How Socialist Are You?


For almost 60 years, since they formed the European Common market in the late 1940s, France and Germany have almost been identical in outlook, socially, politically, economically, and in matters of European foreign policy. But coming this fall, as the European economic crisis deepens, and the reaction to France and the Netherlands’ rejection in May of the European Constitution sinks in, France and Germany are on the verge of a divorce.

Suddenly, Oregon looks more like France than Germany does. Similarities are notable: France has a dramatic coastline in Normandy; Oregon has a dramatic coastline. France produces world-class pinot noirs in Burgundy; Oregon produces world-class pinots in Yamhill County. France makes great cheese; Oregon makes great cheese.

France has world-class companies competing successfully in the global market; Oregon has world-class companies that are global winners. Politically there are parallels as well. France has strong unions. Oregon has strong unions. Charles de Gaulle once defined the grandeur of France; Tom McCall once defined a grand vision for Oregon. French president, Jacques Chirac and prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, enjoy thumbing their noses at the American president for starting the second Gulf War; Portland mayor, Tom Potter enjoys thumbing his nose at the American president for the same reason.

France has suffered in the last decade from high structural unemployment, 10 percent (Germany’s rate is 12 percent). Oregon too suffers from high unemployment, recently dropping to six percent from their nation-leading high of eight percent. Despite bad economic times, the French, like Oregonians, believe theirs is a unique society, and they seek protection from the rough game of globalization. The French, again like Oregonians, dig deep to protect past fantasies and utopian visions of greatness (France) or “quality of life” (Oregon).

In the Wall Street Journal French writer Philip Broughton said of Prime Minister de Villepin’s stubbornness to change:

Mr. de Villepin has made reducing unemployment his priority and said ‘nothing is off-limits’ when it comes to ideas for reform. Except, of course, anything derived from Britain or America. He has no patience with the views of France’s business class…that France’s fate is an Anglo-Saxon social and economic model. In a newspaper interview he dismissed the British and American ‘workfare’ model saying that if France was looking for a country to follow, Denmark was the one.

Broughton writes that British press like to print the French Prime Minister’s full name, Domonique Marie Francois Rene Galouzeau de Villepin, “as it makes him sound like one of those dastardly Frenchies from the ‘Scarlett Pimpernel.’”

David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the New York Times comments about the French economic crisis: The core fact is that the European model is foundering under the fact that billions of people are willing to work harder than the Europeans are. Europeans love their way of life but don’t know how to sustain it.

Over the last few decades, American liberals have lauded the German model or the Swedish model or the European model. But these models are not flexible enough for the modern world. They encourage people to cling fiercely to entitlements their nation cannot afford.

Germany appears to have had it with chronic unemployment. The 60-year post-war marriage of France and Germany, the inventors of the European Union, is cracking under two differing visions of future economic competitiveness.

This fall, Germany will likely elect Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, raised in East Germany, who will lead the Christian Democrats back to power and defeat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats. Merkel is being coined Germany’s Margaret Thatcher. She told German voters last month that Germany’s social-welfare system was no longer sacred. According to the WSJ, Germany currently spends 48 percent of its budget on social-welfare entitlements and 14 percent on interest payments on debt, a non- competitive, bankrupt position. German writer Gotz Aly contrasts Merkel’s East German childhood with those raised in the post-war boom years of West Germany: “Merkel likes to tell them, even those in her own party, ‘You have no idea how socialist you are.’”

Neither France nor Oregon is prepared for the “plain” talk that Merkel delivers. Only leaders of the maligned business classes speak the truth about the future. And voters in Oregon and France haven’t yet even been asked to change by their leaders. France still clings to a 35-hour work-week and six weeks of annual vacation—a non-competitive position in the global marketplace. Oregon teachers still retire in their early 50s, with PERS benefits more than 100 percent of their last salary—a non-competitive position in the global marketplace. Angela Merkel’s words are as fitting in France and in Oregon as they are in Germany: “You have no idea how socialist you are.”

BrainstormNW - July 2005

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