Even more fundamental is Europe’s inability to create a single functioning economy stretching from the warm Mediterranean waters of Cyprus in the south to the frosty Baltic coast of Finland in the north, a dream plagued by failures to harmonize welfare systems, labor markets, a dizzying array of tax codes and, most important, the drivers of economic growth.
In short, to ensure the euro’s survival, even prosperous large economies such as France must begin to look more like Germany, which cut social benefits and reinvented its economy as an export-driven dynamo in the 2000s.
For proof of the economic divisions tearing at the fabric of the euro, journey no farther than to Lorraine, a French border province of ocher-colored countryside and hard-hit industrial towns where the old bunkers of the Maginot Line — the French border fortifications overrun by the Nazis in World War II — stand as a reminder of Europe’s stakes in forging a common future.
On the highways and cargo trains crossing the France-Germany border, trade flows moderately favored Germany before the adoption of the euro a decade ago. But as the late-model Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs parked in the driveways of French farmhouses attest, their trading relationship today is beginning to look more like the United States and China, with the French buying far more from the thrifty Germans than they can possibly sell them.
After years of sluggish growth, unemployment in France stands at almost 10 percent, nearly three percentage points higher than in Germany. Yet despite herculean efforts at cultural exchange, high schools in Lorraine are witnessing a drop in students studying German. In this province once known as much for its now-fading steel industry as for savory quiche Lorraine, the number of workers who cross into more prosperous Germany actually plunged 37 percent over the past decade.
In a cafe serving coffee and a choice of German pretzels or French croissants, Loic Brastenhofer, a 27-year-old machinist, explains why. Laid off in 2009 from a job at a German-owned steel plant on the French side of the border, he turned down an offer for a new post in Germany.
And who could blame him? On the road to Germany becoming a hypercompetitive export machine, workers there suffered years of depressed salaries and benefit losses during the 2000s, a pinch workers in less competitive France have yet to feel. French workers enjoy a 35-hour workweek, four hours less than in Germany. At nearly $2,000 a month, the minimum wage in France is one of the highest in Europe. Germany has no state-mandated minimum wage.