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Future is elsewhere :

The Indian Express

06/06/2013

Future is elsewhere :

---------------------------

Radha Sharma : Thu Jun 06 2013, 03:57 hrs

France is painfully aware that the centre of gravity has moved east

France's dismal weather these past few weeks — leaden skies, constant rain and wintry temperatures — reflects the prevailing mood of doom and gloom. Growing unemployment, spiralling prices, rising taxes and simmering social tensions have plunged French morale to a new low. And, floundering with the lowest popularity ratings of a president at this stage of his term, François Hollande is blamed for everything, even the weather, in this summer of discontent.

An international WIN-Gallup poll found that people's economic expectations for 2013 were much lower in France compared, not only to India, but also to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan. France was ranked 53rd out of the 54 countries surveyed and India 7. The public mood is morose, and not just about economic recovery.

The French feel deeply let down by their political leaders. While the average citizen has been tightening her belt and coughing up higher sums in taxes, France's minister for the budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, is found to have huge sums stashed away in undeclared foreign bank accounts. This was the man responsible for clamping down on and punishing fiscal fraud.

It's not just corruption in high places that is causing this gloominess; it is apprehension about the future. France's unemployment rate is at a record high, with 1.2 per cent more unemployed added to the rosters in April, taking the total number of active job-seekers to 3.26 million. The secure cradle-to-grave job held by previous generations is virtually non-existent, with fixed term contracts becoming the norm.

Add to the joblessness the severe decline in purchasing power, diminishing retirement benefits and a higher fiscal burden, and there is not much cause for joie de vivre. There is, indeed, much to be critical about. The French, whose critiquing skills are developed and honed almost into an art form at school, should normally be having a field day. Instead, there is a deep-seated sense of resignation at the realisation that the heyday of France and Europe is past, that the centre of gravity has shifted eastwards to China and India, that the future lies elsewhere.

The greatest blow to the national psyche has come from the dawning perception that France is increasingly losing its primary place in Europe and the world. For all of Hollande's talk about standing up to the European Union, in the eyes of the French, Germany's word prevails.

But more than Germany, it is the awareness that while France battles recession, China and India are attracting investment, producing cheap goods that flood world markets, creating jobs and reaping the dividends of positive growth rates, that is hard to swallow. The government's attitude towards both countries is ambivalent. The French authorities talk of wooing India and China as potential markets. The next moment, they speak of heavily taxing imported goods from these countries to protect French manufacturing and industry. Both countries represent the exact opposite of what ails the French economy.

It is therefore hardly surprising that no individual has attracted the ire of the French more than ArcelorMittal's Lakshmi Mittal. Though he employs around 20,000 workers in France, Mittal is targeted as a "predator" who swooped in to make undue profits. He was severely taken to task for wanting to lay off 629 workers whereas PSA Peugeot Citroen alone is cutting 8,000 jobs and in 2012, more than 250 factories closed and around 24,000 workers in the manufacturing sector lost their jobs. Also, to Mittal's credit, he had offered his workers alternative employment at his other sites. However, Mittal's problem is that he is perceived as a vulgar Indian billionaire who hired the 17th century chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte for his daughter's wedding and who "gobbled" up a European steel group.

For no fault of his, in France, steel magnate Mittal, the outsider, has come to symbolise globalisation's and capitalism's worst face. He has become the punching bag for laid-off workers. In a new low of obnoxious taste, a free online French video game, explicitly called "Kill Mittal", allows players to become virtual employees of a steel plant and bludgeon to death Mittal, who figures in the game as a robot.

While some are letting out their frustration through violent video games, others are engaging in real life games of cops and robbers with the police. More and more anti-social elements are sneaking into demonstrations and soccer victory celebrations to indulge in an orgy of vandalism. Paris Saint-Germain's recent league title celebration was marred by rioting. The killing of a London soldier with meat cleavers immediately triggered a copycat attack on a soldier in France.

This kind of mindless violence is indicative of a deeper affliction. The French are down in the mouth about the future. Economic growth that includes the immigrant and marginalised communities would definitely be a shot in the arm for the French morale. But France seems to have entered the age of disillusionment and exemplary, visionary leadership is required to pull the French out of the current mire of disgruntlement. As of today, this is sadly lacking on the left and the right.

Sharma is a Paris-based freelance interpreter and writer

express@expressindia.com

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