Election Angst

We Must Help France Face the Future

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    French voters may express their dissatisfaction with their own, and the EU’s, status quo at this weekend’s elections. But the problems the nation faces won’t go away, no matter who is elected. Nor will the need for help from outside, the author says.

  • Facts


    • On Sunday, French voters will go to the polls for the first round of the French presidential elections. The four leading candidates reflect four very disparate movements within French society.
    • At the same time, a large number of French voters – around a third – remain undecided, making a result impossible to predict.
    • France’s problems include 10 percent unemployment and in 2018, a likely breach of EU rules on deficits.
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The eleven French presidential election candidates take part in a special political television show entitled “15min to Convince” at the studios of French Television channel France 2 in Saint-Cloud
The 11 French presidential candidates take part in a special political television show three days before voting. Source: Reuters/Martin Bureau

France is in bad shape. Germany’s most important European partner will likely exceed the 3 percent deficit limit set by the euro zone in 2018. Unemployment is at almost 10 percent. A lack of competitive ability is destroying whole branches of industry and even the slightest effort at reform gets bogged down in union disputes. Even worse, for what seems like an eternity, France’s political elite has been unable to present people with any programs or candidates that even come close to being convincing.

On the contrary, they continue to distance themselves from voters’ reality. And so it is that Marine Le Pen, with her right-wing populism and isolationism, is determining the debates of the day – and on April 23, has a chance of coming out of the ballot as the winner.

But this is only one part of the French reality and the answers presented are often too simplistic. There is no one cause and therefore, no one solution for “the French problem.”

Like many industrialized nations in the era of globalization, French society is also marked by contrasts, differing dynamics and complex and multifaceted tension.

Instead of boldly investing in the future, one French government after the other has just supported the unprofitable industries of yesteryear.

Today there is a France that, thanks to transformation and progress, is prosperous and open. But there is also a France that is afraid – afraid about the future and its children’s future. There are areas of politics where France sets an international example. French family policy, science and healthcare are seen as exemplary in many places. But there are also areas with serious structural deficits. Among them, the job market and fiscal policies as well as the pension system. Additionally old industries like the manufacturing sectors or heavy industry are a concern.

Alongside that, France leads the world in a range of dynamic industries, both old and new and these are thriving: This ranges from haute couture designers and civilian drones to artificial hearts.

Today, as the election campaigning culminates, France’s domestic tension also seems to have reached a new peak. In times of global uncertainty, the country is feverishly seeking a new equilibrium, a new societal balance in which at least four major, in part competing and oppositional, social movements must find a balance.

First of all, there are those who number among globalization’s losers. The fear of opening up to the outside world, of technological change, of the unknown, is a worldwide phenomenon that has hit France particularly hard, given its difficult economic situation.

Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t just a problem for the big city suburbs, known as the banlieues, it is increasingly also taking hold of the French middle class. Older workers, younger people with fewer skills and the rural population: They are all afraid of losing their jobs to immigrants or robots.

Then of course, there are globalization’s winners. The technology-savvy, well-educated French, who have enough of an advantage to capitalize on the transformation. They are constantly founding new start-ups and ecstatically investing in new technologies. As a result, Paris recently came second behind London as a European hub for start-up financing, even edging out Berlin which ranked third.

It isn’t by chance that a company like Facebook picked the French capital as their global research center for artificial intelligence. Not only the staffing situation, but also the infrastructure is excellent in many French metropolises.

And then of course there are the middle-aged and older generations, who have experienced France completely missing out on the developments of recent decades. Instead of boldly investing in the future, one French government after the other has just supported the unprofitable industries of yesteryear.

In light of the above, the present French model, with its relatively inflexible labor market geared to the elite, and its generous social benefits, is proving to be increasingly inoperable. But a new model has yet to be found.

10 p6 France in Numbers-01
France GDP Unemployment Rate Trade Balance Unit Labor Costs

Thanks to demographic trends in France, a whole new generation has the potential to change this. The percentage of French under 14s sits above 18 percent, compared to 13.2 percent in Germany. Although, admittedly, France’s young people are asking more and more questions, to which they are getting fewer and fewer answers. They urgently need orientation and a measure of security so they can look ahead optimistically.

These social movements, their demands and expectations, are clearly reflected in the current election campaign. The right-wing populist, Ms. Le Pen, appeals to the fearful, the conservative François Fillon promises to reestablish France’s former competitiveness, the independent candidate for the new centrists, Emmanuel Macron, says exactly what techno-enthusiastic optimists want to hear. Meanwhile the socialist Benoît Hamon asks questions on behalf of the next generation, for example, about the environment and artificial intelligence, just as left-wing radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon says he wants to put an end to European austerity policies.

It isn’t just French society that is divided, many people are dealing with internal uncertainties as well. They remain undecided. As recently as last week, around 41 percent of the French public was unable to say with any certainly who they would vote for in the first round of the presidential election. Even today, just two days before voting begins, the race remains absolutely open.

No matter who is ultimately elected on May 7, they will have to deal with the aforementioned complexities. And Germany, and France’s other partners, will have to do so as well. For if we really want to take the European idea seriously, we will have to tackle the problems that underlie the current political tensions in France together.

Many French see Germany, with its self-serving, export-orientated economy, its refugee policy, and its obsession with austerity, as responsible for many of the problems that they, and Europe, suffer today.

Instead of merely demanding that the French commit to more reform and fewer union strikes, the Germans should take a lesson from the current discourse in France. Given the economic uncertainty, one thing dominates our neighboring country more than anything else: fear.

And fear is always a bad teacher. Which is why, above all, the people of France must be given a reason to hope.

We should make the French election campaign, with all its uncertainty, an opportunity to intensely contemplate our common future. We will all be facing about the same challenges next year as well – from unemployment all the way to the imponderables of globalization and rapid technological development that, independent of politics, will shape our world economy.

And yet the greatest revolution in human history, that of artificial intelligence, has only just begun. After digitalization, it will cause even greater change and further global upheaval, which will present the biggest challenges to Europe, and to Germany. Our goal must be to create the basic conditions that best prepare our economic systems and our societies for the next phase of global transformation.

I am convinced that Europe, with its German engineers and its French mathematicians, possesses an incredible opportunity: To position itself at the top when it comes to the development of artificial intelligence. But only if it is willing.

Part of this will involve creating the right conditions, ones comply with our fundamental European values. That means quickly and pointedly investing in future technologies, reaching agreements that will enable the participation of all stakeholders – and above all we must have the willingness to contribute, through empathy and understanding, to a change from which all in a common European future will ultimately benefit.


To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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