MAY 6 — On Sunday, France will select a 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. Francois Hollande’s promises are not only untenable but 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 and become permanent.
Move to the other side. Without saying so specifically, Hollande’s inspiration comes from Northern Europe. The priorities he emphasises 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 legitimate. Any attempt to call upon societies to make 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 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 recognising that the state does not have all the answers to today’s economic and social challenges. — International Herald Tribune
* Dominique Moisi is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.