OPINION: Do the French deserve France?

The French, and in particular yellow vest protestors, moan about inequality but the figures show that their country is a world leader in wealth redistribution, says economist Michel Cicurel of investment group La Maison.

OPINION: Do the French deserve France?
Photo: AFP

French pessimism is an enigma. It is at the same level as in the most deprived countries on the planet. Why is this darkness of spirit so prevalent here? The writer Jean Cocteau said of the Italians that they were good-humoured Frenchmen, while Italians for their part like to talk of la furia francese, French fury or rage.

Is it possible that the French do not deserve France, that they moan about the splinter in the eye of their country without seeing the plank in their own? Because the complaints made about France by our fellow citizens, so many of whom back the yellow vest movement, are the exact opposite of the accusations the country deserves.

What really threatens France is that it lives beyond its means, gives generously to its children what it does not have, and is no longer able to produce what it needs. France is the world champion of redistribution and of the taxes that enable this redistribution.

Social transfers (health, old age, unemployment, housing, family etc) are at 800 billion euros a year, the equivalent of one third of the wealth created by the nation, and make up nearly two thirds of public spending.

This is much more than in any other developed country, and leads to another world champion trophy, that of tax, to which we should add the future tax that our public debt represents.

'France is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world'

It is said that anger in France feeds on the scandal of inequality, yet we are one of the most egalitarian countries in the world.

According to INSEE, the national statistics office, the ratio between the incomes of the top 10 percent and the lowest 10 percent is rather high at 22 before taking into account the works of the welfare state, with its levies and social charges.

But it is only 5 to 6 after redistribution, which is low compared to similar countries.

France is also a country where the poverty rate is among the lowest, even if it remains at a painful 14 percent of the population.

Economist Michel Cicurel of investment group La Maison. Photo: AFP

Where France falls down is that we are no longer able to sustainably support our welfare state because we do not produce enough. Our current account and public deficits are no longer sustainable.

In order to produce what we consume, we need more employment and more capital. But these two factors were ravaged by retirement at 60 (until 2010 when it was raised to 62), the thirty-five hour working week, and the confiscatory taxation of capital.

'Globalisation has both benefited and bruised French consumers'

It is not a question of reproaching the yellow vests, whose demands are those of the working classes suffering from the transformation of the world. Globalisation, and its ultimate stage which is digitalisation, has tremendously benefited the French consumer, who imports clothes, appliances, electronics, etc. at exceptionally low prices. But it has bruised many workers shaken by major movements in urbanisation and modernisation.

These French, driven from the city centres by property prices, and from the suburbs by immigration, now live resentfully in their houses on the urban fringes where they are hemmed in by high fuel prices and ecological constraints. This is a significant part of the French population, one excellently depicted by the geographer Christophe Guilluy (whose latest book Twilight of the Elites continues his examination of “la France périphérique”).

Their situation deserves consideration and action. But they certainly do not make up the three-quarters of our fellow citizens who support the yellow vests, and whose bad mood could lead to bad decisions.

Populism finds a magnificent playground in the latent pessimism of the French. But, curiously, they have so far never deliberately gone for the extremes as other Europeans have done without hesitation. It as as though French grumbling always stops just before the point where it could break the country.

There is a lot of political intelligence in our country, and perhaps the good faith of the ongoing debates will enable it to find common sense. It would be nice if France could keep the French it deserves.

This article was first published in the Journal du Dimanche on 3 February 2019


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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.