How France gave away independence to Europe

With the European Commission recently demanding France hand over extra information on its 2015 budget, author Eric Verhaeghe looks back at how successive governments "hypnotised the French people" as they relinquished economic sovereignty to Brussels.

How France gave away independence to Europe
How France handed over its independence to Europe. Photo: AFP

It is pretty much a given that France, with its runaway deficit, will avoid infringement proceedings by the European Commission if, and only if, it accepts the reforms imposed by Germany, such as reforming unemployment benefits.

This announcement has caused shockwaves in French domestic politics due to the fact that reforms we should have brought in ourselves a long time ago are now being imposed from abroad, with a gun held to our head and in the humiliating shadow of a German spiked helmet.

All of a sudden, the blabber we’ve been hearing for years about the construction of a European community, has come to and end. The void it has left means a revision of all matters to do with Europe is now urgent.

We’ve been banging on about the European community for 30 years. The accepted line is that France had become a second-rate power, unable to survive on its own; only the Franco-German alliance would allow us to return to prosperity and full employment, and only the single market could lead us to growth.

In short, the single market was the key to a rediscovered greatness.

In this long ideological journey, global events brought sudden changes, and a world for which France was not prepared.

In 1986, the Single European Act foresaw an all-out liberalisation of national markets and the privatisation of all public actions where competition existed. The Act initiated the process of privatisation of the postal service, the energy supplier EDF, and the railway service SNCF.

Nobody took the time to clearly explain to the French that the golden era in which the government could subsidise these companies was ending, and that it was now necessary to prepare for fierce competition.

Keeping quiet about the future was probably the first wrong turn for France in keeping its standing in Europe. No elected official announced the shape of the future: that of fading pensions.

In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty disabled both of the weapons that had since 1945 enabled France to cope with economic shocks: budgetary and monetary policies.

By entrusting its money to an independent bank, whose sole mandate is to fight inflation, France was stripped of its usual policy to improve business competitiveness: devaluation.

Henceforth, France played with the same weapons as Germany: a strong currency that raised the price of its products abroad, but without the same advantages in the field; notably, an industry that can sell at any price.

Simultaneously, France agreed to cap the budget deficit at 3 percent, making it impossible for the government to make big investments to stimulate the economy.

Everybody knew that in accepting this treaty, France dug its own economic grave. It was forced to relocate its industry in order to compete with Germany, and wasn't allowed any budgetary margin to kick-start its domestic market.

In 1992 there would have needed to be a parliamentary majority determined to reform the public service to reduce costs and to improve performance while also reducing the tax burden. We know the fate of the only person who, at the time, dared to stick to this undertaking: (former PM) Alain Juppé.

His plan to reform social security ended up out on the street where the pavements echoed with the sound of protesters.

Meanwhile, France accepted German reunification without a fight, which allowed the industries of the Rhine access to a large, single sub-market oriented towards Eastern Europe with its cheap labour, allowing Germany to permanently put paid to any serious competition in Europe.

During all these years of preparation for the great French bankruptcy, how many members of government after government, did not play a role in hypnotising the French people, by telling them that they could, at the same time – open borders to cheaper products, continue to gorge on social security benefits, recruit civil servants like mad, maintain micro hospitals across France and fall into debt with no hope of returning to a balanced budget in order to finance this dream?

Eric Verhaeghe was a former president of the Association for Executives' Employment (APEC) between 2004 and 2009 and is the author of several works, including Jusqu'ici Tout Va Bien (So Far, So Good); Au Coeur du MEDEF: Chronique d'une Fin Annoncée (At the Heart of MEDEF: Chronicle of an End Foretold) and Faut-il Quitter la France? (Should You Leave France?). He also co-founded the "social innovation" company Parmenide.

This article first appeared in France's Le Figaro newspaper. Click here to read the original in French.

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