May 05, 2007

Ségolène Royal Wants to Buy You a Refrigerated Fish Truck

Remember in 2000, when you looked at George Bush and could see that his knowledge of the world was thin, that his social programs were grounded in ideological purity but practically bankrupt, and that he would never be up to the stature of other leaders if thrust on the world stage?

Well, that kind of candidate is not always on the political right. Many French voters believe that socialist candidate Ségolène Royal is incarnating that role in the French presidential election, which should be decided in less than 12 hours.  She is up against the "right-wing" candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.  Following a raucous head-to-head debate May 2, polls continue to put Sarkozy in the lead, despite the declaration by the center-right candidate Francois Bayrou, who won 18% of the votes in the first round, that he would not vote for Sarkozy.

Let's hope that the notoriously unreliable polls are right this time.

Royal proposes lots of ideas (she has 100 proposals in her platform) that sound good from a theoretical perspective, but just don't add up.  Take the economy, the key issue in the French election.  Unemployment remains at 9%much higher among young people and immigrants. Given the importance of job creation, the candidates have spent a lot of time talking about the 35-hour work-week, a maximum that applies today to any worker that is not part of the management class (les cadres) or a professional (e.g., doctors).

Neither party dares to suggest abolishing the 35-hour work week. Indeed Jacques Chirac, who founded Sarkozy's political party the UMP, has done little to overturn the socialist law during his 12 year mandate.  But as Bayrou put it, Sarkozy sees the 35-hours as a minimum, whereas Royal sees it as a maximum.

Sarkozy sensibly proposes that workers could put in additional hours and earn overtime pay. Companies would not have to pay the normally heavy social charges on the overtime portion of the salaries, and workers would pay no additional taxes.

But Royal thinks the 35-hour maximum is super; she believes it has "created millions of jobs."   It's even believed that she would like to generalize the 35 hour work week to cover even more people than it does now, apparently in the belief that there is a fixed amount of work in the country that must be divvied up.

Her adherence to the socialist line doesn't stop there.  She also suggests that Europe adopt a minimum wage across its 27 countries, but she refuses to say how the wage would be set.  The centrist Bayrou pointed out during an earlier debate that it's impossible to choose a level that would work: either the wage would be set at the rate of the newer Eastern EU members (like Bulgaria or Slovenia), which would mean decimating the French minimum wage, or it would be set at the level of the more established members, which would not be possible in the East.

On issue after issue, Ségolène has some very sweet sounding ideas, but no idea how to implement them.  The following example from the debate is typical; the moderator Patrick Poivre D'Arvor was trying to get the candidates to talk about immigration, but Royal kept returning to the theme of Africa:

"I've been to Dakar. I've seen families in a village of fishermen where the young people leave in canoes and drown in the sea. I've seen the mothers who were there, who don't want their children to drown in the open sea in order to reach France. They want jobs, micro-credit, they need refrigerated trucks for their fish, food for their animals, development projects.  Africa could make could use of solar energy.  How can it be that these French-speaking countries have a development model that bankrupts them? How can it be that solar energy isn't getting used?  How can it be that France hasn't already redefined its aid policy?"

Solar energygood idea.  Micro-creditgood idea!  Refrigerated trucks for fish—yes, please!  But how does she plan to implement her vision of a fish truck in every African village? Where will she find the money?  It might be tricky, since she's also vowed not to downsize the French bureaucracy and to re-establish health care for undocumented immigrants, among dozens of other major new expenditures.

Ségolène does have plenty of good causesmore money against AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's; more money for hospitals, a federal walking home service for female employees, etc.that individually sound appealing.  However, taken together they are simply impossible to fund, and would take France in the direction of an even more bloated federal bureaucracy with even higher taxes and fewer jobs.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink  | 


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