Those who know me will be aware that I am not “anti-France”. I lived there for 10 years and have many French friends – great people, just as there are in every country, though the best do not usually rise to political power. Still, that’s another story.
No, if I criticize “France”, it is mainly in relation to the French elite, whether left or right. This group collectively has NOT SET A BALANCED BUDGET since 1974. Anyone who thinks that a country can continue like this ad infinitum is truly moronic. Money really DOES not grow on trees. Logically, therefore, I do consider the French elite to be morons.
But of course, many are in fact very clever (depending how we define the word), having attended the ENA or some other posh elite school, so could it be that arrogance is cloaking their idiocy? Suppressing it perhaps?
Right, WHAT TO DO about the economy?
First, some facts: (in no special order of priority)
By some calculations, France is the most highly-taxed country in the world. The Hollande government – far from grasping this point and its implications – has now RAISED taxes still further.
French industry is now 15% less competitive than the German Bruder, which is of course a major competitor. This catastrophic situation partly explains the collapse in French car sales in the last year.
The French state consumes 56% or more of total GDP. Only Denmark in the EU is higher, and compensates with much looser employment rules.
Unemployment in France is always around 8% to 10% in the best of times, and is now creeping higher.
France has a very rigid employment environment. It is very difficult to sack anyone for whatever reason, which in essence means that firms act as a branch of the social services. The intention is “to protect workers” from nasty, rapacious employers (most are in fact the opposite, but this is just one element of the leftist, pseudo-socialist and elitist mindset dating from Victorian times), but the EFFECT of course is to INCREASE unemployment, since employers are so reluctant to take on workers in the first place. Ironically, this meritorious desire to protect jobs leads to endemically higher unemployment than in Denmark, where the sacking rules are much laxer.
The costs of employing anyone are very high in France – as usual, higher than almost anywhere else. Because of these two factors (high “social costs” and rigid sacking regime), employers will bust a gut NOT to employ anyone. They prefer instead to become more productive. This is why French industry has higher productivity levels than the USA. French workers are in general efficient and productive; there are just too few of them.
A consequence of the reluctance to employ anyone (especially for small companies, which are the life-blood of any economy) is that many jobs are short-term (Contrat à Durée Determinée). It is apparently not until the age of 31 that a young French person on average gets his or her FIRST full-time, permanent job. It also explains why in its desperation successive French governments have set up all kinds of special offers to firms to take on young people with special regimes and subsidies and so on. All of this of course requires an army of civil servants to administer and hilariously actually REDUCES the openings available for anyone seeking a PROPER job. After all, if a company has a choice between a young government-subsidised trainee on a short-term contract or a full-time permanent and “normal” worker, it doesn’t take a brain-surgeon to work out which option the company will choose.
Added to all the above is the horrendous complexity of starting a business and indeed of winding it up. I had a French friend who wanted to stop trading for various reasons, including the cost of expanding with more staff, and she told me she faced a six-month nightmare of paperwork just to officially cease trading.
Underlying all the above is the tremendous resistance to real, structural change in France. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to reform the granting of taxi licences in Paris, which has far fewer taxis per head than most other major cities. It seems that taxi-drivers “own” their licence and can sell them when they retire for 100,000€ or more. This means that they bitterly opposed an increase in the number of licences as this would obviously reduce their value. This bizarre system – surely unique in the world – has evolved as an example of special benefits doled out to lobbies and interest groups by cretinous, cowardly, self and vote-seeking governments (see why I hate them?) and is known as “les acquis” (what has been acquired). And of course, what has been acquired is not easily given up. To cut a long story short, Sarko tried to reform this idiotic system, the taxi-drivers blocked the peripherique and the reform was abandoned.
So, WHAT DO DO? Some of the following falls into the category of “the bleedin’ obvious”, but the funny thing about the bleedin’ obvious is that certain mindsets often block it out completely. The plebs of course are much more aware of the bleedin’ obvious than most of the elite, but democracy in Europe means that the plebs have little real say, voting alternately for one set of the elite and then another, who – once elected – pay little attention, except to those who strike; the masses are supposed just to do what they are told by people who obviously know better.
Accept the need to reduce state involvement in the economy and reduce it ideally to a maximum of 40% of GDP, Indeed, this should be written into law. Now, this would require a massive change of mindset, but ONLY economic disaster is capable of producing this; hence the feeling that things have to get much worse before they can get better. The mindset has shifted a bit given the current crisis, but is a long way from moving far enough.
Let’s be clear about one thing. The “State” works well. The bureaucracy is well-organized. I personally have found the “fonctionaires” to be almost universally polite, friendly and helpful. The computerisation is amazing: a citizen can see ALL his taxes payable online, for a start. No, the state works well, there is just TOO MUCH OF IT.
A FEW SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS: (in no special order or priority)
Many of these will be laughed out of court by the elite. And therein lies the problem. For the elite, it is unthinkable that the state should limit itself, but if they DON’T do this, France has had it.
Abolish Prefectures. What is the point? This system was set up by Napoleon to control the state; it is a vast and useless expense. Whatever useful they do could be devolved to localities. Of course, the Prefect’s cars, personal chef and various lackeys would all have to go.
Abolish the “Médecine du Travail”. A good idea in theory, but UNAFFORDABLE. Once again, NO OTHER major competitor has this. How the hell does Germany manage, one might ask!
Abolish the need to change your number plate every time you move. A car should keep its number-plate from the day it is first issued until it is scrapped. The UK manages perfectly well with this system, so why should France be different?
Stop putting up idiotic road signs all over France. No driver with a licence and experience needs to be told at every single bend that there is a 50kpm limit. Most of these signs are silly and of course completely ignored by drivers.
Stop making pointless and regulations. ALL drivers now have to carry an alcohol-test kit. MILLIONS of cheap kits of plastic Chinese rubbish must be sold, and for WHAT? If you are a drink-driver, you are not going to bother using a kit. If you are NOT a drink-driver, you are being forced to buy some useless rubbish. I grant this would not save a lot, but it is a symbol of a state apparatus that just CANNOT STOP INTERFERING.
Get rid of “surveillants” in schools. GERMANY and the UK do not have this expensive system. How come THEY manage without specialized teams of supervisors?
Stop the central employment of teachers and devolve it to schools and localities themselves. A vast academy is required to direct teachers to specific schools. The UK does NOT have this system and manages very well. (at least in this respect)
Abolish the special treatment and/or protection to lobbies and special-interest groups – pharmacies and notaires (lawyers) for a start.
Simplify employment procedures. My English payslip had about 5 entries; my French one over 50 and was basically totally incomprehensible. SIMPLIFY the tax system. CUT TAXES. In general, FREE UP THE MARKET – REMOVE POINTLESS BUREAUCRACY.
The above requires the state (much smaller) to TRUST people more. In France,one often feels one is treated as a potential criminal and has to prove one*s innocence rather than being presumed innocent until found guilty. This also applies with tax and other official procedures, with multiple documentation required for doing almost anything.
Some personal anecdotes:
I took out a 5,000€ bank loan with the Societe Generale and had to sign three sets of documents with a total of TWENTY-SEVEN SIGNATURES, most requiring also “lu et approuvé” (read and approved). In the real world, a signature MEANS “lu et approuvé”. This is of course not the state, but is SYMBOLIC of the same mindset.
My son went to a holiday “Centre de Loisirs” – a sort of summer school in the town. These are brilliant in general. However, we signed him up for a four-day camp. When I turned up on the day for him to get the coach, a supervisor asked me:
“Where is his medical certificate?”
“WHAT certificate?” I replied.
“Well, during the camp we are going to do some cycling and he needs a medical certificate to certify that he is medically fit to ride a bicycle.”
“Look,” I said. “He has been here for two weeks, running around, playing football, climbing trees and using your scooters. Of COURSE he is fit to ride a bike.”
“Sorry – he has to have a certificate.”
“But I am his father. I can write you a note saying that he is fit to ride a bike and absolving you of blame for anything that might happen.”
“No, it’s the law.”
So, I had to rush about getting a certificate from our local doctor, who was fortunately in. This also is not the state per se, but is yet another typical example. In the WHOLE of France tens of thousands of people have to make a special trip to the doctor and pay 20€ to get an absolutely pointless medical certificate for riding a bike perfectly healthy children. The parents of course are completely incompetent to certify that their child is fit enough and has permission to ride a bike. Oh no, only the STATE can do this.
A small point but …… on a French cheque, you have to write WHERE it was signed. What is the POINT of this? Germany and the UK don’t require this. I find it so silly I now usually write “Timbuktu”, “Erevan” or even “NASA Central, Mars.”
France faces an enormous challenge if it is´to escape from its debt trap and become more competitive. (FACT)
It can only do this be reducing the size of the state and cutting taxes. (OPINION, but also an almost universally-accepted FACT)
The French elite is incapable of doing 2. (OPINION – I hope they prove me wrong.)
ERGO: either the economy will collapse OR someone from the non-elite will take over (cue the National Front)
This last point is of course the cruncher. When economic times are very bad, people may turn to extremism, which is what led to Hitler. If ANYTHING should concentrate Mr Hollande’s mind, it is this.
The French people are well-educated, cultured, professional and innovative, with numerous world-class companies. But they have been let down by an arrogant and incompetent elite. When soon after the launch of the euro the turgid, ineffectual, stagnating Chirac government went over the agreed 3% limit of debt to GDP, a government spokesman said: “That rule was designed for little countries, not those like France.” That just about sums it all up. France is too big, too important and too great to have to obey the laws of economic reality – apparently ……….