Many business owners say that they are waiting to see what will happen but that they are nervous about the future.
“We pay a pretty high level of tax already. The money we earned was not stolen,” said Stanislas de Bentzmann, co-chief executive of Devoteam, a computer systems company. “I switch on the radio and I hear the news that the government is doing the opposite of what I think it should do. In this kind of mood, investment decisions are not stimulated in this country.”
But he added that investors would probably tolerate temporary tax increases if there were a “real reorganization of the welfare state” at the same time. French Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac has said that the 75 percent income tax might be reduced once the country balances its budget.
Some economists say they think the prospect of French wealth and investment flowing out of the country is more bogeyman than real.
“French people don’t want to give up the level of service they’re getting,” said Fabrice Montagne, the chief French economist at Barclays Bank. “I wouldn’t overestimate” people leaving the country, he said.
A fragile moment
This is a fragile moment for France. Last month, Peugeot, Europe’s second largest car manufacturer, announced plans to shut down a plant and lay off 8,000 workers. Hollande has fought the plans, but he has little recourse, and his advisers are bracing for more bad news and layoffs in the fall. And with borrowing costs soaring in Spain and Italy, the euro zone’s overall prospects look dim.
Painful policy changes could be easier, with France temporarily benefiting from the fears about its neighbors. Its borrowing rates are close to record lows as nervous investors shift their euros from Spain and Italy to Germany and France, which are seen as more stable. But if markets become nervous about France’s future, rates could spike quickly.
Although France’s income taxes are high and getting higher, the country also has a national sales tax of 19.6 percent and a financial transactions tax and a social services tax of 7.5 percent of earnings, among others. French workers have long accepted the costs as the price of a government that offers cradle-to-grave social protections, but businesses have complained that the high cost of contributions to pension plans and the health-care system have made French workers more expensive than those elsewhere in Europe.
Hollande’s advisers agree there is a problem, and they have signaled that they will cut employers’ required social-safety-net contributions and shift more of the burden onto workers. Nor has the government increased every tax it can find: One of the new president’s first actions when he came into office was to halt a rise in the national sales tax that had been planned by Sarkozy, reasoning that it disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class.
Sarkozy’s associates have slammed the moves.
“I’m quite sure it will be a fiscal shock, which will be very bad for growth, and I’m quite sure that a lot of people who have money or run firms are looking at going outside France,” former finance minister Francois Baroin said in a telephone interview.
For now, with Paris emptying for summer holidays, shuttered businesses with signs saying they’ll be back in September are a reminder that some traditions are hallowed on both sides of the political aisle.