France is Still France

Author: Bill Witherell, Post Date: May 11, 2007

On May 6th Nicolas Sarkozy was elected by a wide margin to be President of France, decisively trouncing the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal.  On May 16th.Sarkozy takes over from Jacques Chirac, who has been President for the past 12 years.  The 84% turnout reflected French voter’s strong desire for change.  They seek economic reforms.  Their present socialistic system has hampered France’s ability to match the dynamic performance of neighboring Germany and Britain. I lived for 28 years in France and often listened sympathetically to officials complaining about their frustrated efforts to undertake clearly needed reforms.  I can well understand the enthusiasm and sense of a fresh start for France generated by the Sarkozy victory.  The mandate for reform is clear.  But the election also served to underline the serious social divisions in France.

During the campaign, Sarkozy spelled out a clear reform agenda. Key elements include cutting taxes and social charges on overtime worked beyond the 35 hour week (stating that the French need to work more), scrapping the inheritance tax for all but the richest, setting 50% as the top rate on all personal taxation, introducing a single job contract with progressive rights, reforming unemployment benefits by linking them to active job-seeking, requiring democratic elections for union leaders, reforming the public sector employee pension system, tightening immigration rules and tightening up sentencing of repeat youth offenders. Recognizing that many past reform efforts floundered after public transportation strikes paralyzed the cities, Sarkozy has called for a guarantee of "minimum service" during future public transportation strikes. He has also taken on the student unions with his university reform ideas.  He has called for the "moral and intellectual relativism " heritage of the student revolt of May 1968 to be "liquidated."

This is a challenging program for reform. Reading through it suggests the opposition groups that will seek to derail these reforms.  At the forefront of the opposition, cheered on by the French intellectual elite, will be the public sector trade unions (controlled by the communist party) and other insiders protected by the present system.  They will be joined, ironically, by the real outsiders, those with the lowest incomes and highest unemployment rates, particularly the large black and Muslim minorities and other unemployed youth.  It is not surprising that the election results were followed quickly by the burning of some 730 cars (apparently the now well established means of showing discontent) and clashes with riot police in Paris and several other cities. In the following week students at Sorbonne University voted to blockade their campus.  A long, hot and turbulent summer appears to have started early in France.

An essential requirement for success with his reform agenda will be for Sarkozy’s UMP party to retain a healthy majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections on June 10th and 17th. Current polls suggest he will obtain this majority. If so, Sarkozy should be able to follow through with his announced intention to advance rapidly.  He intends to call parliament into extraordinary session this summer. 

However, we should not expect a Thatcher-like revolution to France’s over-protected system.  Reforms will be moderated not only by the need to overcome in one way or another the opponents to reform but also by the deeply ingrained French belief in the central role of the "State". France is still France.  French nationalism and protectionism have not disappeared.

Even Sarkozy, who is seeking  “revolutionary” changes in the French economic and social system in a move to more market-friendly domestic policies, evidently maintains his strong Gaullist roots.  He has called for "protection" for French citizens from the outside world and from globalization and suggested subsides for "national champions".  Finance Ministers across Europe soundly refuted his disturbing questioning of the political independence of the European Central Bank.  Hopefully, his protectionist statements during the campaign will not be translated into action. They clearly go against his stated desire to see the French economy recover its international competitiveness after years of underperformance.

On the international political front, American’s have welcomed the prospect of a French leader who clearly has a more positive attitude towards working with the U.S., a more positive attitude towards Israel, and a willingness to take a tough stance vis-à-vis Russia and Iran. Europeans welcome the arrival of a more active French President, but are concerned by his protectionist statements and inflexible attitude towards Turkey. No doubt, Sarkozy will seek to have France play a more prominent and effective role in Europe and on the global scene. This should be a welcome development.

We will comment again on the French scene following the June parliamentary elections.  By that time we should have a clearer indication of whether this promising first step towards a new more dynamic French economy will be followed by meaningful reforms.  In the meantime, we are maintaining a cautious underweight position in our International ETF portfolios with respect to France in comparison to our overweight for the strongly performing economy of Germany.

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