11 September 2015

Where is France?


There is a strange feeling floating in the air that Europe is being driven by Germany, embodied by the inflexible faces of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble. What was already palpable during the Greek crisis has become even clearer with the migrant issue. This feeling is justified. Germany has a huge influence on European policy. There are two reasons for that: first the inconsistency of the European people; second the weakness of the French economy.

The Greek crisis would have been perfectly solvable had Europe been a country and not a “federation of nations”, a unstable political innovation. Within a so-called European nation, Greece would have been placed under tutorship (like a local government) and Greek public services would have been reorganised by fervent bureaucrats in Brussels. Regarding the migrant crisis, it is easy to understand that the easiest solution (in theory, at least) would be to have watertight borders, to only let refugees in and spread them across different countries according to predefined quotas. I realise that this kind of solution would not serve the general will of the British people but I just want to highlight the fact that there is no efficient in-between for Europe: nations are either free or part of a federation; they can’t be both.

If not, the second-best solution would be to have (and as a matter of fact, we do have) a Europe driven by a handful of biggest nations. According to their economic importance, the European leaders should be Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Europe would not be perfectly democratic but it would respect a sort of ideological balance. However, the UK is not integrated enough to be one of these leaders and France is too weak. It does not mean that France does not want to have greater responsibilities in the conduct of European affairs. It does, but it can’t. This leaves Germany no choice but to fulfil the empty space left by France and the UK.

France has not surrendered its European political leadership, but it has lost its political credibility. It has nearly never respected its commitment towards the public finances, and has shown inability to make simple reforms. France is not Greece, but the French economy suffers from a few well identified problems: extreme taxation because of excessive social spending, especially on pensions; an incredibly inefficient job market; and a sinking educational system. These problems are not technically difficult to address. The real problem lies elsewhere, in the psychological field.

The French suffer from what I call the “great repression”. They cannot ignore the reforms that need to be done, but they do not want to admit that they have to make them if they want their country to remain flourishing. The French have unconsciously chosen decline. That is why, as Freudian theory would have it, they are depressed.

France’s mass unemployment problem is technically easy to tackle, with rapidly visible positive results. Introduce a new flexible labour contract, decrease the minimum wage, taper unemployment benefits sensibly, concentrate life-learning efforts on the unemployed, and the job will be done! These reforms are technically doable, but the French reject all of them. It is fashionable to describe the French political class as incapable and lacking bravery. And maybe they are. But first of all they reflect what the French people think. French politicians try to get along with the contradictions of the people they represent.

This framework is perfectly adapted to analyse French behaviour regarding the migrant crisis. The debate about immigration in France is dominated by the crazy thesis of the “great replacement”. Many French people believe that the Muslims (which account for less than 5% of the French population) are gradually replacing Catholics and the Jews  in order to implement Islamic laws in a few years, exactly like in Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel “Submission”. Most French people think that immigrants steal natives’ jobs. In this debate rational social science is inoperative. Passion is stronger. That is why French people were opposed to welcoming Syrian refugees (but feeling guilty), until the release of Alyan’s picture. Passion again. In this affair we demonstrated the opposite of the cold German rectitude.

France will come back in the European foreground once its major economic problems are dealt with and its credibility restored. And please do not get desperate about France. In my country, violent jumps (and sometimes revolution, but in this case I hope not) are the rule, not quiet reform. France is not a consensual country like Germany, Denmark, Holland or Austria. It is a bubbly country like Italy or England. It would be a mistake to believe that the passivity with which our loss of leadership is undergone is a collective choice. If the French elect the right person to carry out the much needed reforms, France will regain its European leadership.

When that happens, the only thing left is for the British to overcome their federal nightmare and fill in their position as a European leader.

Nicolas Bouzou is a French Economist and essayist. He is the founder of Asterès, a consultancy firm based in Paris. His most recent book is Le grand refoulement : stop à la démission démocratique, éditions Plon, 2015.