The French establishment is well-known for its aversion to foreign words polluting the beautiful French language – “le weekend”, “le pullover” and “le penalty” being three examples that have met with varying degrees of resistance. With “austerity” the resistance is less to the word than to the concept.
The French state – traditionally large, centralised and over-mighty – shows little sign of wanting to shrink itself into a sustainable size. The announcement of some €21bn in public spending cuts, or about £17bn, has shocked French people, and yet it is small beer compared with what George Osborne has in store for the UK – with £25bn of reductions planned in the social security budget.
The truth is that France was lucky to escape the fate of Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal over the course of the euro crisis of recent years. France shares some of the characteristics of the weaker southern European economies, as well as some characteristics from the more financially sound and industrially successfully northern European nations. Its public finances are healthier than most of the southern fringe; but its competitiveness is nowhere near as strong as it ought to be. Hence slow growth, stubbornly high unemployment and grinding poverty for those at the bottom of the pile, even as middle-class France enjoys jobs for life.
Nicolas Sarkozy, now enjoying an unlikely comeback, was the President who came closest to reforming France’s sclerotic economy through a programme of mild Thatherisation. He wanted to liberalise labour laws, loosen bureaucracy and plan for a smaller state; he was at best only partially successful. He was replaced by Francois Hollande, who wilfully offered the French people a false prospectus, and they, in turn, wilfully believed it. At all levels of French society that unwillingness to face up to an existential national change remains depressingly ingrained.Reuse content