Nineteen seventy-seven looks like a make-or-break year for France's economy.
As even government officials are starting to admit, the months ahead will determine whether the French economy pulls out of its accelerating nose dive to regain a place near the top among succesful Western econimies or joins Britain and Italy as one of the chronically sickly sisters of the industrial world.
Throughout much of the past decade, it was a key premise fo European politics that rapidly industrializing and financially stable France was speeding toward parity with West Germany as a pillar of the European Economic Community. Some forecast - most notably a study by the Hudson Institute - prophesied that the French would supass Germany as an industrial power by the mid-Eighties. French economic prowess was widely seen as an essential European counterweight to Germany's, particularly in view of Britain's steady decline.
Few think seriously in such terms today. the confident talk which used to be heard in French ministreal offices about a Franco-German partnership in building Europe - and, incidentally, in challenging the economic power of the United States - has faded away. The dream of Franco-German economic suzerainty has died. Replacing it here is a growing uneasiness that France may be on the road to economic stagnation, with the franc reverting to its one-time role as a despised, mistrusted currency.
If the French are not yet as seriously under the weather as the British and Italian, they clearly are ailing. And more signs point to an aggravation of their condition than the reverse. The economic indicators alone would be bad enough: a 1.6 per cent rise in unemployment in November to just over a million, reversing a four-month downward trend; a huge foreign trade deficit for the first 10 months of 1976 of 15.5 billion frances ($3.2 billion); a declining growth rate characterized by a dramatic drop in investment; an annual inflation rate which even Prime Minister Raymound Barre admits may hit 13 per cent for the yeat despite a three-month price freeze he imposed in September.
On top of this, the French now find themselves especially vulnerable to the latest Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries increases in oil prices as a result of the franc's 13 per cent depreciation against the dollar during the past year. The government has announced it will limit oil imports in 1977 to a total value of 55 billion francs ($11.2 billion). Expert here are sceptical. A ceiling of 51 billions francs was exceeded by at least 3 bilion francs during the past 12 months. To succeed now, they believe the government either will be forced to resort to rationing - which President Valery Giscard d'Estaing has ruled out in a election year -or ot deliberately dampen industrial productin.
Figures are only part of the tale. As in Britain and Italy, the economic crisis here has became intwined with disarray in domestic politics. Each feeds on the other.
The last few month have witnessed an uninterrupted drop - recently, it has become precipitous - in the public's confidence in Giscard d'Estaing. For the first time since his election in 1974 - indeed, for the first time in the Fifth Republic's history - recent polls show a clear majority who regard his performance on economic problems as inadequate. For a man who got elected largely on his successful record as France's longtime minister of economics and finance, the popular verdict now comes as a particularly painful slap.
Giscard d'Estaing's decision last August to switch prime ministers, replacing the politically agressive Gaullist Jacques Chirac with a non-party economist, Barre, has done little to ease the situation. If the austerity plan produced by Barre soon after taking office remains the repository of all hopes for turning the economy around, it has attracted waning enthusiasm from the man in the street, the unions and industry.
The public, noting retail price rises, especially for food, despite the price freeze and fearing an explosion of bigger increases once the official lid is lifted in the new year, has been registering its sentiments in the time-honored French way - by open cynicism and, if the polls are accurate, by an accelerating swing to the left which seems to foreshadow a victory of the allied Socialists and Communists in March's nationwide municipal elections.
Businessmen, seeing little evidence that the Barre plan is producing price stability and so creating the basisfor sizeable expansion by mid-1977, are keeping a tight grip on their wallets and witholding new investments. According to forecasts, capital investment actually will fall by 2 per cent this year, leaving virtually no prospect that industry will provide jobs for the growing legion of unemployed.
(The official jobless figure is contested in a number of quarters. The French Communist Party claims the number of unemployed is closer to 1.5 million, and some experts tend to agree taht this is nearer the truth. In the past, government statistics here on such matters as unemployment abd inflation have been found not infrequently to have erred on the rosy side. The Fench government is locked in a wrangle with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which disputed the former's claim that economic growth in 1977 will top 5 per cent. According to the OECD, it is more likely to be about 3 per cent).
Nothing more graphically under-scores French economic pessimism than this refusal to invest. From 1950 until 1975, capital investment here increased year in and year out by an average of 7.5 per cent. Nothing - not the Indo-China war, the Algerian war, the fall of the Fourth Republic or the upheaval of May 1968 - discouraged businessmen from risking their capital. But they are discouraged now.
However, the crucial test for the Barre plan is how well it succeeds in obtaining the union's cooperation in limiting wage increasees. Even the non-leftwing unions that previously had tended to go along with Giscard's government have rebelled against Barre's move to abolish the 2-per-cent-a-year rise in real wages that has been guaranteed to most workers since the May 1968 troubles.
The prime minister's refusal to include the 2-per-cebt clause in new contracts for public-sector workers provoked a 48-hour strike of electricity and gas workers, as well as post office employes, in early December. The unions warned of further walkouts, possibly spreading to the coal fields and railways, if the government sticks to its position.
Jean Bornard, the leader of the moderate Christian democratic Trade Union Federation, called the 48-hour strike "a serious warning. If the government refuses to head it, it is heading for a conflict which will be extremely severe."
But Barre insists that a lid on wages is indispensable to the achievement of his plan - a view with which outside observers are inclined to agree. French wages are calculated to have jumped by an average 16 per cent in the past year, far more than among France's main industrial competitors. The increase in wages also markedly outdistanced any spurt in productivity. In fact, industrial production here has been falling recently. In October, the last month for which statistics are available, it was down by 4.7 per cent.
In the recent past, the government usually has won tests of strength with the unions, even if some of its victories have been narow ones. Now, the government looks a good deal less sure of itself - weakened as it is by the growing power of the left and by a burgeoning personal rivalry between Giscard d'Estaing and his former prime minister, Chirac, whose ambitious leadership of the Gaullists is seen as a challenge to the President's authority within his own political camp.
In these circumstances, political circles here doubt that Giscard d'Estaing is ready to risk a showdown with labor. As one observer puts it, "If Barre really insists on it, he may discover he is no longer prime minister."
If, as many government officials stress, France's present troubled stem from a fundamental filure to overcome the consequences of OPEC's fourfold increase in oil prices two years ago, the latest rise may prove a greater problem for France than for almost any othet industrial power.
France remains almost wholly dependent on imported oil, with nearly 90 per cent of its supplies coming from the Middle East. The single bright spot, if it can be called that, is that now nearly half of the Middle East intake comes from Saudi Arabia. But unlike the mounting strength of the West German deustchemark that has made it easier for Bonn to meet the foreign oil bill, the decline of the franc - from 4.40 to the dollar less than 12 months ago to just below 5 to the dollar late last month - had added about $1 billion to French import costs, even without a formal increase in prices.
Frenchmen both in and out of the government are haunted by a fear of hitting what they call "la pente Anglaise" (the Englis skids), a chain-reaction economic plunge in which one difficulty seems inevitably to lead directly to another. The French once upon a time shook their heads disapprovingly at the British for living beyond their means. Now, with an ever-widening trade deficit expected to reach 21 billion francs ($4.3 billion) for 1976, they are doing exactly the same. Like the British, the French are proving uable to sell enough abroad to pay for their own apparently unquenchabe thirst for foreign goods.