For decades, Europeans have agonized over the power and role of Germany — the so-called German question — given its importance to European stability and prosperity.
Today, however, Europe is talking about “the French question”: Can the socialist government of French President Francois Hollande pull that nation out of its slow decline and prevent it from slipping permanently into Europe’s second tier?
At stake is whether a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years.
Those close to Hollande say that he is largely aware of what must be done to cut government spending and reduce regulations weighing down the economy, and is carefully gauging the political winds. What appears to be missing is the will; France’s friends, Germany in particular, fear that Hollande may simply lack the political courage to confront his allies and make the necessary decisions.
Changing any country is difficult. However, the challenge in France seems especially hard, in part because of the nation’s amour propre and self-image as a European leader and global power, and in part because French life is so comfortable for many and the day of reckoning still seems far enough away, especially to the country’s small but powerful unions.
The turning of the business cycle could actually be a further impediment in that sense, because as the European economy slowly mends, the French temptation will be to hope that modest economic growth will again mask, like a tranquilizer, the underlying problems.
The French are justifiably proud of their social model. Health care and pensions are good, many French retire at 60 years old or younger, five or six weeks of vacation every summer is the norm, and workers with full time jobs have a 35-hour week and significant protection against layoffs and firings.
In a more competitive world economy, the question is not whether the French social model is a good one, but whether the French can continue to afford it. Based on current trends, the answer is clearly no; not without significant structural changes in pensions, taxes, social benefits, work rules and expectations.
Hollande’s Socialist Party and the harder French left have not seemed to grasp the famous insight of the prince in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s renowned novel of social upheaval, The Leopard, that “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” Sometimes, talking to French politicians and workers, one has the feeling that they all consider themselves communards and revolutionaries, fighters on the left — but at the same time, like the far right, they wish to lock into place the comfort of the known.
In May 1968, students at the University of Paris in Nanterre began what they thought was a revolution. French students in neckties and bobby socks threw cobblestones at the police and demanded that the sclerotic postwar system must change. Today at Nanterre, students worried about finding jobs and losing state benefits are demanding that nothing change at all. Raphael Glucksmann, who led his own first strike in high school in 1995, said members of his generation have nostalgia for their rebellious fathers, but no stomach for a fight in hard economic times.