On Sunday the French people voted for center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy as their next president. Sarkozy, a pro-American conservative, received just over 53 per cent of the vote, while socialist Segolene Royal managed just under 47 per cent.
The loss for Royal meant that the French Socialist Party has suffered its third defeat in a row. Already the far left factions of the party are warring with more centrist elements over its future direction. But for Sarkozy, it means a clear mandate to implement his package of reforms, which will include freeing up the economy and getting tough on crime and immigration.
His job will not be easy, of course, with the unions, mainstream media and other vested interest groups all working to block the much-needed reforms. Already, rioting has broken out on the streets of Paris, Lyon and other French cities.
The reason why this is a significant and historic win for the conservatives must be seen against the backdrop of the decline of the French nation in recent decades. Will Wilkinson, writing before Sunday’s election (nationalreviewonline, May 4, 2007) paints the picture of a stagnant and morose nation.
He focuses on the economy, which has been a mess, and the impact it has had on the general population: “The French economy, suffering a snail’s-pace economic growth and double digit unemployment, is widely regarded as a bit of basket-case compared to the United States and other healthy, developed economies. This lack of economic oomph is often justified by France and its friends as the price of the vaunted French ‘quality of life.’ But a study published last week by Deutsche Bank Research shows that the French people, far from feeling fantastic, report decidedly mediocre levels of happiness. A lack of economic dynamism is largely to blame.”
While acknowledging that happiness-survey data are far from perfect, “they can tell us something useful about how people think their lives are going and provide a rough sense of the policies that tend to leave people more and less happy with life.”
The Deutsche Bank Research distinguishes “between the happy, less happy, and unhappy varieties of capitalism. (Everybody, it seems, is some kind of capitalist these days.) While go-go capitalist countries like the United States, Australia, and the UK, and economically dynamic Scandinavian free-traders like Denmark and Sweden rank highest on happiness surveys, the economically sclerotic nations of ‘Old Europe’ – such as Belgium, Austria, Germany, and France – are relegated to second-tier, ‘less happy’ status. Worse still, France lurks at the bottom of the ‘less happy’ nations, doing barely better than the relatively ‘unhappy’ Italians.”
“Why so glum? The numbers show that high average incomes, a low unemployment rate, extensive economic freedom, and relatively open labor markets tend to boost happiness levels, while generous welfare handouts, lower levels of inequality, and bigger government have little or no positive effect. The areas where the French do relatively well, such as low inequality and size of government, tend not to make its people feel much better, while the areas where they do poorly, such as unemployment and economic freedom, take a real bite out of happiness.”
He notes that government handouts do not guarantee a turnaround in felicity or lack thereof. “A recent study by Dutch sociologist Piet Ouweneel found that unemployed workers in countries with more generous unemployment benefits are no happier on average than those in more tight-fisted countries. People want to earn it. That’s one reason why people tend to say they are happier in places with relatively low levels of ‘employment protection’ – laws that make it more expensive for employers to hire, and fire, workers.”
He goes on to show that OECD nations with the lowest levels of employment protection, “the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland – feature enviably high levels of average happiness, while ‘less happy’ France ranks near the top in onerous employment regulation. Sadly, these protections – as misguided as Jean-Paul Sartre’s right eye – have come to seem central to French national identity. Last year, when a bill was introduced making it easier for French firms to fire workers under 26 during their first two years of employment, young people took to the streets in massive protests leading President Chirac to spike the new law.”
Concludes Wilkinson, “Nicolas Sarkozy is a far cry from Milton Friedman, but at least he had the good sense to admit, while on a visit to London earlier this year, that millions of entrepreneurial French citizens had fled France for freer climes, like England and the United States, because ‘it has lost the taste for risk and success.’ The French national motto famously enshrines liberty, equality, and solidarity. If the French would like to add happiness to the list, they might try casting a vote for liberty, for a change.”
Well, it looks like French voters have done just that. If the French, of all people, can make such significant changes to their political and economic destiny, perhaps there is hope yet for Europe. We must wait and see how things pan out, including the June legislative elections. But it looks like a very good first step in the move to keep Europe in general, and France in particular, from heading to the grave prematurely.
Of course in the long run, a nation’s fate is not determined only by political and economic considerations. Moral, cultural and spiritual factors are just as important, perhaps more so. But getting things right in the economic and political arenas is nothing to sneeze at. And given the very real malaise France has been in, such changes come not a moment too soon.