France Readies for a Chavez

By Fabio Rafael Fiallo

As a connoisseur of revolutionary processes, Leon Trotsky asserted that a revolution seems impossible until it becomes inevitable. As a matter of fact, this is what happened in Venezuela in 1998, when Hugo Chávez assumed power after winning a presidential election.

Until then, Venezuela was living in what could be called a "soft democracy." People used to go periodically to the ballots, choosing largely between the two leading, traditional parties. Judging itself unassailable, the political establishment showed scant regard for fulfilling electoral promises and meeting the expectations of the population. Inequality was on the rise, and so were poverty levels.

Then Hugo Chavez burst onto Venezuela's political scene. A histrionic figure, with buffoonish qualities, he built up his popularity by distributing among the have-nots a share of the country's oil revenue. At the same time, like the Latin American caudillos of the old times, he progressively usurped all governmental powers.

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His management and methods were calamitous at best. Improvised expropriations (often announced abruptly during his weekly radio show), plus counterproductive price controls, runaway inflation and the misuse of oil revenue intended to consolidate his political clout, fatten up cronies and support foreign allies, the Castro brothers first and foremost, have crippled Venezuela's economy despite a 900 percent rise in global oil prices during the 14 years of his regime.

Today's France finds herself in a situation similar to that of Venezuela on the eve of the Chavez era.

For sure, the circumstances are quite different. Unlike Venezuela, France is not a breeding ground for the emergence of a military caudillo à la Chavez. And unlike Venezuela, France doesn't have oil manna to finance an economic model as lousy and inefficient as the one Chavez managed to set up.

And yet, like in Venezuela before Chavez, public discontent in France has attained explosive proportions. And like in Venezuela, conventional parties don't have much credibility left.

Each and every government has placed the "fight against unemployment" at the top of its priorities, with no success. Currently at 10.2 percent, unemployment is not far from the 10.8 percent peak reached in 1994 and 1997. Furthermore, 13.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. More alarmingly, in the low-income suburbs, the corresponding figures are significantly higher (22.7 percent and 33 percent, respectively) and climbing. The youth are among the hardest-hit sector of the population.

True, former President Nicolas Sarkozy did introduce some policy changes, but by and large they didn't go as far as is necessary to reactivate the eroding competitiveness of the French industry. He didn't remove the 35-hour workweek, which represents a millstone for the country's economy. He raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, an all too modest reform, insufficient to put the public pension system back into financial equilibrium. He didn't touch France's labor legislation, which, by making firing excessively expensive, turns out to be a major brake on firms hiring new personnel.

Cue Francois Hollande, a Socialist, who -- having promised to radically change tack -- has thus far failed to deliver. Constrained by economic reality and afraid of a nasty reaction from financial markets should he dare let the budget deficit grow, Hollande has turned his back to his electioneering promises, thus deceiving his constituency. He has fallen to unprecedented levels of unpopularity.

This explains why the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has recently expressed concern for the risk of a "social explosion" in France.

All this happens after the long nirvana of political inaction that prevailed during the twelve years of President Jacques Chirac, during which not a single reform ever saw the light of day.

Little wonder that France's political establishment, from left to right, is worn out, discredited and untrusted.

Opinion polls suggest that a growing number of French seem ready to jump into the unknown and place their confidence and hopes in a demagogue willing to redistribute income irrespective of efficiency considerations, let fiscal deficits grow, disregard markets' reactions and impose price and capital controls -- much like Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela.

And much like Hugo Chavez used to scapegoat the United States, so, too, would a French Chavez have the luxury of denouncing the European Union ("Brussels") as the primary culprit behind the country's woes.

Would that magic solution succeed? Not likely. It would, on the contrary, bring France to the economic precipice -- like Chavez did to the Venezuelan economy.

But before the descent into hell is completed, there is nothing better -- for a population deceived and fooled by its political elite -- than taking a dip in utopia; to dream before the final collapse. Like in Venezuela.

It will perhaps be necessary, alas, to go through a major economic calamity in France, like today in Venezuela, or yesterday in the Soviet Union or in Mao's China, before new political formations, more lucid and courageous than the present ones, emerge, gain the people's confidence and introduce badly-needed supply-side policy reforms, a sine qua non for putting the country back on the rails of a sustained economic progress and a viable social justice.

Fabio Rafael Fiallo is a Dominican-born economist and author and a retired official of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

(AP Photo)

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