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France does the right thing for the wrong reasons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The electoral rout of the French right actually serves conservatism. It gives Socialists another opportunity to demonstrate the delusional nature of their policies, and to toss fistfuls of gravel into the gears of the machinery driving Europe toward an anti-democratic unity. Europe's political class has arrogantly fostered unification over the heads of increasingly unpersuaded peoples.

President Chirac called early parliamentary elections to get a mandate for overdue austerities. But they are being justified with reference to the move to a single European currency, itself a large step toward political union.

Welfare of the welfare state

In France, where statism is the civic religion, the welfare state is increasingly incompatible with the welfare of the state, and of society. Government is big and weak, failing to propitiate proliferating client groups. As welfare state burdens on employers have inhibited job creation (unemployment is 12.8 percent) and taxation and regulation have impeded economic growth, client groups jostling one another for social space have concluded that economic life is a zero-sum game. Using political knives to carve a pie that no longer grows (net private-sector job creation on the Continent in the last 20 years: zero), someone's gain must be someone else's comparable loss.

Thus the welfare state, which was supposed to produce social solidarity, produces pandemic irritability, as when angry truckers block the nation's roads, or angry farmers herd pigs through Paris. Now benefits must be cut and state-run enterprises submitted to market discipline by privatization. Reason requires this. So does the Maastricht Treaty, and there's the rub.

It is bad enough to have to do disagreeable things. It is infuriating to be required to do them to propitiate foreigners, such as Germany's political class, in order to qualify for membership in a single currency that few understand and fewer want.

The pride of Germany

(In spite of a relentless propaganda campaign, two-thirds of Germans oppose the single currency. Their flag is new, much of their modern history is deplorable. In what do they invest pride? The deutsche mark.)

The criteria for membership in the single currency are stipulated by the Maastricht Treaty which, although promoted by the formidable megaphone of government propaganda, barely passed a French referendum. The criteria include a budget deficit of less than 3 percent of GDP. France's is 4.2 percent. Most of the 15 member governments of the European Union are busy cooking their books. (Only Luxembourg now qualifies.)

And Socialists are poised to make the French cooking particularly problematic. They promise to create 700,000 new jobs, half of them government jobs. And they promise to spread the supposedly fixed supply of work by reducing the workweek from 39 to 35 hours without reducing pay.

Made surly by stagnation

The competitive astringency of the global economy will intensify the punishment of France for policies which presuppose, as socialism generally must, autarky. The French, already made surly by stagnation and by the mere mention of therapeutic policies, will want their Socialists to demand relaxation of the Maastricht criteria. Which sets up the following fight in Europe's extended family of nations.

The French will push for more "compassionate" fiscal, monetary and social policies, the better to facilitate inclusion in the monetary union of Italy and Spain, advocates of (supposedly) stimulative policies of high government spending and low interest rates. Germany, with its memory of ruinous inflation, and its faith in its central bank as protector of the nation's currency as a store of value, will favor high interest rates. But such rates could threaten the social fabric of France, by slowing growth and hence the flow of welfare-state transfer payments that are supposed to purchase social stability.

A jaundiced eye

Happily, Europe's peoples are casting a jaundiced eye on the real reason for monetary union -- the desire of Europe's political class to siphon sovereignty from national legislatures and pump it into the supranational bureaucracies. Dilution of national sovereignty, and with it of democracy, attenuates popular control of the political class.

The advertised point of the European Union -- the emancipation of the Continent's economic life from the politics of the nations -- serves the emancipation of the governing class from accountability. In impeding this, French voters have done the right thing, although for many wrong reasons.

On his first day in office in 1995, Mr. Chirac went to kneel at the grave of his hero, Charles de Gaulle. Mr. Chirac's electoral humiliation is condign punishment for his impiety toward de Gaulle's unapologetic defense of national sovereignty.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/05/97

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