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Is France in peril? Au contraire!

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This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on September 11, 2014.

Reports in the French and American newspapers over the past few weeks might lead one to believe that the collapse of France is imminent. I happened to be on vacation on the Cote D’Azur and in Paris in the midst of the latest political crisis — triggered by a revolt against President François Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, by left-wing cabinet members opposed to austerity — and at times the coverage by the French and English-language media reached a hysterical pitch. A second straight quarter of zero growth in the economy, along with higher unemployment and persistent budget deficits, seemed to many journalists to have pushed France to the brink.

I confess to a pro-French bias, but as a dual American-French citizen I still view my mother’s country with a critical eye. Vichy France’s World War II collaboration with the Germans looms large, as do the four unhappy years that my mother spent in the Sologne region under German occupation.

These days I’m disgusted by another version of collaboration by the French political and media elite, which slavishly follows German dictates in the name of “European unity.” France’s vainglorious idea of a federalized Europe has led to Germany’s renewed domination of its neighbors, since the euro has mainly benefitted that country at the expense of the rest of the European Union.

The French establishment, both left and right, refuses to admit that locking itself into a single European currency managed by a largely unaccountable central bank in Frankfurt has destroyed much of the country’s industrial capacity. It also refuses to acknowledge that German-imposed austerity has weakened France’s compassionate and efficient welfare state to the point that, ironically, a right-wing nationalist movement, the National Front, is filling much of the political void created by a left and center-right too ossified and frightened to face the truth.

To compete with tight-fisted, export-driven Germany, France needs to devalue its currency, but it can’t, since it doesn’t have its own currency. Barring the overthrow of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the best solution for France is to leave the euro, let the reborn franc fall, and increase public spending as we do in the United States. Yes, such a move might shock markets and the worldwide banking elite. But the election of a National Front government in France would be more shocking by far. Every utterance by Hollande for maintaining the euro and “Europe” is another vote for National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

That said, I agree with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman that the French “crisis” is oversold. Krugman is too orthodox an economist to embrace the blasphemous concept of abandoning the euro and restoring the franc. Nevertheless, he’s right about the raw numbers, Hollande’s pathetic timidity, and the ideological element in the French debate. France’s overall gross domestic product growth since the 2008 crash has been better than average in troubled Europe. And there’s no doubt that free-market militants exaggerate France’s problems because they hate to see so much taxation and social spending by the state.

But in all this handwringing, something essential gets lost. Pundits never seem to include the country’s social capital; they don’t take into account individual French behavior or the actual functioning of French institutions, large or small. I judge the health of French society by more intimate criteria. This informal list from my recent visit will, regrettably, never make it into a think-tank report:

-My wife and kids always comment, and I agree, that “all the food tastes better” than in New York, including the broccoli. At a very nice supermarket named Le Grand Frais on the outskirts of the inland town of Cogolin, every item of produce is identified by its country of origin.

-Always fearful in restaurants about my older daughter’s egg allergy, I’m reassured when the manager at La Verdoyante near the village of Gassin explains to us that the chef, who is her husband, either supervises or cooks everything that leaves the kitchen and that there are no prepackaged items from other vendors whose ingredients he can’t vouch for. (The same care is evident at Au Bon Accueil in Paris.)

-The high-speed TGV from the seaside town of Hyères to Paris is a splendid way to avoid air travel: 4 hours and 43 minutes of smooth, restful rail transit with perfectly decent café food that puts Amtrak to shame.

However, I have an even more telling example. In Paris, just off the train on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, we hurry to our local butcher, Les Viandes du Champs de Mars on the rue St. Dominique, where I request veal pounded thin to make scaloppini for dinner. My American half takes over and I suggest six slices to feed four people. The butcher tells me — correctly, I will later discover — that four slices will be plenty. “I am a bad butcher,” he tells me in French with a big smile. “I could have sold you more.” No, he’s a very good butcher — and one reason France is worth saving from the euro, the Germans, and narrow-minded economists everywhere.

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