Opinion

John Lloyd

France is the ‘sick man of Europe’

John Lloyd
Mar 26, 2014 15:49 UTC

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.

French minds turn to scandal

John Lloyd
Jan 13, 2014 21:13 UTC

Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.

Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.

In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.

France’s taxing expatriates

John Lloyd
Dec 26, 2012 18:32 UTC

Gerard Depardieu, 64 years old before the year’s end, is an actor of great range and talent. He could play the naïve, finally broken farmer in Jean de Florette; the heroic, swashbuckling, great-nosed Cyrano de Bergerac; the slobbish but romantic Georges in Green Card…and so on, and on, through scores of films and TV series, made at a rate of nearly five a year for over forty years. He acquired a fortune, restaurants, vineyards and many awards, capped by the Legion d’Honneur.

Earlier this month, he became an expatriate to escape French taxes. He returned his passport to the government, and moved from Paris to the village of Nechin in Belgium, just over the French border, where he joined a community of the French rich. They live there to enjoy the low taxes on stock and capital gains – low compared to those in France, where the Socialist government has imposed a marginal tax rate of 75 percent on incomes over 1 million euros ($1.2m).

He leaves in bitterness, with the curses of his government ringing in his ears. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Prime Minister, said he was “shirking his patriotic duties.” He said that the rich were leaving “because they want to get even richer… we cannot fight poverty if those with the most – sometimes with a lot – do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity.”

Europe’s new, suicidal normal

John Lloyd
May 8, 2012 11:44 UTC

The world into which the new president of France, François Hollande, stepped this week is a suicidal one. Searching for a vivid image of Euro-desolation, the news media have lit upon suicides. Two suicides last month have stood out.

A 55-year-old man on the Italian island of Sardinia, who ran a little construction business with his sons in a mountain town called Mamoiada in the interior, killed himself when the business went bust. He was known only by the initials GM, and the town’s mayor says he was an industrious man with a close-knit family. His death shocked everyone.

Earlier in April, an older, Greek man, 77-year-old Dimitris Chrystoulas, a retired pharmacist, staged a more dramatic end to his life. Like GM, he said he wished to die with dignity; also like the Sardinian, he shot himself. But he did so in the central Syntagma Square in Athens, near the parliament, leaving a note that prophesied that the “traitors” who have brought Greece to destitution and enslavement to the will of international finance would be hung upside down in the square where he met his end, much like the way Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was executed in Milan.

As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire

John Lloyd
Apr 13, 2012 18:29 UTC

It’s too early to hear the sound of the tumbrils rolling, or the excited click-clack of spectators’ knitting needles as the aristos are taken to the guillotine, but don’t bet that a modern bonfire of the pretensions of the very rich won’t happen, and maybe soon. (Peacefully, I hope: Revolutions are mostly horrible affairs.)

The French allusion occurs because the presidential election campaign opened officially there earlier this week, and the first round of the two-stage voting process will take place on Sunday Apr. 22. From the results of that first pass for the French people, we should see something of central interest and concern to our times, with an import far beyond France. We’ll see how mad people are, and how deeply (or not) they feel they shouldn’t take it any more.

The smart money remains on one of the two front-runners in the race: President Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the right, who’s campaigning as if his life depended on it; and François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, an altogether more laid-back man whose travel-to-work transport was, until recently, a scooter (the kind with a motor – modesty has its limits). They both have been hovering below 30 percent in the polls, while 10 percent is taken by François Bayrou, a veteran campaigner and a liberal, centrist, sensible sort of man, who is trying to pump up votes for a job that is unlikely ever to be his.

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