The decline and fall of France

FRANCE’s ECONOMY is not just doing badly. It is in profound decline. The slide has proceeded far enough now that businesspeople and politicians across the Continent increasingly refer to France as the “sick man of Europe”—quite a distinction at a moment when Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy share the hospital ward. For decades, European Union structures were strong enough to allow Paris to ignore the country’s economic shortcomings. No longer. Unless Paris reforms its economic policies and practices, it could have a disastrous effect. Further economic woes may undermine the Franco-German cooperation on which the EU has relied, confronting the union with either dissolution or, more likely, an increasingly Germanic future.

Though recent economic reports show some slight improvement in the French economy, the underlying picture is nothing if not bleak. A monthly uptick in industrial production this spring prompted President François Hollande to declare the recession over. He was wrong. To be sure, he can now point, if he wishes, to a modest spring expansion in France’s gross domestic product (GDP). He would do well, however, to resist declaring victory over a few data points. His optimistic response to seeming industrial strength was quickly rebutted by subsequent indicators of renewed decline. He should have known that the preponderance of economic evidence remains grim and is unlikely to change anytime soon.

More than one thousand factories have closed in France since 2009. And not a week goes by without another announcement of relocations to Eastern Europe or Asia. Rates of new business formation today remain 13.3 percent lower than at the end of 2009, while business failures are 7 percent higher. The pace of home sales, though it seems to have stopped declining, shows no sign of improvement and remains 16 percent below 2008 levels.