France’s crisis of leadership

France’s crisis of leadership

The Fifth Republic has created a political class addicted to public funds whose only compass for action has been the preservation of its immense privileges, not the “common good.” As the crisis of leadership deepens hope for change is becoming more elusive.

The Economist’s special report on France, published Nov. 17, 2012, added spice to the already colorful Franco-British relations. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared that “France is not impressed,” deriding what he saw as a cheap attempt by the British magazine to sell copies (the cover page featured baguettes bunched-up together like sticks of dynamite). Well, unlike the French press, lavished with state subsidies (1.2 billion euros per year), the magazine must sell copies to survive. This said, a careful read reveals that many French experts contributed to the report. Moreover, the analysis is on the whole balanced, re-stating what many reports have been stressing for weeks, in fact decades.

In short, France’s public spending is unsustainable (57 percent of the GDP), its labor market too rigid, its economy losing competitiveness and its élite disconnected from the people. The report notably underlines a key issue: reform sclerosis.

France’s second downgrading to AA1, this time by Moody, came as no surprise. More worrying is the fact that economic reality has not really struck President Francois Hollande who recently gave one of the most ideologue speeches in defense of the country’s hopelessly timid reforms. With his popularity falling at record speed, he continues to procrastinate, to change his discourse to fit his audience and to commission reports whose recommendations are mostly ignored.

What Ayrault means by “France” is its politico-administrative élite whose feathers have been ruffled by the naked truth, namely that Europe cannot afford to see its second economy crash. For the past 30 years its élite has spent money the state did not have to stay in power signing up its reluctant people for more integration and sovereign power handovers to the supranational EU “machin” (thing) to paraphrase de Gaulle.

With the Fiscal Pact enshrining more integration, the more biting criticism will eventually come from across the Rhine River. When the Teutonic screw eventually tightens on the Gallic state profligacy, the English sense of humor will then seem light-hearted.

For the former German teacher and mayor of Nantes, now turned prime minister, the inconvenient truth is that a majority of French people are unimpressed with his performance. In fact the entire political class has lost their respect and trust. A whopping 69 percent consider (rightly so) politicians to be “rather corrupt” (CEVIPOF, 2011).

After the opaque politburoesque change of leadership at the Socialist Party, the spectacle of the opposition UMP committing political hara-kiri beggars belief. The non-election of its new leader would be farcical if it were not tragically highlighting the reality of a democracy dying of its political class. Far from a model display of governance, the election has turned into banana republic shambles, with defeated former Prime Minister Francois Fillon alleging mafia-like practices.

France is a blessed country. The variety and beauty of its landscapes, its rich history and culture make it the number one tourist destination in the world. But the wealth-creation potential of its creative people urgently needs to be freed from stifling statism.

Unfortunately, at a critical time in its history its political class, which is busy safeguarding its interests, offers a vision of status quo and Nutella tax. “Mediocre” is the word that springs to mind, not grandeur. French lions are led by donkeys.