My wife and I and quite a few members of our family, have been summering in France for a week or two.
We have enjoyed the history, the architecture and the beauty of the countryside. Not for nothing, France has 37 sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Many other Australians also feel the attractions of France. We heard a lot of Australian accents in Paris.
But this year France seemed chillier and I am not just referring to the weather. I sensed a growing malaise particularly with unemployment stuck at around 12% and double that for young people. I did not sense any confidence that France was going to break out of its malaise.
France is the world’s largest destination for tourists, with over 90 million a year. The number is growing and that pressure of numbers shows. Tourist numbers are placing great stress on the major tourist attractions. In all previous years, I visited the Louvre, but not this year. Large and aggressive tour groups have put me off. On our return through London, I found the National Gallery a pleasant experience. Paris has an excellent Metro but car congestion is a growing problem.
The Presidency of Francois Hollande is proving lack-lustre and bland. He has an approval rating of 18% and seems confused as to what he could do to revive the economy and his own standing. He has changed his Prime Minister. Like other Europeans he hopes that the German economic engine will help power France and the rest of Europe, but the German economic engine has slowed down considerably.
Whilst we were in Paris, Air France was continuing its two-week strike brought on by its pilots. The government seemed nowhere to be found, or interested in taking action. France’s sclerotic labour market needs a shake-up, hopefully without doing too much damage to the French social model that I find attractive – that people work to live and not live to work.
Many French people are voting with their feet with an estimate of 2.5 million now living abroad, with 600,000 living in London. But I suspect that these are temporary exiles who still feel very patriotic about France.
The biggest social and political issue in France is growing xenophobia over immigration and the resulting embrace of the very right wing National Front. The NF has been growing alarmingly. It has now won two Senate seats in France for the first time ever. There are 14 municipalities with NF mayors. If present trends continue, the Socialists will be eliminated in the first round of the next presidential election. The final round would then be a run off between the NF and the conservative party of the right, the UMP.
The European Union has been one of the great successes of the second half of the 20th Century. What a contrast the present united Europe is compared with the centuries of European wars that preceded it. But the relatively free flow of people in Europe as part of the European Union has put great strain on the social fabric of Europe particularly at a time of low growth and rising unemployment. This concern about people movements was also shown a few days ago in the UK with the remarkable success of the UK Independence Party which wants to take the UK out of the European Union. The two by-elections in the UK produced an avalanche of support for UK IP.
Unlike Australia, the major parties of France and the UK have not joined the rush to exploit xenophobia but present political trends suggest that they will need to make adjustments perhaps by introducing immigration quotas or some form of restraint. Hopefully, this can be achieved without great hardship and without prejudicing the European Project.
With its traditional high rates of employment growth, Germany is handling the flow of people, including asylum seekers across its borders, with greater success than France. Germany also doesn’t have the problem which France has with former colonies in Algeria and Morocco. Increasingly Germany is being called on to provide greater leadership in Europe. But because of its social and political history, Germany is likely to be a reluctant leader. Importantly if it is to show greater leadership it needs a strong partner. France has traditionally been that strong partner, but France’s influence and standing is shrinking.
The movement of people in Europe is just one part of a world-wide phenomenon of people on the move. The events in the Middle East are only intensifying that problem. There over 50 million displaced people and refugees in the world and the number is rapidly increasing. Almost all countries are finding that they cannot remain immune to this world-wide movement of people across national borders. Along with climate change, people movements are the two major global problems that we face.
The coming winter looks like being much chillier in France and Europe.