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Posts Tagged ‘France’

I like France, in part because it’s a nice place to visit, but also because I’ve been able to use the country as an example of bad public policy.

It’s hard to pick which policy does the most damage. As a fiscal policy wonk, I’m tempted to blame France’s woes on high taxes and wasteful spending.

However, there’s a strong case that labor law is the worst feature of economic policy. France has all sorts of rules that “protect” employees, but the net effect is that workers suffer because these laws discourage entrepreneurs from creating jobs.

And even though I get a lot of mileage out of making France a bad example, I actually hope that the nation’s new government will move policy in the right direction. Indeed, this is why I wanted France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, to get elected.

Yes, he used to be part of the previous socialist government that sought to make things worse rather than better. But I figured he was most likely to enact some pro-market reforms. And it appears my hopes may be realized, at least with regard to labor policy.

The BBC reports on why Macron wants reform, what he wants to do, and what likely will happen.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has begun its drive to overhaul France’s rigid labour laws, vowing to “free up the energy of the workforce”. …France has an unemployment rate of 9.5%, double that of the other big European economies and Mr Macron has vowed to cut it to 7% by 2022.

Here’s what he is proposing.

The reforms aim to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire. …France’s labour code is some 3,000 pages long and is seen by many as a straitjacket for business. Among the biggest reforms, individual firms are to be offered more flexibility in negotiating wages and conditions. …If a business reached a deal with the majority of its workforce on working hours and pay that agreement would trump any agreement in the wider industry. …The government wants to facilitate deals at local level by encouraging companies with fewer than 50 employees to set up workers’ committees that can bypass unions. One of the thorniest problems for the government is how to make it easier for companies to dismiss staff. There is to be a cap on damages that can be awarded to workers for unfair dismissal. However, after months of consultations, ministers have agreed to increase the cap from their original proposal. The cap would be limited to three months’ pay for two years of work and 20 months’ pay for 30 years. Until now the minimum pay-out for two years’ employment was six months of salary.

And he’ll probably get what he wants, both because some of the bigger unions have decided to play ball and also because he’s been granted authority to unilaterally make changes.

Protests against the plan are expected next month, but two of the biggest unions say they will not take part. Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of Force Ouvrière (FO), said that while the reforms were far from perfect, the government had carried out “real consultation” and FO would play no role in demonstrations on 12 September. The union with the biggest presence in the private sector, CFDT, said its members would not take to the streets either, although it was ultimately disappointed that its position was not reflected in the final text. …Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree. An opinion poll on Wednesday showed that nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed.

Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute has some analysis of what’s been proposed.

…the National Assembly and Senate…authorized France’s government to amend the country’s byzantine labor code by executive orders… Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveiled the details of the reform, divided into five decrees, on Thursday. So what exactly are they seeking to achieve? Perhaps most important is the introduction of caps on redundancy pay to those whose employment has been terminated without a just cause…stricter caps are introduced for small companies, for which large redundancy payments can be ruinous. It will also become easier for multinational companies to justify termination of employment on economic grounds. …it will be possible to downsize or close down French operations without having to subsidize them first from profits made overseas. …Companies with fewer than 20 employees will not have to rely on labor union representatives for their collective contracts. Subsidiaries of companies will have more freedom to offer temporary work contracts.

Dalibor is not overly impressed by this collection of changes.

…measured by the standards of what France needs, it is not much… The extent to which the reform elicits a strong reaction reflects purely the overregulated status quo, rather than the revolutionary nature of the proposed measures. …the government is doing something right, however timid.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial is a bit more optimistic.

French voters this spring gave themselves their best shot in a generation at reviving their moribund economy, and President Emmanuel Macron is now taking advantage of the opportunity. …the labor-market reforms he unveiled Thursday could remake the eurozone’s second-largest economy. …Mr. Macron will limit the severance payouts courts can mandate for fired workers. He will free small companies with nonunion workers from the straitjacket of national collective-bargaining agreements covering working hours, overtime pay, vacation benefits and the like. Companies will have more scope to negotiate labor deals at the firm level rather than being forced to abide by national agreements.

By reducing the potential cost of employing workers, the reforms will lead to more employment.

The severance overhaul will go a long way toward inducing businesses to hire more workers. Small- and medium-size French companies report pervasive fear of expanding their workforce lest they be stuck with problem employees or face ruinous expenses to lay off workers if economic conditions change.

And France desperately needs reform.

French unemployment is still 9.5% even at its five-year low. That’s double the rate in Germany, and French unemployment has become a social crisis, especially for young people frozen out of the job market. The jobless rate for French between age 15 and 24 is 25%—for those who haven’t moved to London or the U.S.

Though the WSJ does recognize that the reforms are merely a modest step in the right direction.

France isn’t becoming a laissez-faire paradise. Even if Mr. Macron’s labor overhaul takes effect, the French workplace will still be considerably more regulated than America’s.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…the government announced sweeping changes on Thursday with the potential to radically shift the balance of power from workers to employers. …an invigorated France is considered critical to the survival of a European Union that is finally showing signs of revival after a lost decade. …Economists in France and across Europe expressed optimism about the new law… France has stagnated for years under chronically elevated unemployment and slow growth. The country’s strong worker protections and expensive benefits have been blamed by some for being at least partly at the root of the problem.

Wow, it must be bad if even the NYT is acknowledging that government is causing the economy to stutter.

Amazingly, the story even admits that economic liberalization is the right way to get more job creation.

Germany crossed that Rubicon in the 1990s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. …Roughly 15 years ago, “France and Germany had economies that were more or less comparable, and that ceased to be the case because the Germans wisely did micro-reforms and the French did not,” said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. So the French ended up with “high unemployment, which fed populism, and getting out of that trap is vital

For what it’s worth, I think the reference to German reforms is key.

Under a left-leaning government, Germany liberalized labor markets. The so-called Hartz reforms were a huge success, slashing the jobless rate by more than 50 percent.

I don’t know whether Macron’s reforms are as bold as what happened in Germany, but any movement in the right direction will create more employment.

P.S. If Macron wants to save France, he better deal with the tax system as well. The problems are nicely captured by two videos, one about how young people are fleeing the nation and another showing a Hollywood celebrity reacting when told about the tax burden.

P.P.S. Whenever I give a speech in France, I ask the audience whether their government (which consumes for the half of economic output) gives them more and better services than the Swiss government (which consumes about one-third of economic output). The answer is always an overwhelmingly no.

P.P.P.S. I (sort of) agreed with Paul Krugman in 2013 that there is a plot against France.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the French people occasionally do support good policy (and they’re willing to escape to America if things don’t get better).

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Back in April, I looked at the candidates running for the French presidency and half-jokingly wondered which one would win the right to preside over the country’s decline.

But once the field was winnowed to two candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I wrote that voters should pick the socialist over the socialist. My title was sarcastic, but I was making a serious point that Marine Le Pen had a very statist platform, whereas I cited evidence that Macron had some sensible proposals.

Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that…the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of…generous benefits. …Mr. Macron…once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun”.

Indeed, in addition to the reforms listed in the Macron has proposed to lower France’s corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and he also want to liberalize labor markets.

All of which seems rather surreal. After all, Macron was a minister in the failed socialist government of Francois Hollande, so who would have thought that we would be the one to lead an effort to shrink the burden of government?

Yet consider the fiscal agenda President Macron is pushing.

France’s 2018 budget will focus on cutting taxes to boost economic activity as the government seeks to cement its support among the business community, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. …Philippe told RTL Radio on Wednesday he wants to lower levies that “hurt the competitiveness of our country.” Government ministries this week received letters setting out their spending limits for 2018. President Emmanuel Macron is seeking cuts of 20 billion euros ($23 billion) and tax reductions of 11 billion euros next year… “We have to get out of the spiral of public spending,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner said in a separate interview on France Inter. “France has been addicted to ever increasing spending, paid for by taxes.”

Wow. I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists (actually, since they created a new party, it would be more accurate to say they are former socialists).

But there is precedent for this kind of surprise. It was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand. And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that French voters may have buyer’s regret.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this topic.

…the question isn’t whether Emmanuel Macron can save France. The question is whether France can save itself. Voters have the best chance in a generation to revive an economy in decline, yet they seem to quail at the critical moment. …voters are having second thoughts about economic reform. Mr. Macron’s approval started falling in July after he announced plans to cut housing benefits—by €5 a month for each recipient. Feminists are in arms over his plan to reduce the government’s women’s-rights budget to €20 million ($23.6 million) from €30 million. That’s before he gets to the labor reforms that will dominate the autumn.

Shifting from the editorial page, the WSJ has a report on the growing opposition to reform.

As Emmanuel Macron sets out to shake up France’s rigid labor market, the young president is losing the public support he may need to weather protests by the country’s powerful unions. …Mr. Macron will have to tread carefully in rolling out his labor reforms in September. For months, the 39-year-old president has been in talks with powerful labor unions in a bid to contain planned street protests. Now the prospect is growing that the ranks of those demonstrations could swell with students, retirees and other segments of French society… Mr. Macron’s government wants to make it easier for French firms to hire and fire workers. …The hard-left General Confederation of Labor, France’s most militant union, is already calling for strikes and demonstrations.

It’s not surprising, of course, to see opposition from those seeking to protect their privileges.

Though it theoretically shouldn’t matter since Macron’s party has a huge majority in the French Assembly.

That being said, politicians do have a habit of buckling when faced with voter unrest.

And Macron is committing some unforced errors, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Emmanuel Macron spent €26,000 (£24,000) on makeup during his first three months as president of France, it has emerged. …Le Point reported that his personal makeup artist – referred to only as Natacha M – put in two bills, one for €10,000 and another for €16,000.The Elysee Palace defended the high fee saying: “We called in a contracter as a matter of urgency”. The same makeup artist also applied foundation to Mr Macron during his presidential campaign. Aides said that spending on makeup would be “significantly reduced”. …Le Point put the overall figure for Mr Hollande’s makeup at €30,000 per quarter. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, paid a whopping €8,000 per month for his, according to Vanity Fair.

Since it appears that these costs are borne by taxpayers, this is all rather depressing.

Macron, however, at least can claim that he’s not the most frivolous with other people’s money. Monsieur Hollande won the prize for waste when you add his hairdresser to the equation.

…all these sums pale into comparison with the £99,000 Mr Hollande paid his personal barber. The huge amount sparked accusations of “shampoo Socialism”. …The hairdresser, Olivier Benhamou, was hired to work at the Elysée Palace in 2012 for the duration of Mr Hollande’s five-year term.  Mr Benhamou also reportedly enjoyed a housing allowance and family benefits.

As I wrote about this last year and suggested that this narcissistic waste made Hollande eligible to win the “Politician of the Year” contest.

But let’s shift back to the serious issue of economic liberalization.

To be blunt, France’s economy is suffocating from statism. I’m not even sure what’s the biggest problem.

The answer is “all of the above,” with is why France desperately needs pro-market reform.

We’ll learn later this year whether Macron can save his country.

P.S. The story that tells you everything you need to know about France was the poll last decade revealing that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

P.P.S. If it wasn’t for France, we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy this very clever and amusing Scott Stantis cartoon.

P.P.P.S. Or watch this rather revealing Will Smith interview about French taxation.

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Remember John Kerry, the former Secretary of State and Massachusetts Senator, the guy who routinely advocated higher taxes but then made sure to protect his own wealth? Not only did he protect much of his fortune in so-called tax havens, he even went through the trouble of domiciling his yacht outside of his home state to minimize his tax burden.

I didn’t object to Kerry’s tax avoidance, but I was irked by his hypocrisy. If taxes are supposed to be so wonderful, shouldn’t he have led by example?

At the risk of understatement, folks on the left are not very good about practicing what they preach.

But let’s not dwell on John Kerry. Instead, let’s focus on other yacht owners so we can learn an important lesson about tax policy.

And, as is so often the case, France is an example of the policies to avoid.

Where have all the superyachts gone? That is the question that locals and business owners in the south of France are asking this summer. And the answer appears to be: Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain. …While the ongoing presence of €10 cups of coffee and €1000 bottles of Champagne might serve to reassure the casual observer that the region is still as attractive to the sun-loving super-rich as it ever was, appearances can be deceptive. Talk to locals involved in the multibillion-euro yachting sector—and in the south of France that’s nearly everyone, in some trickle-down shape or form, as yachting is by some measures the biggest earner in the region after hotels and wine—and you detect a sinking feeling. …More and more yachting money is draining away…washing up in other European countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

Having once paid the equivalent of $11 for a diet coke in Monaco, I can confirm that it is a painfully expensive region.

But let’s focus on the more important issue: Why are the big yachts staying away from the French Riviera?

Apparently they’re avoiding France for the same reason that entrepreneurs are avoiding France. The tax burden is excessive.

The core reason for the superyacht exodus is financial; France has tightened…tax regulations for the captains and crew members of yachts who officially reside in France, and often have families on the mainland, but traditionally have evaded all tax by claiming they were earning their salary offshore. The country has also taken a hard line on imposing 20 percent VAT on yacht fuel sales, which often used to be dodged. Given that a typical fill can be around €100,000, it is understandable that many captains are simply sailing around the corner.

I don’t share this story because I feel sorry for wealthy people.

Instead, the real lesson to be learned is that when politicians aim at the rich, it’s the rest of us that get victimized.

Ordinary workers, whether at marinas or on board the yachts, are the ones who are losing out.

Revenue at the iconic marina in Saint-Tropez has…fallen by 30 percent since the beginning of the year, while Toulon, a less glamorous destination, has suffered a 40 percent decline. …They stated that refueling a 42-meter yacht in Italy (instead of France) “gives a saving of nearly €21,000 a week because of the difference in tax.” Sales by the four largest marine fuel vendors has fallen by 50 percent this summer, the letter said, adding that French “yachties”—an inexperienced 19-year-old deckhand makes around €2,000 per month and a good Captain can command €300,000—were being laid off in droves, as, due to the new tax rules, national insurance, health and other compulsory contributions which boat owners pay for crew members have increased from 15 to 55 percent of their wages. The letter stated that “the additional cost of maintaining a seven-person crew in France is €300,000 (£268,000) a year.”

All of this is – or should have been – totally predictable.

French tax authorities should have learned from what happened a few years ago in Italy.

Or from what happened in France a few decades ago.

…the French have been down this avenue before. “It happened in France about 30 years ago, so people moved their boats to Italy… Yachting is huge revenue earner for the region. …we contribute huge sums in social security alone. “But the bigger issue is that people holidaying on yachts here go ashore and spend money—and a lot of it.” Says Heslin: “The possibility of this happening if taxes and fees were increased has actually been talked about for the last two years, and everyone warned what would happen. “But this where the French government so often goes wrong, this attitude of, ‘Well, we are France, people will always come here.’” This time, it appears, they have called it wrong. Edmiston says, “Yachting is very important to local economy, but if people are not made to feel welcome here, there are plenty of other places where they will be.”

Incidentally, we have similar examples of counterproductive class warfare in the United States. Florida politicians shot themselves in the foot a number of years ago with high taxes on yachts.

And the luxury tax on yachts, which was part of President George H.W. Bush’s disastrous tax-hike deal in 1990, hurt middle-class boat builders much more than upper-income boat buyers.

But let’s zoom out and make a broader point about public finance and tax policy.

Harsh taxes on yachts backfire because the people being targeted have considerable ability to escape the tax by simply choosing to buy yachts, staff yachts, and sail yachts where taxes aren’t so onerous.

Let’s now apply this insight to something far more important than yachts.

Investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. All economic theories – even Marxism ans socialism – agree that capital formation is necessary to increase productivity and thus boost wages.

Yet people don’t have to save and invest. They can choose to immediately enjoy their earnings, especially if there are harsh taxes on income that is saved and invested.

Or they can choose to (mis)allocate capital in ways that make sense from a tax perspective, but might not be very beneficial for the economy.

And upper-income taxpayers have a lot of latitude over how much of their money is saved and invested, as well as how it is saved and invested.

So when politicians impose high taxes on income that is saved and invested, they can expect big supply-side responses, just as there are big responses when they impose punitive taxes on yachts.

But here’s the bottom line. When they over-tax yachts, the damage isn’t that great. Yes, some local workers are out of jobs, but that tends to be offset by more job creation in other jurisdictions that now have more business from big boats.

Over-taxing saving and investment, by contrast, can permanently lower a nation’s prosperity by reducing capital formation. And to the extent that this policy is imposed on the entire world (which is basically what the OECD is seeking), then there’s no additional growth in other jurisdictions to offset the suffering caused by bad tax policy in one jurisdiction.

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A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the four major candidates running in the French presidential election and expressed general pessimism.

This Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will face each other in the runoff election.

That’s a rather depressing choice. Macron is a former official in the disastrous big-government Hollande Administration and Le Pen is a big-government nativist who wants to preserve the welfare state (though not for immigrants).

Like choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Not encouraging since the country needs a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains France’s untenable position.

The deeper question is whether French voters accommodate themselves to reality or cling tighter to their economic illusions. …“The French try to erase historical experience,” Pascal Bruckner tells me. The literary journalist is one of a very few classical liberals among French public intellectuals. He says his compatriots “have forgotten the experience of 1989 and only see the bad aspects of capitalism and liberal democracy.” The tragedy of France, Mr. Bruckner says, is that the country never had a Margaret Thatcher or Gerhard Schröder to implement a dramatic pro-growth program. …it wasn’t shadowy globalists who in 1999 imposed a 35-hour workweek to make overtime labor prohibitively expensive. The law was meant to encourage firms to hire more workers, but like most efforts to subjugate markets to politics, it ended up doing more harm than good. Now it’s the main barrier to hiring in a country where the unemployment rate is stuck north of 10%. Nor was it global markets that levied a corporate tax rate of 33% (plus surcharges for larger firms), a top personal rate of 45%, and a wealth tax and other “social fees” that repelled investors and forced the country’s best and brightest to seek refuge in places like London, New York and Silicon Valley. Nor did globalization build a behemoth French bureaucracy that crowds out the private economy.

Yes, France is in a mess because of statism. Hard to argue with that.

The question is whether Macron or Le Pen will make things better or worse.

With pervasive lack of enthusiasm, I suppose Macron is the preferable choice. There’s at least a chance he’ll be a reformer. Let’s look at how some observers view him.

We’ll start with George Will, who is not overly impressed by Macron.

The French…might confer their presidency on a Gallic Barack Obama. …Emmanuel Macron, 39, is a former Paris investment banker, untainted by electoral experience, and a virtuoso of vagueness. …This self-styled centrist is a former minister for the incumbent president, Socialist François Hollande, who in a recent poll enjoyed 4 percent approval. …In 1977, France’s gross domestic product was about 60 percent larger than Britain’s; today it is smaller than Britain’s. In the interval, Britain had Margaret Thatcher, and France resisted (see above: keeping foreigners’ ideas at bay) “neoliberalism.” It would mean dismantling the heavy-handed state direction of the economy known as “dirigisme,” which is French for sclerosis. France’s unemployment rate is 10 percent, and more than twice that for the young. Public-sector spending is more than 56 percent of France’s GDP, higher than any other European nation’s. Macron promises only to nibble at statism’s ragged edges. He will not receive what he is not seeking — a specific mandate to challenge retirement at age 62 or the 35-hour workweek and the rest of France’s 3,500 pages of labor regulations that make it an ordeal to fire a worker and thus make businesses wary about hiring. Instead, he wants a more muscular European Union , which, with its democracy deficit, embodies regulatory arrogance.

Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal is a bit more optimistic.

Optimistic pundits hope the impending victory of a fresh-faced reformer signals that France’s economy at last can be fixed. But for at least the past decade, France’s problem hasn’t been a lack of understanding in the political class of what the French economy needs. Mr. Macron is not so much a radical change-agent as a photogenic tribune for a political class that is increasingly, albeit belatedly, uniting behind the need for economic overhauls. Formerly of the center left, he won Sunday’s first round on a revitalization platform different more in degree than in kind from that of the main center-right candidate, François Fillon, on matters such as government spending cuts and labor-law reform. The global case of the vapors over Ms. Le Pen obscures how remarkable this pro-reform convergence is. …Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan…remade British and American politics for a generation not through the workings of their legislative programs but through their capacity to shape public opinion. They created a coalition of the optimistic…. If the Macron program is to stick, he’ll have to do the same. He isn’t off to an auspicious start. …His message to those workers—“Take the hit for the good of the country”—lacks a certain Reaganesque resonance.

A columnist for the New York Times offers the most positive spin, portraying Macron as a Reaganite reformer.

Emmanuel Macron…attributes the nation’s woes not to outsiders — European officials and immigrants — but on France’s own “sclerotic” and unsustainable welfare state. …Mr. Macron would work to slim down one of the world’s fattest welfare states, rather than build it up as Ms. Le Pen would do. Of course France has attempted welfare state reform before, without success. The latest effort came last year, when Mr. Macron was a minister in the Socialist government, and wrote the Macron laws, opening regulated industries to competition. Those plans set off mass protests, and were watered down, but Mr. Macron says there is a big difference now: Earlier governments were not elected with a mandate to downsize the welfare state, while his could be. …the case for change has grown more urgent. …Georges Clemenceau, who served twice as prime minister between 1906 and 1920, cracked that his country was very fertile: “You plant bureaucrats and taxes grow.” Over the last decade state spending has grown even more… It’s tough to say how much state spending is too much, but France has clearly fallen out of balance, and Mr. Macron is right that the trend is “no longer sustainable.” The public payroll is similarly bloated, and Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that — more than immigrants or the euro — the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of short workweeks and generous benefits. …In recent years France’s high income taxes have been chasing artists, executives and entrepreneurs out of the country. Last year, 12,000 millionaires emigrated — the largest millionaire exodus from any country by far. Mr. Macron — who once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun” — has strong support among young, professional urban voters who would prefer opportunity at home to an expat life in London.

I hope this last column is accurate.

And the chance of Macron being good are greater than zero.

After all, it was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand.

And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

Heck, policy even moved in the right direction when Bill Clinton was in the White House in the 1990s.

So I guess we can keep our fingers cross that Macron plays a similar role in France.

By the way, I can’t resist citing Paul Krugman’s assessment. He actually thinks France is in fairly good shape.

…what’s going on. …how did things get to this point? …France gets an amazing amount of bad press — much of it coming from ideologues who insist that generous welfare states must have disastrous effects — it’s actually a fairly successful economy. …It’s true that the French over all produce about a quarter less per person then we do — but that’s mainly because they take more vacations and retire younger… France offers a social safety net beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives: guaranteed high-quality health care for all, generous paid leave for new parents, universal pre-K, and much more.

That’s an interesting spin, but maybe French people would like to earn more, but don’t have the opportunity because of bad policy?

And if things are so good in France, why are so many French people escaping to other nations?

Moreover, to the extent there are problems, Krugman says the blame belongs to the supposed pro-austerity crowd in Brussels and Berlin.

Even though Brussels and Berlin were wrong again and again about the economics — even though the austerity they imposed was every bit as economically disastrous as critics warned — they continued to act as if they knew all the answers

Yet the nations that actually cut spending – such as the Baltics – have recovered strongly. It’s the big spenders in Europe who are dragging down the continent.

And since Macron’s supposed reform agenda would only reduce the burden of government spending to 52 percent of economic output (from about 57 percent today), that’s not exactly an example of vigorous budget cutting anyway.

But it would be nice to add France to my list of nations that have – for a last a couple of years – restrained the growth of the public sector.

P.S. I have a good track record in France. The candidate I “endorsed” in 2012 won the race.

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The last time there was a presidential election in France, I like to think my endorsement made a difference in the outcome.

Now that another election is about to take place, with a first round this Sunday and a runoff election between the top-2 candidates two week later, it’s time to once again pontificate about the political situation in France. But before looking at the major candidates, let’s consider a couple of pieces of economic data to get a sense of the enormous challenges that will have to be overcome to boost France’s anemic economy.

We’ll start with this measure of implicit pension debt (IPD) in various European nations. France, not surprisingly, has made commitments to spend money that greatly exceed the private sector’s capacity to generate tax revenue.

By the way, the accompany article notes that the numbers for France are even worse than suggested by the chart.

Most tax and accounting codes require companies to report such implicit debts on the liability side of the ledger as obligations. Not so with governments, whose accounting practices would under normal circumstances be considered as falsifying public accounts. …According to a recent study, six European countries – Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Poland – have an IPD exceeding 300 percent of gross domestic product. …And the kicker? The data cited above are based on the present value of future pensions as of 2006. More up-to-date figures probably won’t be available until the end of 2017. …The issue is no longer when France goes bankrupt, but when Europe does. The level of debt declared in the national accounts is already worrying. With implicit pension liabilities a multiple of that, it appears that a systemic implosion is unavoidable.

Here’s another sobering visual. France is doing a very good job of scaring off the geese that lay the golden eggs. It is losing more millionaires than any other country.

The combined message of these two visuals is that the already-enormous burden of spending in France will get worse, yet the country is chasing away the people who finance the lion’s share of the government’s budget.

And lots of young entrepreneurs also are escaping, which further exacerbates the nation’s long-run troubles.

Now that we’ve looked at where France is heading, let’s contemplate whether the politicians running for President will make the situation better or worse.

We’ll start with this helpful table summarizing the views of the major candidates (though the hard-left vote apparently has consolidated behind Mélenchon, so Hamon can be ignored).

What’s not captured in this table, however, is that the presidential race pits two outsiders (Mélenchon and Le Pen) against two establishment candidates (Macron and Fillon).

And this is leading to some interesting analysis. The establishment point of view is captured by Sebastian Mallaby’s column in the Washington Post. He is very opposed to Fillon, Le Pen, and Mélenchon, and also rather concerned that his preferred candidate – Emmanuel Macron – won’t make it to the runoff.

In the first round of its presidential election, to be held on Sunday, some three-quarters of the French electorate are expected to back candidates who stand variously for corruption, a 100 percent top tax rate, Islamophobia, Russophilia, Holocaust denial, the undermining of NATO and the traumatic breakup of Europe’s political and monetary union. France was once the cradle of the Western Enlightenment. Now it threatens to become a spectacle of decadent collapse.

I disagree with some of Mallaby’s analysis, but enjoyed his depiction of Mélenchon, who bizarrely thinks Venezuela is a role model.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Communist-allied candidate who styles himself after Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and promises a “citizens’ revolution.” No prizes for guessing that he’s the one who proposes a 100 percent top tax rate… Oblivious to the fact that France has taxed and regulated its way to a 25 percent youth unemployment rate and a government-debt trajectory that threatens Armageddon, he wants further cuts to the French workweek, an additional 10,000 civil servants and a shift in the retirement age from 62 to 60.

To put it in simple terms, Mélenchon is appealing to voters who think Hollande didn’t go far enough.

CNN reports that Mélenchon is even more fixated on class warfare than Bernie Sanders.

Instead of a 90 percent top tax rate, he wants to steal every penny from the supposedly evil rich.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has been endorsed by the French Communist Party, says he would introduce a 100% tax on income above €400,000 ($425,000). …France already has some of the world’s highest rates of income tax, and previous attempts to push them even higher have failed. …Around 10,000 millionaires left the country in 2015, followed by 12,000 last year, according to New World Wealth.

Though maybe he’s the French version of Obama, who also got support from communists.

And, like Obama, he thinks he should get to decide when someone has earned enough money.

“I believe that there is a limit to the accumulation [of wealth],” Mélenchon said in March. “If there are any who want to go abroad, well, goodbye!”

Though at least he has the courage of his convictions. He doesn’t mind if upper-income taxpayers leave. Though I wonder if he’s given any thought to who will then pay the bills?

Anyhow, the 100 percent tax is just one of many crazy ideas.

He also wants to limit pay for CEOs to 20 times the salary of their worst-paid employee. …Here’s a quick look at Mélenchon’s other economic policy proposals: Cut France’s working week to four days…More vacation days for workers…Raise minimum wage by 16%…Increase the tax on inherited wealth…100% renewable energy by 2050…No new free trade agreements…Nationalize French energy company EDF and gas provider Engie.

Now let’s shift to other candidates. I’m irked that Macron generally is portrayed as a centrist and even more irked that Le Pen is portrayed as being on the right.

Prince Michael of Liechtenstein is a very astute observer of European political and economic affairs and his analysis is more accurate. We’ll start with what he wrote about Le Pen’s support for statism.

Ms. Le Pen’s…socialist economic program will continue the ongoing destruction of the French economy, its competitiveness and public finances. …Such a scenario would, however, only accelerate a disaster that was already looming. The present government’s socialist policies, which have shied away from reform and preserved France’s oversized public sector, will eventually bear the same results.

To augment that analysis, Le Pen is considered on the right simply because of her anti-immigrant policy. But on economic policy, she is very much on the left.

Prince Michael also exposed Macron’s support for a more burdensome government.

Mr. Macron…claims that he will bring France’s budget deficit below the European benchmark of 3 percent. …The candidate’s plan…does not appear plausible in light of his intention to further increase government spending. Mr. Macron’s pronouncements indicate an adherence to the Keynesian economic policy approach at the EU level. According to him, Europe should end austerity and introduce a growth model in which additional spending – on top of the already lavish outlays planned by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker – ought to be implemented. The Macron policies boil down to more state and more EU centralization. At the heart of the scheme is the creation of a European Ministry of Finance and Economy, an all-powerful body to plan and monitor the EU economy. …Macron intends to continue treating the French cancer with aspirin and transmit the disease to Germany and the rest of the EU, while demanding that they pay for France’s subsistence in the meantime.

In other words, Macron wants this cartoon to be official French policy. Yet some people actually think of him as a pro-market reformer. Wow.

Let’s conclude with these wise words from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, which is very worried that the runoff may feature two pro-big government outsiders.

All four major candidates are polling at around 20%, but Mr. Mélenchon has momentum and the highest personal favorability. A Le Pen-Mélenchon finale would be a political shock to markets and perhaps to the future of the EU and eurozone. …Mr. Hollande’s Socialists have made France the sickest of Europe’s large economies, with growth of merely 1.1% in 2016, a jobless rate above 10% for most of the past five years, and youth unemployment at nearly 25%. His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and the Republicans talked a good reform game but never delivered. …the stage is set for candidates who appeal to nativism or a cost-free welfare state. Let’s hope a French majority steps back from the political brink.

By the way, it’s not yet time for me to make an official endorsement, though I’ll share my leanings.

I confess that I’m torn between Fillon and Mélenchon. By French standards, Fillon is apparently very pro-free market. So I should like him. He could be the Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher of France.

But what if he turns out to be another Sarkozy, a big-government fraud?

If I support Mélenchon, by contrast, at least I can say with great confidence that I will be able to continue using France as an example of bad public policy. I realize that’s not an ideal outcome for the French people, but you know what they say about omelets and eggs.

In any event, I’ll wait until the runoff election before selecting a candidate.

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What best symbolizes France’s statist political culture?

Those are good examples, to be sure, but I’ve actually already shared an everything-you-need-to-know story dealing with lavish perks for France’s protected bureaucrat class.

But there’s no rule that says I can’t have multiple everything-you-need-to-know anecdotes.

Here’s a story that reveals why France is in trouble. The Wall Street Journal reports that a French presidential candidate is arguing people shouldn’t get upset that he used taxpayer money to give his wife a no-show job because a big chunk of the money then went back to the government because of punitive taxes.

François Fillon…apologiz[ed] to the country for having employed his wife and children as parliamentary aides while rejecting accusations the jobs were phony. …Mr. Fillon characterized it as unfair for media reports to state his wife received nearly a million euros over a 15-year period, saying after taxes her monthly average income came to only €3,677 ($3,964). …The privileges traditionally available to France’s ruling class were exposed with rare candor.

So I guess Fillon wants people to think it’s okay to divert funds to family members if they “only” pocket about $48,000 per year after paying taxes.

This is disgusting. At least Fillon should have wasted taxpayer money more elegantly, like France’s current president, who doesn’t have much hair but still gave his stylist big bucks.

What makes Fillon’s story especially amusing is that he is the candidate trying to appeal to French voters who want to reduce the role of the state.

Considering that two of his major opponents are Marine Le Pen, a big-government populist, and Benoît Hamon, a socialist who favors a taxpayer-provided basic income for everyone, maybe Fillon actually is the only choice for French voters with libertarian impulses, but that’s a rather sad commentary on the state of French politics. So I don’t even know if I’ll endorse a candidate, like I did back in 2012.

What makes the situation particularly tragic is that the fiscal mess in France has become so bad that even parts of the government are concluding that some market-based reforms are necessary.

Corporation tax in France is too far above the European average, according to a report by the French Court of Auditors. The experts said a cut from 33.3% to 25% would allow companies to compete with their European counterparts. EurActiv France reports. The amount of tax paid by businesses in France has been steadily climbing for the last two decades. Today, they pay the highest rates in Europe. But this growth has not been good for the country, according to a report published by the Court… France has not always been a high tax jurisdiction, compared to other EU countries. In 1995 it was more or less at the European average. But it has steadily increased over the last 20 years. At the same time, other EU member states have been moving in the opposite direction. According to the report, most member states have lowered tax on business revenues, or have imminent plans to do so. The UK, for example plans to cut corporation tax to 17% by 2020. The average tax rate paid by EU companies fell from 33% in 1999 to 25% in 2015.

France’s suicidal fiscal regime is why – with my tongue planted firmly in cheek – I agreed with Paul Krugman back in 2013 that there is a plot against France. But I pointed out the conspirators against France were the nation’s politicians.

P.S. Actually, perhaps the story that tells you everything you need to know about France was the poll last decade revealing that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

P.P.S. If it wasn’t for France, we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy this very clever and amusing Scott Stantis cartoon.

P.P.P.S. Or watch this rather revealing Will Smith interview about French taxation.

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Two months ago, I decided that the new President of the Philippines was the winner of the 2016 award for politician of the year.

It takes a remarkable amount of chutzpah, after all, to freely admit to having mistresses (yes, more than one). But the icing on the cake is that he then bragged that none of them are on the public payroll. I imagine Filipino taxpayers are very grateful that he self-finances his extracurricular activity.

This is all quite noteworthy, but I may have jumped the gun when giving President Duterte this award.

That’s because we now have another politician who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. This politician, you will see, has displayed a stunning degree of arrogance and elitism, acting as if the normal rules of decorum and prudence don’t apply.

No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton getting a free pass for endangering national security. Though that would be a good guess.

Instead, our new contestant for politician of the year is Monsieur Francois Hollande.

And the reason he has vaulted into contention is this amusing story (though presumably very aggravating story for French taxpayers) about the elitist and wasteful habits of France’s socialist leader.

French President François Hollande’s hairdresser earns a gross salary of €9,895 a month, according to a report in French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, to be published Wednesday. …Over the course of the president’s mandate, which ends next year, the hairdresser will have received a gross salary of more than €590,000. The hairdresser regularly follows Hollande during his travels, according to Le Canard.

I realize I may be a bit old fashioned, and maybe my reactions are influenced by my minimalist approach to hair care (shower, comb with fingers, done), but why does a male politician need an on-staff hairdresser?!?

Especially when he doesn’t have that much hair to begin with!

By the way, it’s not 100 percent clear that taxpayer money is financing Hollande’s hairdresser, though I suspect that’s almost certainly the case. The article mentions that the hairdresser signed the contract with Hollande’s top staffer, which certainly makes it sound as if the French President isn’t spending his own money.

Though maybe the Socialist Party or some other entity is paying the bills, so I will leave open the possibility that Hollande is merely guilty of being a vain clown instead of being a vain clown who wastes taxpayer money.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that Hollande a few years ago publicly cut back on some of the lavish perks he and his cabinet were enjoying. But I guess that was all for show.

Though I’d actually consider it a bargain if politicians spent all their time preening in front of the mirror.

That would leave them less time to tax our earnings.

Or regulate our behavior.

And discourage our productivity.

Or corrupt our nation.

And they’d have less time to reward their donors at our expense!

Or to reward themselves.

Or to be disingenuous hypocrites.

But no need to belabor the point. Maybe now it’s easy to understand why I prefer “do-nothing” politicians.

Heck, I’d be willing to double their pay if they promised to stay home.

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