France has sometimes been described as an “unreformable country in need of reform”. The OECD’s own studies see much room for improvement in the French economy, in areas like the labour market and large industry, while inefficiencies and bottlenecks have dampened French growth potential in recent years. But for acclaimed French journalist, Christine Clerc, while her country certainly has grave problems, these should not be allowed to blind us to the positives. Ms Clerc recently wrote a new book, Le bonheur d’être français, “as a response to those who have been banging on about France’s decline over the last few years.” She explains.
Though I am a political rather than economic journalist, I grapple with economic realities in my work. Frankly, I find it hard to trust the experts – even those at the OECD! (Maybe my scepticism is typically French, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
I don’t believe our experts take everything into account when discussing France’s future, particularly the high quality of life, our overall skills and abilities, the excellence of our roads, trains and public services. We do pretty well on this score, compared with our British neighbours for instance. Indeed, only recently company chiefs across the Channel have been complaining aloud that their poor infrastructure is hurting their competitiveness.Furthermore, I think some experts are trapped by a certain ideology. In any case, they sometimes get it wrong. Take Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office. In 2002, they sparked the debate on France’s decline by publishing figures that showed our GDP was ranked only 12th in Europe. Two years later, they announced (very quietly) that they had miscalculated the data: instead France was much higher, around 5th place. This is perhaps not as brilliant a performance as it might be, but it is not that bad.To be sure, France has serious problems to deal with. There is no denying the alarming size of our public debt and deficits. Nor can we ignore “the French disease”: an unemployment rate stuck above 10%.Yet there is hope: for a small country of only 60 million people, France still has remarkable assets. And we are still capable of great things, whether alone or, increasingly, with our European partners, in aviation, energy, engineering and medicine, etc. France, like its neighbours, has shown itself to be quite capable of overcoming difficult crises. This is the message I tell my fellow countrymen and women in my book.Start with the Nord Pas de Calais area, which was hit on three fronts some 20 years ago by cutbacks in steel, coal and textiles. It was a dark region then, with its slag heaps, its smoking piles of waste, its rusty furnaces, abandoned factories of blackened brick. But today it is a flourishing, cosmopolitan part of France, and attracts thousands of tourists to its abundant theme parks, museums and recreational areas – while creating 55,000 jobs in the process! In this region as in others, globalisation has also wreaked some havoc, causing factories to up and leave. But globalisation has also brought in new markets. In Roubaix (part of the Lille conurbation), the legendary Lainière wool company, which in its hay day 25 years ago employed 15,000 people and even received a visit from the Queen of England, had disappeared. But five years ago it was reincarnated in the form of a “business incubator” housing about 50 small fabric producers selling fashionwear “Fabriqué en France” to the new wealthy of China.Lorraine is another region where demand from Asia has prompted similar stories of revival, even in coke production! In fact, all over France I have met creative women and men taking advantage of opportunities like this, and in all walks of life.With such prospects and resources, why should anyone feel pessimistic? Perhaps it is our character, this very French ability to put ourselves down. To us, this is even a form of intelligence. At the same time we cannot stand being criticised by the Americans or the British, or the Germans. As Cyrano de Bergerac put it, we can criticise ourselves, but damned if anyone else can.Does this mix of arrogance and selfpunishment really make reforming France so difficult? Current events suggest so, but I would like to think the French are capable of making the sacrifices change demands, as we did before when de Gaulle’s government introduced some pretty drastic reforms. As long as the situation is explained clearly, we will do it. The French want to hear the truth! This is the conclusion I draw in my book. The trouble is, I am not convinced the truth has been told that much since the petrol crisis of 1974.But what the French people really want is hope, including jobs for their children. We are living through difficult times and while there are opportunities, ordinary people feel anxiety. About globalisation, even about the expansion of the European Union. Not that they fail to see the opportunities these developments offer, but they also see risks looming, affecting their jobs, their livelihoods. To my mind, this underlines our need to build Europe properly, according to our trusted values of social cohesion and solidarity. That means building a system that compensates for losses caused by relocating firms, for instance. The social rules of the game should be clearer and firmer. A wider EU will not work if it is created simply so that investors can head off and hunt out the cheapest labour available. This keeps us all down. Workers may well benefit from European construction, but they should be able to help build it, and not just be asked to pay the price of achieving it.Job to do
Which brings me to that French disease again, and for me, the real problem: how can a country as attractive and well endowed as France put up with such high unemployment, indeed, one of the worst in Europe?How last summer’s heat wave could kill 15,000 people also bothers me, but not as much. In many ways the entire heat wave trauma was hyped up. Unemployment on the other hand leaves entire families in desperation. And it has been literally destroying French society for 20 years!Employment has to be the most important challenge facing France today. Solving it probably means reforming government bureaucracy – including altering the 35-hour week which has had a very upsetting effect on France’s usually very dynamic small enterprises. But above all, both schools and universities need an overhaul. Standards have to be raised, and we have to be much more demanding about that. That means rewarding good performances more than punishing bad ones. Here again, the French must be told the facts, as they really are.Finally, let’s not forget the very special role women play in France, and elsewhere. I have met and written about many women from all kinds of backgrounds: farming, factory workers, company bosses, teachers, nurses, cultural affairs officers, etc. They are brave, mobile, creative and hard-working people. Everything depends on them, whether it be maintaining our quality of life or transmitting the knowledge and values that form the basis of this Old, yet ever so young, Europe.Background note* The first volume of Christine Clerc’s Le bonheur d’être français (“The Joy of Being French”: our translation) published in 1982, won the Prix Albert Londres.Christine Clerc is an acclaimed French journalist and currently a columnist for the daily newspaper, Le Figaro. She wrote this article especially for the OECD Observer. Ms Clerc is author of over a dozen books, notably Le Journal intime de Jacques Chirac. The second volume of Le bonheur d’être français was published by Plon in March 2004.Originally published©OECD Observer No 243, May 2004