by Philip Whyte
President Sarkozy is frequently portrayed in France and elsewhere as an “economic liberal”. This is a mistake. He is undoubtedly an economic reformer prepared to take on the privileges of labour market “insiders”; but he retains a French dirigiste’s belief in an active role for the state in economic development. This manifests itself in several areas, including his support for “national champions”, his mercantilist vision of international trade, and his belief that governments should have greater influence over the European Central Bank (ECB).
In a French context at least, Mr Sarkozy’s greatest claim to originality probably rests on his policy towards the labour market. From the mid-1970s until comparatively recently, successive French governments sought to stem the rise in recorded unemployment by strengthening employment protection legislation and pursuing a policy of labour market withdrawals—notably by shortening the working week, discouraging young people from joining the labour force too early, and coaxing older workers out of it by lowering the age of retirement.
In other words, for almost three decades French labour market policy was guided by the lump of labour fallacy—the idea that there is only a fixed amount of work to go around. These ill-conceived supply-side policies gave France one of the lowest employment rates in the EU. Mr Sarkozy’s economic priority is to raise France’s rate of employment by reversing, or at least mitigating, the flawed policies of the past. An early measure has been to relax the 35-hour working hour week by exempting overtime work from income tax (“making work pay”).
Inevitably, Mr Sarkozy’s reforms are facing opposition from “insiders” whose privileges they threaten. Public-sector workers such as train-drivers, who enjoy special pension rights which allow them to retire aged 50, have already been on strike to protest at the government’s proposals to raise the retirement age. In the past, such action could often count on the support of the wider population because reforms were often seen as the “thin end of the wedge”—the first salvo in a broader assault on “acquired social rights” (acquis sociaux).
Successive French governments have had a tendency to back down in the face of popular support for industrial action. This time should be different, for at least two reasons. First, Mr Sarkozy has staked his political reputation on pushing such reforms through: should he back down, his authority would be destroyed and the rest of his presidency shorn of purpose. Second, opinion polls indicate that strikes by privileged public-sector workers no longer enjoy the support of the wider population which realises that it bears the burden of supporting them.
Mr Sarkozy’s labour-market reforms are generally wining plaudits abroad, but other aspects of his economic programme are sparking conflict with France’s neighbours. Mr Sarkozy believes that macroeconomic policy needs to be relaxed while his structural reforms are pushed through. This explains why he has criticised the ECB for neglecting the strength of the euro’s exchange rate and for subordinating economic growth to low inflation. The French president’s broadsides against the ECB have been poorly received elsewhere in the EU—notably in Germany, where they have been seen as attacks on the ECB’s independence.
A similar conflict has emerged in the area of fiscal policy. France has not run a balanced budget since the 1970s and its budget deficit has consistently exceeded the Maastricht limit of 3% of GDP since 2002. Earlier in 2007, the French government (of which Mr Sarkozy was a member) committed itself to balancing its budget by 2010. But the budget for 2008 makes no effort to meet this target because it provides for tax cuts that are not offset by reduction in public expenditure. Commitments to the EU are being subordinated to domestic objectives.
As for Mr Sarkozy’s views on competition and international trade, they are anything but liberal. They spring from a mercantilist mind-set which sees a coincidence of interest between domestic firms and the French state and which believes that a country’s aim in international trade is to export more than it imports. This explains Mr Sarkozy’s support for “national champions”, his opposition to foreign takeovers of leading French firms, and his propensity for intervening to “shape” corporate mergers—witness his role in the tie-ups between Sanofi and Aventis (when he was finance minister) and between GDF and Suez (as president).
Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
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