Unlikely insult that gives France's political class palpitations


PARIS LETTER:THE WORD is emphatically taboo, a flaming red rag no French minister with a handle on history or even the shakiest political antenna can dare speak, much less endorse.

When it recently fell from the mouth of a senior figure in François Hollande’s cabinet, she received a swift public reproach from the government’s spokeswoman. Members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration were banned from using it.

The word that gives France’s political class palpitations? Rigueur. It’s an unlikely slur.

Tell a pupil or an employee their work shows rigueur and they’ll take it as a compliment. For a scientist or a researcher, the term is a badge of professional honour.

But in politics it seems the word is charged with altogether different connotations.

Austerity, its most common English translation, doesn’t quite do it justice.

A policy of rigueur usually means public spending cuts and higher taxes, but it goes further – it evokes coldness, severity, inflexibility – some of the things, in other words, that critics of austerity lay at its door.

Above all, la rigueur evokes 1983. The socialist François Mitterrand was just two years into his first term, having swept to power on a platform that largely rejected neo-liberal orthodoxy.

But with deficits spiralling and financial pressure mounting, his government executed a sharp change of course, infuriating many supporters and leaving a scar that lingers even today.

The “turn towards la rigueur”, as that about-turn was known, is a memory that must haunt Hollande, the first socialist since Mitterrand to occupy the Élysée Palace.

Today’s angst over the r-word is far from academic, not least because language has been central to Hollande’s repositioning of France and its economic policy since he took power in May.

Both Hollande and Sarkozy, during the election campaign, agreed that the national budget should be balanced within five years. But Hollande put a greater emphasis on tax rises than spending cuts, managing skilfully to cast himself as an opponent of austerity even though he made clear that all arms of government, apart from education and the police, would see their budgets cut.

By constantly pushing home keywords such as fairness, change and growth, Hollande was able to further cast Sarkozy as a friend of the rich and himself as the champion of the recovery, counting on pro-growth rhetoric to make his belt-tightening plans more palatable to voters.

The self-image was burnished further on the European stage, where Hollande’s more assertive pursuit of a growth strategy and his willingness to disagree with German chancellor Angela Merkel in public helped re-orient the tone of Europe’s crisis response.

The easier part of the domestic bargain is already under way – parliament voted last month to end tax breaks on overtime work and raise wealth tax, abolishing two cornerstones of Sarkozy’s economic policy – but the most galling choices will come when ministers return from holiday next month and preparations for the budget begin. The waters are already being tested, with suggestions from ministers that all but the most vital infrastructure projects could be scrapped. “It’s fair to ask whether we should extend this or that TGV line for marginal time gains,” budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac said.

While the focus on its southern neighbours has taken much of the heat off France this summer, its economy remains all but stagnant. And as growth has slowed – to an estimated 0.3 per cent this year – so has France’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which has risen 30 per cent since the crisis began to 89.2 per cent this year. Unemployment is climbing over 10 per cent.

To meet its deficit targets, the government must find a huge €105 billion between taxes and cuts within five years – “an austerity effort unprecedented in France,” according to Xavier Timbeau of the OFCE, a left-leaning economic think-tank. Not that the government puts it in those terms. Hollande speaks of “putting right”, of “budgetary seriousness”, and calls for “imagination and creativity” in looking for savings. In a speech to parliament last month, the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, referred 20 times to the “efforts” that would be required of the French people.

The public is less squeamish than the politicians about using the r-word. According to an OpinionWay survey, two-thirds of people believe France is headed for another “turn towards la rigueur”. Hollande must be asking himself whether that should be read as stoic resignation or an augury of a noisy autumn on the streets.

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