x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

France at the heart of Euro unrest

The tax-and-spend policies of France's socialist government are threatening to wreck the euro zone's attempts to emerge from crisis, critics of Francois Hollande's fledgling presidency say.

Riot police apprehend a protester during a strike in Madrid, Spain, yesterday. Critics of Francois Hollande’s fledgling presidency say unless France can reduce national debt and tackle high labour costs, it is headed in the same direction as Spain.
Riot police apprehend a protester during a strike in Madrid, Spain, yesterday. Critics of Francois Hollande’s fledgling presidency say unless France can reduce national debt and tackle high labour costs, it is headed in the same direction as Spain.

LONDON // The tax-and-spend policies of France's socialist government are threatening to wreck the euro zone's attempts to emerge from crisis, according to a growing army of critics of Francois Hollande's fledgling presidency.

In the most damning verdict on French efforts to reduce national debt and tackle high labour costs, the German newspaper Bild ran a recent headline asking: "Is France the New Greece?"

German officials have echoed the tone of such attacks, expressing concern at Mr Hollande's "superficial" measures to bring his country's economy under control.

The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, felt obliged this week to deny reports that his government had ordered a panel of economic advisers to examine French economic policy.

He did, however, suggest a joint Franco-German exercise in which "experts within a broader exercise" could examine the economic traditions of both countries.

Concern over Europe's economic state extends from officials to the workplace. Workers demonstrated or went on strike in more than 20 countries yesterday to protest against austerity measures, causing some disruption in transport.

In France, the euro zone's biggest economy after Germany, there has been controversy over signs that the wealthy may be taking flight to avoid tax rises, including a levy of 75 per cent on annual earnings above €1 million (Dh4.67m).

The multi-billionaire French tycoon Bernard Arnaud, Europe's richest man, has applied for citizenship in Belgium, where the tax regime is friendlier.

The Brussels media have also reported that the French actor, Gerard Depardieu, has bought a house in Nechin, a small town close to the French border where a number of French tax exiles own homes.

Mr Arnaud, who controls the LVMH luxury goods empire, is adamant he will continue to pay taxes in France. Depardieu - a supporter of the conservative ex-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and famous for his roles in Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac - has yet to comment.

Whatever the case, speculation about their fiscal arrangements has angered the French public as factory closures and rising prices affect their daily lives.

While France is hardly alone in having to weather the crisis, right-wing commentators, at home and abroad, have seized gleefully on Mr Hollande's problems.

Toby Young, a columnist for Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper, The Sun on Sunday, described the French economy as a "basket case", with people "leaving the country in droves".

On Tuesday night, Mr Hollande went on French television to ask the electorate to judge him on his five-year presidency, not on short-term "mood swings". His words, predictably, left the conservative French opposition scornful.

Jean-Francois Cope, a candidate in Sunday's election of the president of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), said Mr Hollande had failed to reassure.

He told RMC radio he understood German concerns and claimed Mr Hollande was "in the process of bringing us down" after being elected on a programme of lies.

"He said he would renegotiate the EU treaty - he did not," said Mr Cope. "He said he would not touch the VAT - he did, massively. He gave a lot of moral lessons and the result after six months is complacency and lack of courage. "

The president's public standing is poor, with an approval rating that has dipped as low as 36 per cent, according to opinion polls.

The portrayal of his country as a "sick man of Europe" was reinforced this month in comments by a German economist, Lars Feld.

"The biggest problem at the moment in the euro zone is no longer Greece, Spain or Italy," he said. "Instead, it is France, because it has not undertaken anything to truly re-establish its competitiveness, and is even heading in the opposite direction.

"France needs labour-market reforms. It is the country among euro-zone countries that works the least each year, so how do you expect any results from that?"

But Mr Hollande said during his broadcast that he and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had spoken to each other frankly but did not "teach each other lessons because Franco-German relations aren't based on lessons, except perhaps on the lessons of history".

However, he did appear to accept some criticism of France, adding: "More than others, we have to prove our seriousness and our competitiveness, more than Germany, and that's what we are doing ... the recovery will take time but I believe we can succeed. I want young people to be living better in five years' time."

Jacques Reland, the left-leaning head of European research at the Global Policy Institute in Paris, said yesterday that French economic woes had been "wildly exaggerated".

"From day one or two, Mr Hollande has faced opposition attacks as if he was not a legitimate holder of power," he said. "There is constant criticism in Germany, while the French press attacks him relentlessly both for being inactive and then for every action he takes."

Mr Reland described comparison with Greece as absurd and also dismissed persistent speculation that despite repeated bailouts, Greece's departure from the euro zone remained inevitable.

"If they were to leave, the damage to growth in Europe would be enormous," he said. "And then why should Spain or Portugal or Italy not follow?"

foreign.desk@thenational.ae