WHEN I visit France it tends to be for one of three reasons.
The first is our annual family holiday in a bon chic, bon genre resort in Brittany, which oozes with the money of rich Parisians; the second is for business in Paris, which despite the problems of its banlieue still exudes a glamour it is hard to imagine ever vanishing; the third a regular visit to friends on the still opulent, though heavily Russified, Riviera.
But recently we went for a tour around parts of France we did not know well; and while some of what we found delighted and surprised us, other aspects caused deep concern.
A couple of days in the Mâconnais showed us stunning countryside and wine producers struggling, but largely succeeding, to make a reasonable living: and included a fabulous lunch of frogs’ legs cooked in a tiny village restaurant near Cluny where the chef was the proprietor and his wife the waitress.
Going across country, to Bourges via Nevers, we started to notice a change. Property prices dipped, according to what we saw in the windows of agences immobilières; some villages along the way looked down-at-heel. Bourges itself was humming, but once we went further north-west, first to Angers and then to a village near Laval, everything seemed more subdued, run down and in need of a proverbial, and literal, lick of paint.
Driving from Tours to Angers, along the north bank of the Loire, stunning views of the great river and its chateaux were punctuated by villages that offered little sign of life, or of prosperity. In Laval we found a street in the centre of town in which almost every shop appeared to have closed down.
Parts of England seem moribund too, but they are not in such plentiful supply as in parts of France. It is a country that in too many places shows signs of over-taxation, under-investment, and an overvalued currency from whose straitjacket there is no escape.
Memory can be deceptive, but I wondered where the France was that I used to visit as a young man; the France still showing the signs of the boom years between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s known as the ‘trente glorieuses’. It is, after all, a country with much to boast about, and with products for which there is a worldwide demand.
The country that gave champagne to the world, and with other legendary wines and spirits to its name, also boasts one of the world’s finest cuisines: yet even in successful wine regions the local economy is feeling the strain of how hard it is to compete in global markets, not least thanks to that overvalued currency. Its other agricultural businesses are having terrible difficulties, with the pig farmers of the north-west in particular fearing they will go under, and the dairy industry having seen far happier days.
France has a big car industry that is feeling the squeeze too, at the higher end because of quality cars from neighbouring Germany, and at the lower with imports from the Far East. The heavy industries of the north have long been in decline; the railway has a debt of around €45billion; and President Hollande is rationalising local administration from the regions, most of which are being amalgamated, right down to the mairies, some of which are being closed.
As everywhere in Europe, money is short, in the private sector and, therefore, in the public, as tax revenues fall. This has had a terrible effect on economic activity: unemployment is a shade under 3.6million, or nearly 11%, twice the rate of the United Kingdom: and the terrible waste of precious human resources this implies is apparent over almost all of France.
France may be under the impression that at its next presidential election, to be held in exactly a year’s time, it will have the chance to reverse all this: but it will not be as easy as that. As the recent, sensible attempts to reform the Code du Travail have shown, it is the French people, who are suffering the most from the present decline of their economy, who are also the most unwilling to countenance the reforms that would liberate it from regulation and allow it to breathe and grow again.
Given the fierce objections raised to attempts by the Chirac and Sarkozy administrations to make structural reforms in the French economy, there is no reason to suppose that those now being suggested by Manuel Valls and Emmanuel Macron will find any more favour. And if M Sarkozy, Alain Juppé or François Fillon were to become president next year and change the political colour of France, there is no reason to expect that any reforms they might wish to bring in would command widespread popular support either.
I started to wonder on my tour around France, as I spoke to French people in those disparate places, whether a form of pessimism has entered the soul of many of the French. It reminded me of Britain in the late 1970s, when entrenched opposition to reform led by the trades unions had to be broken before there could be a resurgence of prosperity. People fear reforms that would, for example, make it easier to sack workers, because they fear for their own livelihoods: but such reforms also encourage people to hire workers, and to find ways of making their businesses grow.
France needs to believe in the excellence of its products – its luxury goods, its cars, its wines, its fine foods, its technologies – and make it as easy as possible to make them and sell them. Prosperity such as its British and German neighbours enjoy is not impossible, if only the French have the will to embrace change.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the
Daily and Sunday Telegraphs