Steven Erlanger, the NY Times London bureau chief, has written a piece that made quite the buzz in social media about France as ‘A Proud Nation [That] Ponders How To Halt Its Slow Decline.’ I am a bit at a loss as to why this piece would be considered as noteworthy. More of the same it would seem, preaching to the – Anglo-Saxon – media choir that has announced the imminent end of the French model for decades. Craig Willy has written convincingly about this in regard to the Economist, so let me just add a few points in response to Erlanger’s piece.
He starts out wondering whether “a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years.” Now, of course all three of these are true for the rest of Europe – to some extent the Western world + Japan – also, except of course that France in fact is in a notably better position in what concerns its demographics than, say, Germany or really almost anybody else in Europe (the one exception being Ireland). Why France should be discussed as a particularly failing model based on criteria that actually speak favorable to its – relative – sustainability hardly seems logical.
Yet, “Mr. Hollande may simply lack the political courage to confront his allies and make the necessary decisions.” What those decisions are seems far less clear, which really is little surprising seeing the contentious nature of academic debate on these questions. Still, for Erlanger it is clear that “in a more competitive world economy, the question is whether … the French can continue to afford [their]” “social model.” “Based on current trends, the answer is clearly no, not without significant structural changes — in pensions, in taxes, in social benefits, in work rules and in expectations.” I don’t fundamentally disagree with his overall assessment of France requiring some reform, I do wonder if the New York Times would ever publish a similar piece arguing the same thing for the US’ military and public health spending for which “based on current trends, the answer is [as] clearly no.” France is in no way an outlier in the unsustainability of its public finances and this hardly is a reflection of the size of its social model.
Let’s keep on going though, French “growth is slow compared with Germany, Britain, the United States or Asia.” Ignoring the (still) rapidly developing nations in Asia that it is a bit weird to directly compare to any rich Western country, how does France compare with the rest of the West? France is growing slower than the United States and export-dependent Germany, growth has interestingly enough been faster in France since 2005 than in the UK though. This even while the latter clearly outperformed France from 1995 onwards. Not only does the rest of Europe differ little from France once more (it is worse off actually), it is additionally far from clear what a comparison between the British and French experiences of the crisis should tell us.
I could go on and wonder about Erlanger’s criticism of “82 percent of the new jobs created last year [being] temporary contracts” that are “not the kind of full-time work that opens the door to the French middle class,” which of course sounds like exactly the French Leftist he had been criticizing before. Isn’t that the kind of deregulation France is supposed to pine for? Or that a national debt figure of 90% of GDP is little different from Germany (82%), the UK (88%), and much better than the US (101%). Obviously France needs to do some reforms, but so does most everybody else. The attention focused on France’s supposedly dire economic situation in the English-language media in particular – but also in Germany – hardly seems justified by any objective measure. To the contrary, it is oftentimes based on faulty assumptions.