France's economic malaise: A sense of deja-vu?27 august 2014, 14:47
When Francois Hollande's inaugural parade was drenched in rain and his plane hit by lightning on the same day, some jokingly wondered whether this was a divine warning of things to come, AFP reports.
More than two years on, a deep-set malaise has gripped France as record unemployment, stagnant growth and political instability take their toll on a country already well-versed in what the New York Times once dubbed "existential anguish".
"People feel exasperated about a lot of things with the economy because it seems that nothing works," said Stephane Garelli, a professor at the Swiss-based IMD business school.
On Monday, the French president himself unwittingly illustrated this malaise as he delivered a speech commemorating the French Resistance under pouring rain on the very day the government collapsed.
That morning, he had ordered Prime Minister Manuel Valls to reshuffle the cabinet after then economy minister Arnaud Montebourg spent the weekend bad-mouthing the government's own policies.
'Unbearable mass unemployment'
The second government shake-up in just five months rocked a country already battered by a jobless rate of more than 10 percent, high taxes and a budget deficit that stubbornly refuses to come down to the EU ceiling of three percent of GDP.
"Regime Crisis" chimed the headlines of both the right-wing Le Figaro and left-wing Liberation dailies in a rare show of unity on Tuesday, as Hollande's popularity wallows at a record low of 17 percent.
Valls himself waded into the malaise on Tuesday in his first public comments since the emergency reshuffle.
"France faces huge challenges, first from the world, terrorist threats from Iraq, Syria, the Sahel... we have for years been going through an economic crisis with unbearable mass unemployment. The French are faced with job insecurity, an expensive life," he said in a televised interview.
"Faced with this economic crisis, this crisis of confidence -- because the French have not trusted politicians for years -- faced with our country's identity crisis... (leaders) must act with dignity, coherently."
Already, Montebourg had issued a stark warning Monday about austerity measures he said were pushing the French into the arms of extremist parties, referring to the far-right National Front's good showing in March local polls.
Austerity? What austerity? Garelli queried.
"The government continues to spend 57 to 58 percent of GDP, the highest level in Europe with Denmark," he said.
And there is a nagging feeling of deja vu. While the situation in France is currently perceived as dire, it was also dire last year -- and the year before that, and before that.
"I have been reading a lot about the existential anguish of France, a directionless nation under a featureless president," wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen just over a year ago.
He quoted from an article that read: "There is a pervasive sense that not only jobs -- but also power, wealth, ideas and national identity itself -- are migrating." Before admitting that he himself had written this about France... in 1997.
'Not an easy job'
British author Piu Marie Eatwell, whose book "They Eat Horses, Don't They?" seeks to debunk common myths about the French, said the French lifestyle was still "on a par if not better than for a lot of people in other countries", pointing to universal healthcare and world-class education.
"Obviously the wider issue is how much longer can all of that go on... but for the moment, the average French person is pretty well catered for," she said.
In a report last year, Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, pointed to several possible reasons for the so-called "French paradox" of having a good life but still being unhappy, including a sense of lost grandeur and education.
"In the French school system, all children are supposed to be able to reach the same performance, but they find it very hard to obtain top grades and, later, to make it to the top schools. Obviously this system is not creating self-confidence or self-esteem in our children," she wrote in the Financial Times.
Attempts to reform in France also often hit considerable obstacles.
"If you touch the privileges of somebody, like in the public sector, everybody would react because they think next they will touch my privileges," Garelli said.
"So this is what makes it so difficult to conduct reforms, because sooner or later you have to touch the special status of somebody.
"We are all complaining about the French politicians, but frankly speaking, it's not an easy job."
by Marianne BARRIAUX