region, granted a man visitation rights with a child born from an “artisanal” sperm donation he had made to some lesbian friends. “Artisanal” here actually means “illegal”. Wait, how can sperm donation be illegal…in France? Well, it is legal—but only for heterosexual couples. Gay couples, although they now have the right to marry, do not have the right to access any kind of assisted reproductive technology. Indeed, this is the big sticking point that remains unresolved after the enormous gay marriage debate of 2012.

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An online catalog of egg donors from a U.S.-based egg donation website. It is an essentially unregulated free market.

What’s happening is that gay couples are, instead, doing things “artisanally” (cf. “illegally”). Concretely, that means that gay women, and even single women who want a child—since unless a woman is in a committed relationship with a man, in France she doesn’t have the right to sperm donations either!—are seeking out donors on their own. They’re using their own informal networks (mostly the internet) to ask a man to donate sperm, which they then inject themselves.

So if you thought the phrase “turkey baster baby” was an old-fashioned term from a politically incorrect era pre-dating reproductive technology, well, in France it hasn’t fallen out of use. (Although they don’t eat much turkey here—they prefer capon at Christmas—so it’s usually a syringe).  And by the way, if the parties involved in this informal exchange of reproductive matter are found out, they theoretically risk up to two years in prison and up to $40,000 in fines.

All of this says a lot about how France, despite its reputation for being quite liberal on social issues, actually conceives of the idea of family. And it’s a pretty conservative idea: according to the law, the proper family does not include gay couples or single women, since neither is allowed access to the means to found a family.

The French idea of a family.  Edgar Degas's "La famille Bellili".

The French idea of a family.
Edgar Degas’s “La famille Bellelli”.

This recent legal decision makes a lot of people nervous, spelling out clearly the risks of “artisanal” sperm donation and insemination. Since the process is not necessarily anonymous (as it is mandated by the law when done officially), the donor could at any time demand to be legally recognized as the father or, conversely, gay or single mothers could demand that the donor assume paternity. None of which is usually part of the informal plan, and certainly it wasn’t in the case of the Nantes couple.

The sheer awkwardness and anachronism—“turkey baster baby”—of these situations that are brought to light by court decisions like this one will undoubtedly add to the already growing pressure to make the reproductive technology laws in France evolve. But it’s a political hot potato and, not by coincidence, the Hollande administration pushed back the scheduled hearings on the issue…to 2014.

If the French Are Among World’s Most Productive People Then Explain August

"Paris in August": it's even a film (and a novel).

“Paris in August”: it’s even a film (and a novel).

There are many paradoxes in France, the most famous of which is probably the incredibly high ratio of patisseries and steak tartare to slim French people with no more heart disease than anyone else. Why aren’t the French fat and dying young? That particular French Paradox has engendered a whole industry of envy and literature. Less well-known but, frankly, even more confounding, is the August Paradox.

Contrary to national stereotypes, the French are actually not total flâneurs. Far from it. (In fact it’s a stereotype that can get even the most delightful French journalists all worked up). You may recall the highly-tweeted episode this winter, when the American C.E.O. of the tire company Titan International, Maurice Taylor, lashed out at workers and unions in France saying French workers just sit around talking a lot and taking long lunch breaks. Turns out that in citing that national stereotype, Taylor was just reinforcing another national stereotype—of Americans as boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

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Maurice Taylor, boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

Recent (and less recent) studies show that not only are French workers more productive than German workers (good to know these days when Germany is allegedly the labor model to which the rest of Europe should aspire), but they’re only marginally less productive than American workers. And American workers actually work 23% more hours than the French (who actually work more hours than the Germans). Mr. Taylor is free to think and say what he wants, and to be honest, he’s probably not the only one thinking that, but the statistical reality is that France, despite the image it projects, is the fifth biggest economy in the world. And with a population that is 20 percent of the United States population.

And with the month of August.

Now let me explain August in Paris. The city is a ghost town (and for those of you familiar with August in Paris, let me know if you think this summer’s ghostlier than others). You can cross the boulevard without looking, and ride a Vélib bicycle the wrong way up a one way street, because even if there is a car coming, there is a sense of complicity among the few warm bodies still hanging around this joint, something like “You too, eh? Here, let me give you a wide berth and hang in there, man.” Come September, that car will honk angrily and the driver will spit at you.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

More seriously, the city is at a commercial standstill. For most of the merchants still open last week, Friday or Saturday was their last day of business before shuttering up for three weeks (although a few, economic crisis oblige, are leaving for just two weeks). Market stands were hawking at half-price whatever limp produce they had left, and restaurateurs were serving truncated menus with only half their normal dishes in order to empty out the larders. Eyes were sparkling, waiters practically jigging, and you could sense it wasn’t the night to linger over that rest of the bottle of wine. As of Sunday, in every street, metal shutters were drawn over storefronts with the telltale piece of paper taped in the middle, announcing the dates of departure and return. There was even the occasional emoticon.

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Have you noticed that so many of the Vélibs (Paris’s free public bicycles) seem to be missing or broken or have flat tires? It’s August and everyone’s working at half-staff, Vélib maintenance included. In fact the only maintenance workers on duty are the métro staffers, because in August, since no one—pretty much literally—is around riding public transportation, that’s when they shutter whole lines for several weeks. Have you ever had a medical emergency in Paris in August? Don’t. I had a scheduled surgery a few years ago in the summer, on the last week this chief surgeon in a public hospital was taking appointments: the first week of June.

Small businesses will shut down entirely and the whole staff will take leave at the same time—because there aren’t any clients around to do business. In large companies, the executive offices will be empty, a skeletal staff will stick around enjoying the absence of phone calls and emails, and sometimes company cafeterias will just close. I worked for many years at a 24-hour international news network, a French-style CNN, and yet every summer, just like the rest of French media, the bosses’ offices would empty, the number of news bulletins would shrink, shows would be suspended until fall. As though the rest of the world’s news went on holiday in August like it does in France, where French newspapers run light summer series and reduce their news pages since, well, there’s really no news (N.B: this week’s headline is the revolt of angry egg producers who are smashing their stocks because of low prices. Believe it or not, this is interesting, so come back here for more on this shortly).

All I can say, unlike Maurice Taylor, is bravo. Although I, too, find French unions often dogmatic, and I actually feel quite torn about the August Paradox. I find the August ritual freakishly normative, and alienating for people who don’t have the option to leave (I could plan to be out of town if I chose to). I also find it really annoying when metro stations are closed, when my boulangerie is closed, when all the damn dry cleaners are on holiday (who’s got office clothes to wash?), when my French colleagues didn’t seem to think that there was a credibility issue for a network allegedly covering international news to scale down to a “summer news schedule.” How can any industry, let alone a whole economy, be globally competitive when three months of the year feel like write-offs (June is counting down, July is wrapping things up, and August is a black-out)?

Like so much about French culture, August is deeply resistant. And yet like so many other French rituals, August seems, paradoxically, to be highly functional. The August paralysis, this highly-protected custom of total shutdown, doesn’t seem to have made France the country of sclerotic inefficiency that Maurice Taylor claims. So bravo, because if you can take the most significant amount of vacation of any country in the world and still be more productive than the Germans, well, then you’re getting something right.