Europe’s French woes

As France's election looms, the rest of the EU worries that no one's talking about the economy

Topics: GlobalPost, France, European Union,

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

ROME — She was supposed to be a star of the French elections, but as the campaign enters its final countdown to the first-round vote on April 22, Angela Merkel has been noticeably absent from the political maneuvers west of the Rhine.

Global Post

The German chancellor had announced she’d campaign in France to secure the reelection of President Nicolas Sarkozy, her sidekick in drawing up the continent-wide belt-tightening plan designed to pull the eurozone out of its debt crisis.

That never happened, despite lingering German fears that Sarkozy’s main challenger Francois Hollande risks undermining Merkel’s European fiscal discipline pact by embarking on an old-fashioned Socialist spending spree.

In the end, Sarkozy’s advisors decided he’d do better by distancing himself from Merkelian austerity and focusing instead on tried-and-tested vote winners in France, like getting tough on immigration and erecting protectionist barriers against China and other perceived villains of globalization.

That’s also made sharing a platform with him seem somewhat less attractive to Merkel.

Many in Europe are viewing the French election with concern. The fear is that whichever candidate emerges victorious from the second-round vote on May 6, both are avoiding any serious debate of the tough economic decisions facing France and the rest of the eurozone.

“They need to reform the French economy, the labor market, pensions. They need to face all the other challenges, but I’m not sure they are ready to have those debates in France,” says Piotr Kaczynski, of the Center for European Policy Studies, a think tank in Brussels. “It’s never easy to take those decisions, but it can become easier once you have had a public debate on them.”

The French electorate is perennially averse to moves to overhaul its generous labor and social-protection arrangements, even though rules like a 35-hour maximum work week, and high corporate taxes or social costs for employers that run at almost double levels in Germany are blamed for the country’s declining economic competitiveness.

Although both Sarkozy and Hollande agree that France needs to boost growth and balance its budget, neither has prepared the electorate for the painful measures that may be needed to do that.



Instead, Sarkozy has focused on protecting French markets from foreign competition, while Hollande has promised to raise taxes on the rich to create tens of thousands of new public-sector jobs.

With Hollande leading in the opinion polls, Sarkozy in recent days has been issuing warnings that his rival’s tax-and-spend plans risk sending France the way of Europe’s southern crisis victims.

“You want the left? You’ll get Greece, you’ll get Spain,” Sarkozy told a campaign rally last week.

Hollande has been seeking to reassure European leaders that his demands for a greater commitment to economic growth will not lead to loose spending or a disintegration of the new treaty designed to guarantee fiscal discipline in the eurozone.

The German press has reported that, with an eye on Hollande’s opinion poll ratings, Merkel’s office has opened tentative contacts with the Socialist candidate. If Hollande does win, it will be essential that he quickly establishes a working relationship with Merkel on how to tackle the euro crisis.

Already jittery over Spain, Portugal and Italy, markets are likely to pounce on any signs of French wobbling on fiscal discipline or Franco-German divisions, especially since a Greek election called for May 6 will add to the political uncertainty.

“If the financial markets become restless again, as they have been doing of late, then that narrows Francois Hollande’s political room for maneuver should he be elected,” says Thomas Klau, who heads the Paris office of European Council on Foreign Relations. “The more nervous the markets are, the less he can afford to add to the uncertainty by triggering major tensions with his partners.”

European observers have discounted some of the more contentious declarations from Sarkozy and Hollande as campaign rhetoric designed to stop them losing votes to candidates on the political extremities.

Sarkozy is threatened on the right by the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, while Hollande risks losing first-round votes to the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Few take seriously Sarkozy’s threat to pull out of the European Union’s passport-free travel zone, and his appeal for protectionist trade measures is unlikely to muster support from other European nations.

“The call for a Buy European Act does reflect a strong French conviction, shared across the party political spectrum, that the present state of globalization is highly damaging for Europe,” Klau said. “This is viewed with a degree of concern by free trade apostles in the UK or countries like Germany, which do very well out of the current situation. This is not an agenda that France can hope to shape on its own.”

That reflects another reality the winner will have to come to terms with on May 6: the euro crisis has clearly revealed that the Franco-German partnership that was the driving force behind the European Union is no longer a marriage of equals.

“It’s hard to resist the temptation to compare the decadence or the disorientation of France with the personalities of the presidential candidates,” columnist Miguel Angel Bastenier wrote Tuesday in the Spanish daily El Pais. “If there are any remnants of that partnership that is supposed to run the European Union … it’s only because Berlin finds it more convenient to have somebody to share the burden of dealing with the crisis.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>