Thursday, August 25, 2011

Austerity Comes to France

The man formerly known as "le hyperprésident," who liked to keep his "collaborateur" the prime minister discreetly in the background, yesterday allowed M. Fillon, whom he had once rebuked for saying that "France is bankrupt," to step forward and take full credit for bringing austerity to France. A good summary of the new taxes and other austerity measures can be found in English here. Two of Sarkozy's signature measures have now been fully undone. The detaxation of overtime is finished, at least on the employer's side, which means that there is no further incentive for employers to increase overtime hours (if there ever was one. So much for travailler plus pour gagner plus. And the tax shield reform, already rolled back, has now been replaced by a supplemental tax on high incomes. So much for incentives to the alleged "job creators."

In short, Sarkozy's version of neoliberalism is now finished, and France has entered the era of fiscal austerity. That this move comes at precisely the wrong moment, as growth has slowed to a standstill, doesn't seem to bother anyone in the government, so tight is the grip of conventional wisdom and so vivid the delusion of virtuous suffering that no one can quite believe that anything but good can come of the turn to rigor.

Of course there may be political method to economic madness. Conventional wisdom also says that to introduce rigor eight months before an election is to ensure defeat. But what Sarkozy has done is to deprive the left of its most potent campaign themes: that he is the president of la bande de Fouquet's, that he has piled up huge debts, etc. He also forces the left to fight on his terrain, and the Socialists seem eager to fall into the trap, since they, too, are speaking of nothing but sober budget management. Each candidate is vying to be "more responsible" than the next. One can only imagine the tediousness of debates between the slashers and the cutters. It's almost enough to make one long for les années folles of presidential junkets to Luxor. But those days are gone forever.

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