Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

 

Uri DadushSenior associate and director of Carnegie’s International Economics Program

It would be difficult to call France the sick man of Europe when half of the continent is in the hospital.

France is not in intensive care like Greece or under observation like Italy. Unlike Spain and Ireland, France did not see a huge boom and bust in housing and banking; its growth record since the introduction of the euro is better than that of Italy or Portugal; and its public debt remains much lower than Greece’s. France continues to borrow at relatively low rates.

But, although France has not been hospitalized, it has put on weight, has high cholesterol, and is drinking heavily. The biggest worry is about France’s trajectory, rather than its current state. The concerns are twofold.

First, France has been rapidly losing its global market share. That is a reflection not so much of high costs (these have been offset by the declining euro) but of rigidities in its labor markets. France also shows an apparent inability to keep up with Germany and others in terms of innovation and quality—witness the relative performance of French car companies. If the rest of the periphery recovers and the euro surges again, France will struggle to keep up.

Second, French public debt is on a steadily rising path, reflecting mainly an inability to rein in its deficits. Obviously, France is not helped by the eurozone recession and stubbornly slow growth of both domestic demand and, until recently, German wages.

The eurozone simply cannot afford another big casualty. For that reason, France’s health needs to be watched very carefully.

 

Denis MacShaneFormer UK Europe minister

The real sick man of Europe is the EU itself.

Compared with Germany, France is indeed in pretty bad shape today, just as Germany was until 2005. But if France is feeling unwell, what of the UK? On almost every index—budget, debt, trade balance—France is doing much better than Britain, which shares France’s structural aversion to reform, poor political institutions, and elite education systems that are hostile to engineering, manufacturing, and science.

In fact, it is hard to find any EU member state that is in good shape as Europe crawls through the “lost decade,” made worse by the austerity imposed by Germany and the EU/ECB/IMF troika. Even in Sweden, joblessness is rising to levels previously only seen further south in Europe—including a youth unemployment rate of 28 percent.

France’s President François Hollande has brokered a sensible deal between employers and unions, brought in cheap financing for SMEs, and is winning the battle on EU economic policy. Luckily for him, the political right is now divided. The cat fight among former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s successors over who should lead the center-right UMP party, the ugly campaign against gay marriage, and Marine Le Pen’s Front National present unattractive alternatives.

France may not be the well man of Europe. But as the sun finally warms the continent, the country can expect to earn some €100 billion from tourism this summer. Writing off France has always been a mistake.

 

Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Considering the current situation in a number of key areas, the answer to this question, in my view, is “no.”

On the economic front, there are indeed many worries about France’s performance. The issue of the country’s industrial competitiveness is particularly acute, as are topics such as job creation and the budget deficit. But the key issue since the election of President François Hollande, in the context of the EU anti-recession strategy, has been how to strike a balance between austerity measures and stimulating growth. This conundrum has led to intense discussions within the European Council, and the debate is not over yet. Yet, the question is a central one if the European social model is to be maintained.

On the foreign policy front, France has played a leadership role in Mali. There, it conducted a successful military operation with the logistical support of a small number of other EU member states (and other players such as the United States and Canada), as well as the full political backing of all 27 members. Similarly, France plays a strong role on issues such as the Syrian revolution or the Iranian nuclear research program.

That being said, it is probably true that France’s image within the EU and beyond has suffered substantially from poor communication skills and unclear messages emanating from the domestic political debate.

 

Shimon SteinInternational consultant and former Israeli ambassador to Germany

A quick look at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia reveals that, since the mid nineteenth century, when the term “sick man of Europe” was first attributed by Russia’s Czar Nicholas I to Turkey, a growing number of European countries (all of them now EU members) have been given this unenviable moniker.

Some, like the UK (during the 1970s) and Germany (in the late 1990s), who were previously members of the club of sick men, have managed to leave it, whereas others will remain there for years to come, putting a strain on the EU in general and the eurozone in particular.

Does France qualify for membership of the club? According to a report by Morgan Stanley, a bank, it already qualified back in 2007. To say that France is the “real” sick man of Europe implies that there are differences among the candidates, with some—like Greece, Italy, or Portugal—less “sick” than France.

I tend to agree with that assessment if it means that labeling France the “real sick man of Europe” will have an unprecedented impact on the future of the eurozone. And I doubt whether President Hollande is capable of taking the long overdue steps necessary for France to leave the club of sick men and spare the EU a catastrophe.

 

Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

France is clearly suffering from a malaise, but it is not as sick as Italy, Spain, or its other southern neighbors. Both the French and Italian elites are failing, while the Italian, Greek, and Spanish bureaucracies are dysfunctional. In France, both state and bureaucracy remain solid.

Spain and Britain are facing serious secessionist movements in Catalonia and Scotland respectively, and Italy continues to deal with the pro-autonomy Lega Nord party and similar movements. France, by contrast, remains unified: the French party system continues to produce majority governments and a strong executive.

French debt is manageable at 86.3 percent of GDP, compared with 120.1 percent in Italy or 102.9 percent in the United States. Within Europe, France ranks second behind Germany on total spending on research and development, although it is lower in terms of spending as a percentage of GDP.

What is more, sick men have a way of recovering. It was only ten years ago that Germany carried this label and it now looks to be fully recovered. Britain was the sick man of Europe before former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in office in the 1980s, and may be returning to that role again.

In short, France is not as sick as it feels, and this is due to the malaise at the top. When France has a weak president, the entire country feels weak. While France may be suffering from Germany envy, it has a mere cold compared with the pneumonia of its southern neighbors.