The French, generally, don’t go in for self-derision. But as the old joke goes, the French national emblem, the Gallic cock, is the only bird who crows on a pile of dung. Today, he isn’t crowing at all. France is no longer on a pile of merde - it is in it.
Public confidence in politicians is at an all-time low. Pressure from the bottom up, one of the country’s favourite pastimes, has become a caricature. One million people turned up in Paris to demonstrate against gay marriage, yet there was not one banner against unemployment, currently at 10.5 per cent and rising. Voters who put their faith in the Socialist Party last year are now confirmed agnostics. That’s what comes from electing a president on the sole basis of hating the one before.
Living standards and buying power are falling. The middle class is being squeezed; their pips are not squeaking yet, but there is plenty of time. Hollande’s promise to tax the rich at 75 per cent fell flat on its face, thrown out of court for being anti-constitutional. In the meantime, the government is grabbing taxes elsewhere and everywhere in an attempt to bring down the public debt. French state spending is at 57 per cent of GDP, the highest in Europe. For a population of 66million, public-sector employment spending is equivalent to 35 per cent of GDP; in the UK, with roughly the same population, public-sector employment costs 20 per cent of GDP and in Germany, with 82million people, it is 31 per cent.
Private-sector investment is on drip feed. Startups are a no-fly zone. It is as if the state is at war with private enterprise. The French naturally mistrust capitalists, whether they are big corporations or small businesses. The attitude is that a boss is a boss and he’s always raking it in. If you flaunt your wealth, you risk being abused by the press. Last week, the government cut the subsidy for firms employing apprentices by half, from €500,000 to €250,000, and that, under pressure from the employers’ federation, was a volte face; the government had wanted to do away with the lot.
Banks are not lending, even though interest rates are low. Taxes on labour are 100 per cent of net salary. How can you expect them to invest in your project if the state is already poised to pounce on the lion’s share of any profit you make? Former US President George W Bush is credited (probably apochraphally) with the quip: ‘The trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Whether Bush’s comment was a joke, a gaffe or a myth, it rings true nonetheless.