PARIS -- For those thinking that the French could be on the brink of a collective epiphany, you might want to hold your bets. Even if the people of France wanted a badly needed economic upgrade to bring their nanny-state system into the 21st century, there's no presidential contender willing to give it to them. Any candidate who ever tiptoes into economic reality is promptly vilified and has to maneuver to avoid criticism. And while some say that the French would never go for serious economic reforms, how are we to know if they're never given the option?
As I've discovered while living in France for almost a decade, "capitalism" is a dirty word in French politics. But no one actually attacks capitalism by name. Instead, they use the term "ultraliberalism" or "neoliberalism." The word "liberal" isn't synonymous with leftism in France like it is in North America. (For that, the French actually say "leftism.") In France, "liberalism" is used in a more classic sense. If you're a conservative proponent of free-market economics and limited government, you're labeled a "liberal" in France. Or, heaven forbid, an "ultraliberal."
Based on the way the current presidential front-runners are using the term "ultraliberal" to vilify each other, you'd think that the most important thing in this election is to convince French voters that the nanny state will persist at any cost.
The candidate who comes closest to being a free-market proponent is independent Emmanuel Macron. During his mandate as minister of economy, industry and digital affairs, Macron was responsible for the entrepreneur-friendly "law for growth, activity and equality of economic opportunities" but backed off the idea of bumping the French workweek back up to 40 hours from the current 35 hours.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen constantly hammers Macron for his free-market worldview. "In economic matters we know what he wants," Le Pen said. "It is ultraliberalism, it is death to the poor."
Yes, there are actually French citizens who believe that their woes are caused by too much capitalism. I challenge Le Pen to show me how true free-market capitalism has failed the French. I'm guessing that any example would involve socialism or corporatism -- that is, government involvement in capitalist efforts.
Meanwhile, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon of the Republican Party is already hamstrung with a "Thatcherite" label, as if it were an insult. Fillon's opponents attacked him for daring to suggest that health insurers compete for business, and for a proposal "focusing universal public insurance on serious or long-term illnesses, and private insurance on the rest." He eventually pulled this proposal from his platform. Some French citizens are taxed half of their income for social security and health care, yet the system reimburses little beyond serious illness. Still, no politician has shown the backbone to force the government monopoly to compete with private insurers, as is the case elsewhere in Europe.
French politicians always seem justify their highly expensive existence by convincing voters that the solution to their problems is more government management. Le Pen has been on the campaign trail promoting an upgrade to the socialist concept: the "strategic state." But socialism, however strategic, is still socialism.
Le Pen is correct to argue for increased national sovereignty and border control, but her nanny-state economic policies, which vilify true capitalism and "ultraliberalism," won't fix France.
The benefits of capitalism don't flow from the government down; they're created by keeping the government's hands out of the cookie jar. No one needs the government to muck around under the guise of "strategic statehood" -- investing money that the French can't afford in things that would already be thriving if people actually wanted them. Just leave more money in taxpayers' pockets and see where it ends up.
The French system of government, which is really just an updated version of the old monarchy, has always played favorites, picking winners and losers based on proximity to power. It doesn't help that power is concentrated in a single city -- everything outside of Paris is a power desert. Inequalities give rise to revolt, which in turn creates a need to quell it. Enter unions and taxes to give the illusion of leveling the playing field. Where is any durable wealth created for the individual in this scheme?
Under the current French system, there is no incentive for the individual to break free and create his own wealth. And the European Union, endorsed by Macron and Fillon, continues to create an economic burden. Unfortunately, there is no French presidential candidate willing to free the French people from the fiscal straitjacket in which they find themselves. Until one comes along, French presidential elections are doing little more than shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.