Monday, April 23, 2012

France in denial on its long path of stagnation

The Economist got it right when it had its cover page with the very title “France in denial” and today City AM’s Allister Heath said it more clearly about the French Presidential election:

“The useless Nicolas Sarkozy was given a bloody nose; the awful, economically illiterate Francois Hollande is in the lead...there is no pro-capitalist, pro-globalisation, low-tax, Eurosceptic, outward looking party in France... what passes for the centre-right in France is social democratic and fanatically pro-EU”. 

 Quite. A look at the candidates for President says it all. If I was French I couldn’t stomach any of them. Of the ten candidates, three are communists (Melenchon, Poutou and Arthaud), one is fascist (Le Pen), another a conspiracy theorist/quasi-fascist (Cheminade), two are liberal socialists (Hollande and Joly), one is a soft "moderate" socialist (Bayrou) and the other two are conservative "Gaullist" socialists (Sarkozy and Dupont-Aignan). What a choice! It's about "how would you like your more government sir, with a red flag, black shirt, green banner or just some more tax and protectionism?" 

Whether they embrace the EU or reject it (and there are plenty in that group rejecting it, because they see the EU as a free market capitalist project), they all support an economic nationalist fortress France, they all support more taxes (Sarkozy’s “austerity” programme has been mostly about tax increases and he embraces financial transactions tax), they all reject free trade - the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, paint the bogeyman not overspending governments that can’t keep their fingers off of the credit cards to bribe voters with borrowed money, but the new scapegoat “the bankers”. They all paint any alternative involving less government as “failed Anglo-Saxon” policies, despite the fact that manufacturing as a share of GDP is the same in the UK as in France, it is just the UK industries are more numerous and smaller than the grand state owned or subsidised industries that are national champions. 

The French story is one of despising capitalism, but as the Economist points out, it is rather contradictory:  

The French live with this national contradiction—enjoying the wealth and jobs that global companies have brought, while denouncing the system that created them—because the governing elite and the media convince them that they are victims of global markets. Trade unionists get far more air-time than businessmen. The French have consistently been told that they are the largely innocent victims of reckless bankers who lent foolishly, or wanton financial speculators, or “Anglo-Saxon” credit-ratings agencies. Mr Sarkozy has called for capitalism to become “moral” so as to curb such abuse. Mr Hollande has declared that his “main opponent is the world of finance”. Few politicians care to point out that a big part of the problem is the debt that successive French governments themselves have built up over the decades.  

The forthcoming contest between Sarkozy and Hollande is really a matter of how much more socialism do you want for France? Bearing in mind that part of France’s socialism, its molly-coddled rural sector, is actually funded by German, British and Dutch taxpayers through the EU. If Sarkozy wins, and he unilaterally implements a financial transactions tax, he will chase the financial sector from Paris to London and Zurich tout suite. If Hollande wins, he will do that and more, with a new 75% top tax rate (at 1 million Euro) just to make sure the message is clear – France doesn’t want really successful entrepreneurs (which of course, the 250,000 or so French expats in London already know), and he is looking to lower the pension age, just when it is clear how big a demographic problem France has in paying state pensions in the future. 

What both offer is a different speed of the process that Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece followed for the past couple of decades, of growing the state, growing spending, growing taxation and pretending that this works. France’s GDP per capita ranking in Europe has slipped in recent years, now between the UK and Spain/Italy. It hasn’t run a budget surplus for nearly 40 years, and its visibility in the international marketplace for services is low, despite it being the largest component of the economy. Public debt is 90% of GDP, it has the largest state sector in the Eurozone at 56%. It has banks chronically exposed to bad debts in the Eurozone periphery which are grossly undercapitalised. Its labour costs are 10% higher than Germany’s, but French unemployment is 10%, Germany’s is 5.8%. France hasn’t had unemployment less than 7% for 30 years – putting a lie to the socialist myth of how caring a big state is with strong labour rights. The Economist suggests neither of the two leading candidates will address these structural problems: 

 “If Mr Hollande wins in May (and his party wins again at legislative elections in June), he may find he has weeks, not years, before investors start to flee France’s bond market. The numbers of well-off and young French people who hop across to Britain (and its 45% top income tax) could quickly increase. Even if Mr Sarkozy is re-elected, the risks will not disappear. He may not propose anything as daft as a 75% tax, but neither is he offering the radical reforms or the structural downsizing of spending that France needs.” 

 Furthermore, if France embraces an agenda of protectionism, closing borders, higher taxes and more subsidies within the EU, it will clash with the German, British, Dutch and Danish visions of what the EU should be. It will, fundamentally reveal what has long been the underlying tension in the EU – those who want to use it as a shelter and as a super-government to fund their own national rent-seekers, and those who see it as part of a project to break down borders of trade and travel (a third group see it as a source of money to milk while their economies are relatively poor - yet French farmers get three times the subsidy per capita as Polish farmers, as part of a compromise because expanding the Common Agricultural Policy to pay for 12 new states would have bankrupted the EU).

Germany calls the shots in the EU today and can be expected to block such nonsense, but what is next for France? 

Five years of Hollande chasing away business, with more stagnation, more credit rating drops and disappointment that he can’t mould the EU in the image of nationalist socialism? 

Or five years of Sarkozy fiddling enough to stop things sliding too fast, playing lip service to his own nationalist rhetoric, but by and large representing the status quo or slow progressive decline? 

What’s most repulsive is how popular fascism remains, seen now when Sarkozy – son of a Hungarian immigrant – talks of “too many foreigners” in France to woo voters from the seductively dangerous Marine Le Pen, despite he himself having spent five years embracing the political union that facilitates open migration among 27 countries. 

Or indeed the popularity of communism, with a sixth of voters choosing options that have been tried, tested and delivered misery and poverty across half of Europe. What does it say about the desperation of French voters who are swamped by the miasma of stagnation that they blame foreigners or businesspeople, and think a strong authoritarian leader will save the day? Where have we seen this before?  Fortunately, most French voters will never embrace fascism or communism proper, but they are almost infantalised to think politicians, with advice from those educated at the closed shop École nationale d'administration (Civil service school), can fix their problems with more laws, more spending and more taxe.  (Perhaps it is the philosophy behind THAT school that needs to be investigated)

Whatever does happen, one thing is abundantly clear, the future French President and forthcoming government will not be friends of capitalism, free trade or open markets. They will continue to seek protectionism at the price of French consumers and taxpayers, the unemployed and those who fund the EU. France will be the most strident force in international trade against free trade, less subsidies, more transparency and smaller transnational government. More strident indeed than even China. The question is to what extent it gets ignored and sidelined as it embarks on its continued process of relative economic delay, or if it ends up slowing the Western world down with it, given its prominent role in Europe. Given how central France is to supporting the growth of the EU project, and how it is the single loudest opponent of liberalisation of trade in agriculture, it is fair to say that, for those of us in New Zealand (and indeed in all efficient agricultural exporting economies), France will continue to represent the biggest stumbling block to getting progress in opening up international trade in agricultural produce and services.  For those of us in the UK, it remains the fervent cheerleader of a Federal Europe, and opponent of the UK vision of the EU as an open area for trade and business, rather than a protectionist fortress.

1 comment:

Jeremy Harris said...

The Economist's coverage of the French campaign has actually got me reading the mag again - it's been throughly enjoyable, if not also throughly depressing.

I think it is quite possible that things in France will slip very quickly after Hollande introduces his 75% tax rate (over 90% when other salary taxes are included) and other mental policies, minimum wage rises, etc.

French businesses and business people are already migrating to the UK and Asia.

The real danger is if France approaches a PIGS type debt crisis. If it does the EU is done and we may have a glodal recession (even depression) on our hands.