May 6, 2017


What Has Failed in France (Bret Stephens, MAY 5, 2017, NY Times)

A more honest account of France's travails starts -- and pretty much ends -- with what the French often call their "social model." France ranks first in the O.E.C.D.'s tables for government spending (57 percent of gross domestic product, tied with Finland) and welfare spending (31.5 percent). As of 2014, the total tax take was second only to Denmark's.

This isn't just a tax-and-spend model of government. More like: tax-spend-cosset-strangle. At least until the outgoing government of President Fran├žois Hollande managed to ram through some modest labor-market reforms last year, the French labor code ran to over 3,000 pages.

The code is designed to make firing a full-time employee as difficult as possible -- which makes hiring them that much more unlikely. As The Times's Adam Nossiter reported last year, "90 percent of jobs created in France" in 2015 were "unstable, poorly paid and short term."

None of this is a mystery to a majority of the French, though it often eludes credulous foreigners who extol the benefits of the French model without counting or being subject to its costs. The French twice elected conservative presidents -- Jacques Chirac in 1995 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 -- on the strength of promises to pare the state. Twice disappointed, they turned to the Socialist Hollande in 2012, but his flirtation with soak-the-rich policies was short-lived.

(Recent polls have been cruel to the president, but like Germany's Gerhard Schroder, he will be remembered as one of the more courageous economic reformer in recent history, if perhaps only because he had so little politically to lose.)

Assuming Macron wins, his challenge won't simply be political. It will also be pedagogical. Le Pen has offered him a relatively easy ideological foil, given how thoroughly tainted her party is by xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Yet it's one thing to make the abstract case for openness, competitiveness and globalization in the face of a bigot. The harder climb will be to press for changes that inevitably take things away from people.

The paradox of France is that it is desperate for reform -- and desperate not to be reformed. It wants the benefits of a job-producing competitive economy but fears relinquishing a job-protecting uncompetitive one. A Macron presidency will have to devote its intellectual and rhetorical energies to explaining that it can be one or the other, but not both.

Of course, Macron will not be able to reform anything either, not just because his "party" will not exist in the legislature but because the Anglospheric neoliberalism (openness, competitiveness and globalization) he espouses is premised on making all jobs "unstable, poorly paid and short term."  

Posted by at May 6, 2017 9:09 AM