Crisis Conquering France

The deep, persistent European economic crisis is continuing. A few days ago I showed how – predictably – the Greek government is increasing its debt at almost the same rate as before the partial debt default in early 2012. Another sign of the relentlessness of the crisis is that it is slowly but inevitably penetrating the French economy. One symptom is a steadfast increase in unemployment. Here are the latest quarterly data from Eurostat (since this is quarterly data we use seasonally adjusted numbers):

French Unemployment 1

The steady uptick in unemployment coincides to some degree with the socialist government’s deep desire to draw every drip of blood they can from France’s already struggling taxpayers. That policy has backfired, but that does not mean the French government is going to turn to more job-creating policies any time soon.

On the contrary, precisely because of the rising unemployment there is tremendous pressure on the government budget. This pressure has led the EU to express major deficit concerns, and after some batting back and forth between Paris and Brussels the French government has now decided to do exactly what the Eurocrats are asking for. The EU Observer reports:

France’s budget plans are “responsible and prudent” Olli Rehn said Wednesday (26 September) in a sign of rapprochement between the EU and the eurozone’s second largest economy. Speaking to reporters in Brussels following talks with French finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economic affairs chief praised what he described as a “huge effort to restore public finances.” However, he warned Paris to keep up plans to reform the country’s labour market and welfare system commenting that the “ambitious reforms over the last year should be maintained.” The meeting comes a day after Moscovici presented plans to save an additional €18 billion from next year’s budget to the National Assembly in Paris.

There is nothing wrong with labor market reforms that reduce the influence of unions and make it easier for employers and employees to sign whatever contracts they want. France has one of the most heavily regulated labor markets in the industrialized world, and any step in the direction of deregulation is going to make a decisive difference for the better.

Strictly theoretically, there is nothing wrong with welfare reforms either. The problem is that the way the EU is pushing those reforms, they would be implemented at a point when the French economy is burdened with 10+ percent unemployment and punitively high taxes. When people are kicked out of welfare rolls, or receive dramatically less support from them, many won’t be able to find a job to replace welfare as income. That is a recipe for social unrest and political turmoil, as is alarmingly evident from the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese austerity experiences.

A far better way forward is to cut taxes proportionately to the reductions in welfare spending, and to cut the taxes in such a way that you maximize job creation. This will create a predictable, macroeconomically sustainable path from big, onerous government to economic freedom.

Sadly yet predictably, we won’t see any of that in the EU, especially not in France. Back to the EU Observer:

Rehn has had an uneasy relationship with French President Francois Hollande’s socialist government. Last month, the commissioner used an interview in the French media to warn Paris that raising taxes would “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs.” For his part, Hollande has accused the EU executive of attempting to “dictate” policy. The EU executive has also been frustrated by France’s failure to bring down its budget deficit below the 3 percent threshold laid out in the bloc’s stability and growth pact, giving the country a two year extension to meet the commitment in May.

Again, look at the steady upward trend in seasonally adjusted unemployment figures above. Who in his right mind thinks a government that is losing almost one percent of its taxpayers to unemployment every year would stand any chance at reducing its budget deficit? Then again, the Eurocracy is not populated with independent-minded people. It is staffed to the brim with bureaucratic yes-men.

To make matters even trickier for the French government, its new-found realization that taxes actually hurt the economy has led it to shifting its austerity policies over toward spending cuts. The EU Observer again:

Moscovici conceded that France would run a higher than forecast 4.1 percent this year, falling to 3.6 percent in 2014 and to 3 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, 20 percent of new budget savings in 2014 would come from tax rises with all savings coming from spending cuts in 2015. The government would also reform the pension system and cut labour costs to increase competitiveness, he said.

There are some strict conditions under which austerity biased entirely toward spending cuts could benefit the economy. However, those conditions are hard to meet and without elaborating in detail on them (I will at some point) I can safely say that France is far from meeting them.

Their ability to bring the budget deficit under control will be weakened further as they continue to try to balance their budget in the face of rising unemployment. You don’t need to go far to find evidence of where France is heading – just look at Greece.


  1. Andy

    Do you think France could end up as bad as Greece? I know they are not too far behind but isn’t the whole of Europe still under a dark financial cloud? Yes the UK look like they could be turning a corner but I suspect any unforseen events could have them in trouble again.

    • S R Larson

      Good question. If the French government refrains from tax hikes from now on they may have a small chance to avoid a Greek scenario. Then on the other hand they would have to make all their budget-balancing efforts in the area of entitlement cuts, which as we know from the Greek case has faster and more harmful effects on the economy than macroeconomists traditionally have believed. (See I would still recommend suspending any efforts to balance the budget – the French can do that given how low their T-bond rates are – and instead take measures to reduce the size of government and give the private sector a fighting chance to save the economy.

      As for the UK, I agree they could be at a turning point. My guess is they will eventually return to a more Thatcherite track in terms of taxes and government spending, and distance themselves from the rest of Europe. If UKIP makes it into the parliament in the next election we will definitely see that. Overall the situation is uncertain but if I were to bet my own money on any country in Europe right now it would be Britain.

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