|Economics made easy
Can Sarko halt France’s decline?
The French like to claim that there is one thing in which its economy outperforms that of Britain: productivity.
However, as Allister Heath reveals, France's productivity figures can be misleading: Britain's low unemployment rate means that it obviously has more unskilled people in the workforce, whereas in France most of them are unemployed, giving the impression that its workers are more productive.
France has no hope of economic revival if Segolene Royal wins the Presidential race, and stands much better chance with Sarkozy. But even if he wins, he may turn out to be a disppointment and still leave France in the doldrums. Should the British be prepared to hear more Gallic accents in London?
When I first moved to Britain in 1995, after a misspent youth in France, there were few Gallic accents to be heard outside the tourist hotspots. The long-established community in South Kensington (West London) had been joined by a growing number of French students at institutions such as the London School of Economics, but that was about it.
These days the French are everywhere. Tens of thousands of entrepreneurial, ambitious young graduates have moved to London and the south-east of England, fleeing sky-high levels of youth unemployment and a society obsessed with the preservation of the status quo. It’s not just that the 35-hour working week combined with huge social security costs means that it makes little sense for companies to give young, inexperienced workers a try. Equally destructive is France’s crippling burden of tax and public spending, which has squeezed out the private sector and destroyed incentives to work, invest or set up new businesses.
Total public spending accounts for 53.5 per cent of France’s national income; its economy is officially the second most socialist of the wealthy nations after Sweden. Bright French students dream of being top civil servants; no wonder that France is vying with Italy to be the new sick man of Europe, a role recently vacated by Germany.
For those who don’t believe me — and in my experience, that means most readers — the figures are unambiguous. The British economy has outperformed France for many years but the gap has grown significantly over the past decade, helping to fuel the French brain drain.
Average annual economic growth between 1982 and 1992 was 2.3 per cent in France, against 2.5 per cent in Britain. Since the recession of the early 1990s, new-found macroeconomic stability and the delayed effect of the free-market reforms of the 1980s allowed the British economy to power ahead. We’ve done better than France in every year since 1993 but two: France grew a smidgen faster in 2000 at the height of dotcom euphoria and both economies grew at the same rate in 1998. Since the mid-1990s, average growth in France has been just above 2 per cent, against close to 2.8 per cent in Britain.
This year, Britain is expected to grow by 2.6 per cent, against 2.2 per cent in France; next year, 2.8 per cent against 2.3 per cent, if the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development is to be believed. None of this is necessarily apparent to those for whom knowledge of France is restricted to the Riviera or the Champs Elysées; but the truth is that France is stuck in a spiral of unremitting relative economic decline.
Perhaps the most damaging consequence of this is that the share of the population in work in France remains significantly lower than in Britain (both countries have populations of 61 million but Britain has 31 million workers and France has 27 million). Young graduates often have to apply to hundreds of companies before being granted a single interview, a situation unknown in Britain.
A furious row recently broke out over the number of French jobless. Insée, the French national statistics institute, said the unemployment rate fell to 8.4 per cent in February, its lowest level since 1983. Eurostat, the EU statistics institute, promptly announced provisional figures showing the French rate was 8.8 per cent, the highest in the eurozone. But all of these figures miss the real point, which is that many of the new jobs created in Chirac’s France are fake, in state-subsidised schemes designed to reduce social tensions. Real new private-sector jobs are scandalously rare; and virtually all jobs now pay significantly less in France than they do in Britain, while the cost-of-living differential in France’s favour over Great Britain is steadily eroding.
To make matters worse, even France’s supposedly strong performance on productivity — output per worker or per hour worked, which is often claimed to be better than in the UK or US — is little more than a myth. In France the unskilled, including many immigrants, often don’t work at all, which means that they are excluded from productivity