FRANCE is in a bad way. Unemployment is high, taxes are too high, the economy is stagnant, with no growth and in danger of slipping back into recession.
Many of the brightest young French people flee the country to make their career in the City of London. Discontent is rife, strikes and protests everyday events. The rise of the Front National (FN) is evidence of the public’s contempt for the political class. And now the revelation that president Hollande has a mistress has sent his partner, France’s First, if unmarried, Lady, into hospital. Dire times indeed.
This is the view commonly expressed, with a deal of gloating, in London, especially in the right-wing press, where the wretched state of France is seen as a symbol of the folly of the eurozone and as proof that a market economy is always better than a statist one. France is sinking and the UK is rising etc.
The sex scandal is the least of it, interesting principally because the French press has long observed a self-denying ordinance with regard to the private life – ie sex life – of politicians. Nothing would have come out, for instance, about Dominique Strauss-Khan’s sexual voracity but for that unfortunate incident in a New York hotel room.
Even now, many have greeted the news about Mr Hollande with a shrug of the shoulders and the comment “it’s his affair” – in both senses of the word. His refusal to answer questions about it at his press conference yesterday is unlikely to do him great harm, and not only because his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, to whom he wasn’t married anyway, is herself unpopular. A recent poll showed that 77 per cent of French people think the president’s sex-life no concern of theirs.
Mr Hollande’s real troubles are political, and arise from his inability to stimulate economic recovery.
Admittedly most of the troubles listed – and somewhat exaggerated – in my first paragraph are long-standing. They pre-date his presidency, and, if he has (perhaps) made them worse by a range of tax rises, he has also been making attempts at reforms intended to free up the economy – a bit anyway.
If these ever have the intended effect, it will be some years before this is felt. Meanwhile people are more conscious of the consequences of austerity, and many with vested interests in the status quo are alarmed and angry.
Yet there is nothing new either in the discontent or in Mr Hollande’s position.
It is a dozen years since the novelist and political commentator Maurice Druon published a polemic entitled La France aux ordres d’un cadavre, the corpse being the Soviet Union. “Since the end of the Second World War,” he wrote, “France has lived under a semi-Marxist regime, the only country in (western) Europe to find itself in this position”. Mr Druon exaggerated. French statism and distrust of the market economy go back far beyond the Russian Revolution, indeed beyond their own Great Revolution of 1789, to the mercantilist policies of Colbert in the reign of Louis XIV. The French are as fond of money as anybody, but distrust of the Money Power is ingrained.
Not without reason. The statist French economy may indeed restrict enterprise as its critics this side of the Channel insist – and some on the French Right also – but, whatever the present discontents, it hasn’t in many respects served France badly.
Irritated by criticism of France in the British press, the French Embassy in London has just issued a statement pointing out that actually a lot of things are better, and indeed done better, in France.
Whereas the British NHS is “ailing”, the French Health Service is rated by the World Health Organisation the best in the world. Social benefits, especially for mothers, are high and cherished. French infrastructure – roads and railways – is far superior to ours, and rail travel is a good deal cheaper. Britain dithers over the building of high-speed rail lines: France has got on and built them. Energy costs are also lower in France, and state-owned French energy companies have been buying up privatised British ones. French expertise will be employed in the construction – and perhaps the operation – of new nuclear power stations planned for England. For a sclerotic statist economy, France doesn’t do badly, and for its GDP is less reliant than ours on the high-level gambling that goes by the name of investment banking in the UK and the USA.
Francois Mr Hollande is in trouble partly because he is an uninspiring figure. His popularity rating is lower than that of any of his predecessors as president of the Fifth Republic – but then few had high expectations of him when he was elected. It’s quite possible that his Socialist party will be voted into third place in the European elections and that Marine Le Pen’s Front National will come first. A vote for the eurosceptic FN would, like a vote for its British counterpart Ukip here, indicate a level of discontent with the political class, but it certainly wouldn’t be an expression of support for the sort of reforms that would give France a less statist, more market-oriented, economy. Quite the contrary. The FN is a Protectionist party whose distrust of the market economy and the Money Power far exceeds president Mr Hollande’s.
The truth is that the French are a fiercely individualistic people, which is why they respect privacy and have strong laws to defend it. They have always had a dislike of paying taxes – which is why indirect ones are high – but nevertheless regard a strong State as a necessary means of defence against what they perceive as the anarchic nature of Anglo-American capitalism which they regard with deep distrust on account of its perceived disregard for social values. Mr Hollande may well prove to be a one-term president, but France will continue to be more statist than Britain, and both countries will, in their different ways, continue to muddle through. Which most of the time is the best that most of us can hope for.