Forlorn France Faces Bleak Future

Is the end of the eurozone crisis in sight?

On June 9, 2013, French President François Hollande declared that the crisis of the eurozone was over. If one considers public opinion in France as well as reports on the state of the French economy, Mr. Hollande’s optimism can be interpreted as absurd and definitely premature. The IMF has sounded the alarm over the general inadequacy of the reforms that France has undertaken to address the country’s economic malaise. More concerning still are the findings of a recent Pew Research survey released in May 2013, which indicates that France and Germany have radically divergent views on a number of aspects relating to the eurozone crisis and to the future of the European project.

The second quarter of 2013 saw the eurozone emerge, if only slightly, out of recession. Eurostat’s official figures indicate that increased consumption and investment in the two traditional engines of Europe, France and Germany, helped to lift the bloc out of the longest economic slump in postwar history. Though any good news is welcome in these dire times for Europe, economists and observers have greeted the news of a modest growth of 0.3% with subdued relief. But Europe’s crisis is far from over.

Today, France and Germany diverge dramatically along the lines of demographics, economic performance, and public opinion.

Gloom and Doom in France

The story of European integration, until at least the 1980s, was one of a roughly equal Franco-German relationship. However, the eurozone crisis has revealed that the political contours and the balance of power within the EU have changed. In contemporary Europe, France and Germany diverge dramatically along the lines of demographics, economic performance, and public opinion.

For instance, eight out of ten French citizens indicate that unemployment is an acute issue, whereas only three out of ten Germans agree. A recent Pew survey indicated that the French populace has becoming increasingly eurosceptic since the economic meltdown, with only 22% of the population viewing European integration as beneficial to France. This stands in is in stark contrast to the 54% in Germany that hold a favourable view of European integration. Furthermore, 71% of the population in France is “very concerned” over public debt, whereas only 37% of Germans express anxiety over the same issue.

The Pew survey’s most concerning conclusion is that the French perspective on the current economic situation resembles the pessimistic and gloomy outlook found in the foundering southern European member states such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. In all of the aforementioned countries, close to nine out of ten respondents said that their economies were performing poorly.

Ultimately, Mr. Hollande's hands are tied - he ought to cut public spending, but this is a pill that would be too hard for his countrymen to swallow.

Public Debt: The Scourge of the French Economy

It is telling that 71% of the French population designated public debt as the most significant problem, for France’s public debt and spending habits are out of control. In this sense, the French public has correctly identified the primary cause of economic malaise facing the country. The problem is that cutting funding for pensions, family benefits, and unemployment payments would be disastrous for Mr. Hollande’s political future. These three issues are of pivotal importance to the French electorate, and to any electorate, for that matter. Ultimately, Mr. Hollande’s hands are tied. He ought to cut public spending to address France’s debt, but this is a pill that would be too hard for the French population to swallow.

France’s Challenge is Europe’s Challenge

The Pew survey is important for a number of reasons. For one, it gives us an indication of how the various European publics view the crisis and their futures. Perhaps more importantly, if the survey is any indication of what is to come, it reveals that France, one of the two leading states in the EU, now harbours pessimistic and eurosceptic attitudes that are unprecedented. This shift in public opinion will surely have an impact on the nature of French politics in the upcoming years, and by extension, will affect France’s disposition toward the ongoing project of European integration.

 

 

About Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly is an MA candidate at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He holds a BAH with high distinction from the University of Toronto, where he specialized in twentieth-century European history and politics. Christopher’s research interests are broad in range and include transatlantic diplomacy, ethnic conflict, espionage, totalitarian regimes, and the securitization of cyberspace. Christopher has served as a research assistant for Professor Piotr Wróbel of the History Department at the University of Toronto and was an organizer of the 2013 Munk Graduate Student Conference, which examined the changing nature of conflict in the twenty-first century. Christopher was the Program Editor for Canada’s NATO. Contact: chris.kelly@atlantic-council.ca