Economic realities beginning to dawn on the French
The French were slow to realize that tough times lie ahead, partly because new President François Hollande campaigned against austerity measures outlined by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and suggested that economic growth was the way to pare down government debt.
The Washington Post
PARIS — After a swell of euphoria over President François Hollande's electoral victory in May and a blissful timeout for summer vacation, France is coming to grips with the harsh reality of high unemployment, tax increases and budget cuts imposed by a flat-lining economy and Europe's perilous debt crisis.
The realization that tough times lie ahead was slow in coming, in part because, during the campaign, Hollande decried austerity measures outlined by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and suggested that renewing economic growth was the best recipe for paring down the debt.
Moreover, Hollande promised to renegotiate a treaty committing European Union (EU) countries to limiting their debt to 3 percent of gross domestic product, raising hope that the economic discipline implied in such a goal could be bypassed.
But once installed as president, Hollande settled for a side agreement bundling several previously funded EU growth programs with limited impact on the slumping economies of the union's 27 member nations. Now it is Hollande's finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, who is insisting the treaty must be ratified as is and pledging that austerity policies will bring France's debt level from 4.5 percent to 3 percent during the next year.
The feeling of doldrums has crystallized in recent days over Moscovici's 2013 budget, which is scheduled to be adopted at a government meeting Friday and presented to the French Parliament for a vote next month. In it, one figure stands out: the nearly $40 billion needed to balance the budget enough to come close to the 3 percent figure called for in the EU fiscal treaty.
In addition, Labor Minister Michel Sapin acknowledged Wednesday what specialists already knew: unemployment has topped 3 million people, a rate of about 10 percent, and more companies are announcing layoffs because of zero growth.
Hollande has promised the budget shortfall will be met from three roughly equal sources: cuts in government expenditures, higher business taxes and higher income or other personal taxes. He has insisted his measures will be more justly distributed than Sarkozy's, hitting the well-off harder than the poor, but it is clear all French families and businesses are going to have to cinch up their belts.
Although Sarkozy holds to a self-imposed silence, his followers in the conservative opposition have seized on the bleak economic situation to intensify criticism of Hollande as inept and of his Socialist Party as naive and out of touch.
François Fillon, Sarkozy's prime minister, raised fears in a recent Q&A in Le Figaro newspaper that Hollande could lead the country "into a lasting recession, dragging Europe into a major crisis, with a threat to the European currency."
Many French people seem to agree with Fillon. Hollande's standing in a key opinion poll has plummeted 11 percent since vacations ended, to an unusually low 43 percent approval rating in a survey published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche.
Even more troubling, National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone, a senior figure in Hollande's government, told a radio interviewer the 3 percent goal is "unbearable" in France's current economic situation, no matter what the treaty says.