Will France Turn North, or Go South?

On Sunday, France will not only select a new president, but if one takes seriously the arguments of the two opposing political camps, it will also choose its geography.

Will France move south and sink into economic decay, or will it move north to join the “Nordic lights” of enlightened social justice? The direction it takes will be decisive for the European Union and the world economy.

“Vote Hollande and France will become a new Greece” warn the partisans of Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s not austerity but indebtedness that is the problem, they argue. The program of the Socialist candidate can only lead France to bankruptcy. François Hollande’s promises are not only untenable but their orientation is dangerous.

“If you want France to join Southern Europe in its accelerated decline, you know what you have to do,” is their argument. “Decline may be initially pleasant, but quickly becomes very painful.” The gap that already exists between a successful Germany and an ailing France will deepen dramatically and become permanent.

Move to the other side. Without saying so specifically, Hollande’s inspiration comes from Northern Europe. The priorities he emphasizes are the essence of the Scandinavian model: a state that is both modest and honest; a gap between the rich and poor that is socially acceptable; near parity and equality of treatment between men and women; and a treatment of immigrants that is as humane and respectful as possible.

What is to be made of Hollande’s ambitions? Do they reveal a lack of political and social modernity? Are they a dangerous economic anachronism?

His emphasis on the need to fight social injustice is more than legitimate. In fact, any attempt to call upon societies to make badly needed sacrifices in this time of crisis has to start with a reduction of social injustice.

Nothing has harmed the legitimacy of capitalism more than the disparity between employees and chief executives. The former were told that flexibility and its direct consequence, risk, were crucial to their companies’ success. The latter had “golden parachutes” to protect them from the same costs and risks.

In the United States, China, India and Brazil, social justice has become a central issue. The clash of inequality and the financial and economic crisis has put existing social contracts in jeopardy. Hollande is right, then, to look for inspiration in Nordic Europe. Today’s Scandinavia, however, is based not only on social fairness but also on a very liberal economy. More equality in social terms does not necessarily imply more state control of the economy.

Greater social fairness is necessary if France is to remain a central actor in Europe alongside Germany. But the competitiveness gap between France and Germany must also be addressed with at least the same urgency — all the while recognizing that the state does not have all the answers to today’s economic and social challenges.

During Wednesday night’s one and only debate between the two finalists of the presidential election, a fixation with Germany was accompanied by a total dismissal of all other international realities. For Sarkozy, Germany’s success today is the direct result of the structural reforms made by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a man of the left who acted with courage and realism. For Hollande, even Germany now realizes that austerity without any emphasis on growth policy is untenable.

Contrary to what The Economist proclaimed on one of its recent front covers, France is not “in denial.” In fact the French are well aware of what’s ahead for them, whoever becomes their next president. Their attitude reminds me of a passage from André Maurois’s “The Silence of Colonel Bramble”: “The British,” says the hero, “never speak about sex because they are literally obsessed with it (contrary to the French who always discuss it, because they think of it more lightly).”

Could the French see debts and deficits the way Maurois’s British see sex? Perhaps they are too obsessed with these issues to discuss them in a political campaign — and perhaps the candidates have understood this.

I suspect reality is more nuanced: There is probably a mixture of escapism and obsession behind the discreet French treatment of these fundamental issues. Which probably also explains a campaign based so much on the personal style of the candidates. If the potential for maneuver at the top, given the fundamentals of the French economy and the rules of the monetary Union, is extremely limited, it is easier to focus on personality than on policy.

What matters in the end is that in their move toward Nordic values, the French should not move closer to southern realities.

Dominique Moïsi is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.

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