Now there is mounting pressure on France to do the same — or risk falling behind in Europe’s struggle for economic revival. The government of new President Francois Hollande has veered between promises of reform and sometimes fiery attacks on corporate interests and the rich, a fact that has worried public officials in Washington and elsewhere about the direction of the euro zone’s second-largest economy.
“France is losing ground in a relative sense to these other countries,” said Edward Gardner, assistant head of the IMF’s Europe department. “The outlook remains very weak, not only because of external conditions [in the global economy], but also an internal lack of dynamism.”
Across a broad set of indicators, the euro zone’s financial crisis has diminished. But its economic problems remain deep, limiting the region’s potential to boost global growth. In France, an important pillar in any European recovery, growth has stalled, unemployment is rising, and the political leadership seems torn between its socialist pedigree and the more market-friendly policies other euro-zone nations have adopted.
Since taking office, Hollande and the government of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault have promised to make the country a welcoming place for entrepreneurs. Negotiations between major business and union groups last week produced a set of proposals to make it easier for businesses to trim work hours in a downturn while boosting unemployment benefits.
But they also raised taxes on wealth. And the threat to nationalize a steel plant owned by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal reverberated in boardrooms and public agencies where Hollande is seen as holding onto a piece of old Europe at a time when other countries are trying to come to terms on a new one.
“It is raw nationalism, and that does not bode well” for the direction of the French economy, said Joseph P. Quinlan, chief market strategist at U.S. Trust, the private-wealth arm of Bank of America.
Quinlan, also a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, recently authored a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study encouraging American companies to remain invested in Europe. Many are scaling back investments that were built up in the decades since World War II but are now out of line with Western Europe’s aging populations — as Ford did recently when it closed a vintage 1960s plant in Ghenk, Belgium. Quinlan said that even those who accept his argument that Europe remains too large and rich to ignore have watched Hollande carefully, noting that they could just as easily invest in Poland or, within the euro zone, in a nation such as Spain, which is pressing hard to regain its competitiveness.