A poll on the front page of last Tuesday’s Le Monde, that bible of the French Left-leaning Establishment (think a simultaneously boring and hectoring Guardian), translated into stark figures the winter of François Hollande’s discontent.
More than 70 per cent of the French feel taxes are “excessive”, and 80 per cent believe the president’s economic policy is “misguided” and “inefficient”. This goes far beyond the tax exiles such as Gérard Depardieu, members of the Peugeot family or Chanel’s owners. Worse, after decades of living in one of the most redistributive systems in western Europe, 54 per cent of the French believe that taxes – of which there have been 84 new ones in the past two years, rising from 42 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 46.3 per cent this year – now widen social inequalities instead of reducing them.
This is a noteworthy departure, in a country where the much-vaunted value of “equality” has historically been tinged with envy and resentment of the more fortunate. Less than two years ago, the most toxic accusation levied at Nicolas Sarkozy was of being “le président des riches”, favouring his yacht-sailing CEO buddies with tax breaks and sweet deals. By contrast, Hollande, the bling-free candidate, was elected on a platform of increasing state spending by promising to create 60,000 teachers’ jobs, as well as 150,000 subsidised entry-level public-service jobs for the long-time unemployed and the young – without providing for significant savings elsewhere.
By 2014, France’s public expenditure will overtake Denmark’s to become the world’s highest: 57 per cent of GDP. In effect, just to keep in the same place, like a hamster on a wheel, and ensure that the European Central Bank in Frankfurt isn’t too unhappy with us, Hollande now needs cash. Technocrats, MPs and ministers have been instructed to find every euro they can rake in – in deferred benefits, cancelled tax credits, extra levies. As they ignore the notion of making some serious cuts (mooted at regular intervals by the IMF, the OECD and even France’s own Cour des Comptes), the result can be messy.
On the one hand, the lacklustre economy and finance minister Pierre Moscovici recently admitted that he “understood” the French’s “exasperation” with their heavy tax burden. This earned him a sharp rap on the fingers from the president and his beleaguered PM, Jean-Marc Ayrault. On the other, new taxes keep being announced, in chaotic fashion, nearly every week. “Announced” doesn’t mean “implemented”: the Hollande crowd have developed a unique Wile E Coyote-style of leaks, technical glitches, last-minute tweaks and horse-market bargaining whereby almost nobody knows, at any given time, who will be targeted by the taxman, and how. Unsurprisingly, this is liked by no one except us reptiles of the press, eager to report on the longest series of own goals in the history of government communications.
Take last year’s famous 75 per cent supertax, on individuals earning over one million euros a month. This has still not been implemented. First, it got struck down by France’s Constitutional Council on a technicality. Leaks suggested the rate would fall to 66 per cent. They were confirmed, then denied. Hollande eventually vowed that the tax would be paid by the targeted individuals’ employers, for daring to offer such “obscenely” high salaries. This has just been approved by the National Assembly, and must still pass the Senate. So far, it is only supposed to apply to 2013 and 2014 income, but no one knows if the bill will be prolonged, killed or transformed.
What we do know is that this non-existent (so far) tax has been the clincher that sent hundreds, possibly thousands of French citizens abroad: not just “the rich”, whom Hollande, during his victorious campaign, said he personally “disliked”, and who now are pushing up house prices in South Kensington and fighting bitterly over the Lycée Charles de Gaulle’s 1,200 new places; but also the ambitious young, who feel that their own country will turn on them the minute they achieve any measure of personal success.
In the heart of Paris’s Right Bank, where I live, only foreigners seem to buy flats, at prices entirely disconnected from reality. In my street, I have spotted three new Maseratis. Even before seeing their Qatari plates, I knew they couldn’t belong to local owners: they’re an ostentatious admission of wealth no one wants to make in Hollande’s France. (A luxury car is one of the “outward signs of wealth” your tax inspector has been specifically trained to query. The lesson has been learnt: last year, Rolls-Royce sold no cars in France.) On the Left Bank, elegant Americans buy bijoux apartments on place de Furstenberg, at 30,000 euros per square metre, and venture into the fine Café de Flore for elevenses.
“It’s not only that people don’t like to be treated like criminals just because they’re successful,” says a French banker friend who has recently moved to London. “But this uncertainty in every aspect of the tax system means it is impossible to do business: you don’t know what your future costs are, or your customer’s. You can’t buy, you can’t sell, you can’t hire, you can’t fire.”
While I’m still happy in Paris, I envy him his surroundings, the vibrancy of London, the feeling that anything is possible, the sense of fun I remember from the years I lived there in the Eighties and Nineties, and that I gladly find again every time I zoom in on the Eurostar. Paris, my city of birth, is an elegant museum – where any new idea, in any context, seems to be fated to be shot down by a combination of old, structural conformism and blasé disenchantment.
Today, one out of four French university graduates wants to emigrate, “and this rises to 80 per cent or 90 per cent in the case of marketable degrees”, says economics professor Jacques Régniez, who teaches at both the Sorbonne and the University of New York in Prague. “In one of my finance seminars, every single French student intends to go abroad.”
“The French workforce is now two-speed,” explains a headhunter who shuttles between Paris and London. “Among the young, perhaps a third speak English, are willing to relocate, and want to work. For one thing, their dream employers are the more prosperous of the large French multinationals, almost all those in the CAC40 index, who make over half of their profits abroad, sometimes over 90 per cent – companies like, say, L’Oréal, Schneider or Danone. This is why French universities have shocked the Académie française and now teach many courses in English.