It’s France’s turn to be the “sick man of Europe,” a competition that no country wants to win.
The phrase seems to have originated with Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who wrote it in reference to the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in the mid-nineteenth century. The Tsar said Turkey was “sick” and journalists added the “man of Europe” a century later. It was bestowed on whichever laggard European state could be put into a headline.
In the seventies it was the UK, then seen as prey to militant unions. In the nineties it was Germany as it struggled with the costs of reunification. Italy, with no or low growth and huge debts, has had the title sporadically over the past four years. So has Greece, of course, as well as hard-pressed Portugal.
Now, it’s France.
At a time when many other European economies are showing some growth, output in France’s manufacturing and service sectors is contracting. Unemployment is rising, with a quarter of those under age 25 jobless. A recent report showed an uptick in manufacturing, but the country has a long way to go to make up for the declines of the recent past.
This malaise has centered media attention on the man who is implicitly held to be accountable; the Socialist President Francois Hollande. He is seen as vacillating — he scrapped a number of his initiatives when they were met with sustained protests — and out of touch. Thus, when the French far right party, the National Front, did well in the local government elections on Sunday, images of the president looking doleful were everywhere — as were pictures of a joyous Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.