Politicus: France and Germany find reform doesn't get easier

Posted in Europe | 06-Apr-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS - Is it possible for France and Germany to reform - despite the word's new certification as both terrifying and a vote-loser - and stop what is seen in some places as their decline as poles of allegiance and emulation in Europe?

The presumptive answer is mostly yes, say the countries' most aggressive heralds of decline, depending on the price in comfort the two societies and their politicians are willing to pay. But as President Jacques Chirac of France acknowledged last week (he could have been speaking for Germany, too), a national undertaking that requires leaving a cozy, risk-averse, statist couch for a more open, more competitive, more growth-oriented world is a very awkward business.

In Chirac's case, this statement followed a sharp defeat in regional elections that was mostly a protest vote against his government's tentative jabs at reducing the enormous cost of the French public sector's overhead. The French president was asked on television how he could unhook the concept of reform from the people's belief that it really meant sacrificing the benefits they liked the most.

"By using the word less," he said.

Jürgen Peters, the head of the German metal workers' union, said at a rally over the weekend in Cologne, "We're fed up with so-called reforms that we pay for and serve other people's interests."

In his view, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's reform policies really come down to smaller unemployment payments, more money spent on the dentist, higher costs for medicine, and cuts in pensions.

On parallel rails, political will and reality on each side of the Rhine meet here. If the French and German reform efforts persist, however faint compared with the temblors of the Thatcher or Reagan scales of societal change, they point in the direction of more difficulties at the polls and perhaps in the streets for Chirac's neo-Gaullists and Schröder's Social Democrats, which face 13 elections in Germany's regions in the coming months.

That almost certainly means either watering down, slowing or masking any reform process. And this at a time when the European Union has singled out both France and Germany for failing to put into effect the economic modernization directives (followed to the letter by Spain and Portugal) that are supposed to return Europe to global competitiveness.

Chastened by the elections, Chirac has told the nation that a mix of planned potions for change will be diluted. But the president's swerve was hardly precedent-setting: already last August, following a few days of antireform strikes, the government announced it was abandoning a plan to cut 30,000 jobs in 2004 from a public sector that represents 44 percent of overall state expenditure.

In Germany, where some taxes have been lowered and some suppleness brought to the labor market (but without a spurt of economic growth), speculation is now ablossom that jagged-edge reform measures are over and done. The r-word, it is said, should be used by the government only in connection with feel-good areas like research, vocational training and innovation. The line among Social Democrats is that if the Legislature in the country's biggest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, falls in 2005 after 39 years with an SPD hand on power, Schröder goes, too, in 2006.

All this is far, very far, from the kind of grand, bold politics and dramatic change that is being demanded by the German and French critics who describe their countries as being locked in decline.

This week, the fastest-rising book on the main German nonfiction best-seller list, at No. 5, is called, in rough translation, "Germany, the Decline of a Superstar." The author, Gabor Steingart, says Germany as an economic power has been spinning downward as if steered by "a robot's hand," without effective political control, since the late 1970s. It follows a spate of books in France last fall that focused on the argument that the country was a diminishing force in Europe. Now, Nicolas Baverez, the author of the most notable of the French books, "France in Free Fall," has returned to his theme with new intensity in two major articles.

For Steingart ("Deutschland, Der Abstieg eines Superstars"), apart from the radical reform of the German tax, labor and social welfare systems, the country cannot regain its lost standing without confronting existential structural problems. He believes political leadership in Germany is made ineffective and tortuous by an "anti-Führer" package of constitutional constraints from the postwar period. He considers that German reunification turned western Germany into "the colony of East" because it pours an average of 4 percent of its gross national product into maintaining living standards in the former East Germany.

But he turns much of his fire on Germans' lack of willingness to deal with reality. Germans, in the face of recent history, he writes, hold their hands in front of their eyes in refusing to admit that the German Model has disappeared. The political class recognizes it, says Steingart, a journalist at Der Spiegel newsmagazine, but the country's continuing fearful gaze has blocked a meaningful change in its politics.

"People hear, smell and feel the country in decline, but maybe half of them think things will get better on their own," he insisted. "In truth, the only thing left to do now is lose your illusions."

Baverez ("La France qui Tombe"), an economist, historian and lawyer, who is sometimes described as a French nationalist, attacked Chirac in time for the elections for avoiding the most urgent reforms, and in a long, separate article in the current issue of the review Commentaire said the failure of the French-German couple signified the eventual "takeover" of the EU by Britain.

Baverez believes Germany's situation is a more positive one than that of France, an idea that Steingart - who has not read Baverez - shares to the extent he thinks the critical role of the press in Germany is far stronger.

The essence of France's current negative exceptionalism, Baverez contended in a recent telephone conversation, was in its homogeneity. That meant "a political class, left or right, that is completely fused with the highest level of the bureaucratic establishment. It's a total monopoly and it extends to culture and the media."

Extrapolating from Baverez's view, this signified that most change in France was perceived as a universal and indiscriminate threat because virtually everyone's self-interest, through unions, state benefits and the vast public sector, was wired into the system.

How do you tell this to voters? You just go ahead in goading, Baverez believes, asking whether reform is possible because the question has nothing to do with either denigrating or demoralizing a country, any more than talking of decline suggests it is in the grip of moral decadence.

"Optimism or pessimism," Baverez wrote, arming himself for more battles, "are both foreign to political and historical judgments." com