Forget Paris: Stymied by Socialist Policies, the French Start to Quit France

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FRED DUFOUR / AFP / Getty Images

Tourists take pictures in the district of Montmartre in Paris on May 20, 2013

Ernest Hemingway once described Paris in spring as a time when “there were no problems except where to be happiest.” Clearly Hemingway did not foresee the springtime of 2013. For many of Paris’ residents right now — in fact, for many French in general — the answer to the question of where to be happiest is: pretty much anywhere but France.

The French, to be sure, are famous for their grumbling, regularly ranking near the bottom of global happiness indexes. Malaise, after all, is French for ill at ease. Yet even given the usual predilection to gloom, this year has been a standout. For months now, there has been a steady rumbling of people packing up and moving out. There are few reliable figures of the numbers of people leaving, in part because many are moving within the E.U., where there are no immigration requirements for Europeans. Yet for those of us living in France, the exodus has been notable. Around New Year, a moving truck rolled up to our building and loaded the worldly possessions of the couple and four children living below us as they headed off to Singapore where better prospects awaited the father of the family. Earlier last week, a woman flopped on to a bench next to me in the schoolyard of the school our children both attend, fatigued from apartment-hunting in London, where she is moving with her family next month — driven out by what she describes as the aggravation of running a small business with 35-hour work weeks and by tax hikes introduced by President François Hollande, who was elected last May. “I resisted the move, but it’s become impossible,” she says.

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Hollande’s efforts to raise taxes on wealthy residents and capital-gains taxes on businesses, and to stop people from stashing their money in offshore bank accounts, have wide support among French voters, who have for years pushed to have the rich to contribute more toward the government coffers — key to maintaining France’s generous social benefits. No surprise, then, that the greatest subsequent disaffection has been voiced particularly by a privileged minority; the most famous départ since Hollande’s election last May has been of actor Gérard Depardieu to both Belgium and Russia, where President Vladimir Putin handed him a passport on arrival. Among the superrich set, the exodus seems to have hit a crisis level during the past year. Charles-Marie Jottras, president of Paris’s biggest luxury-real-estate company Daniel Feau, estimates that during the past year his company has sold hundreds of homes of wealthy families leaving France, driven out by what he calls “a very bad atmosphere.” Jottras says the departure of wealthy clients is reminiscent of the early 1980s, when the previous Socialist President François Mitterrand was in power. The difference this time, he says, is that “it used to be just rich people who left, not business people.” He believes Hollande’s government now realizes that its policies might be driving out the very people he needs to help grow France’s economy. Last month the President promised to trim capital-gains taxes and to issue more visas for foreign business people in order to keep investment and talent from going elsewhere.

But beyond the upper crust, a more pervasive unease is inflicting a wider group of misérables. It is a feeling, says Pierre Reboul, founder of Electronic Business Group, a Paris-based networking company, that “there is just no support for people who are enterprising.” Bucking the trend, Reboul packed up his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in March, after two years in New York City, and moved back to his native Paris. But he says he made that decision only in order to be near his aging parents. Like Jottras, he blames current government regulations for the departure of young professionals these days, including hefty social charges that companies are obligated to pay on behalf of their employees and the difficulties in laying people off. Reboul says he believes young people are increasingly seeking opportunities for self-employment, rather than salaried employment, on which much of the French social benefits have traditionally been based. “There is this digital economy, and the new youth want to be part of it.”

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In fact, the sense that the world beyond France might hold a lot more promise for French people than home does has so intensified that in recent months two weekly magazines, L’Express and Le Figaro — both fiercely conservative critics of the Socialist government — featured the same cover headline: “Why they are leaving France.” L’Express added the subtitle: “It’s not just the rich!” as though the editors were amazed that regular folk would opt to try their luck elsewhere and forgo cherished French benefits like minimum five weeks’ annual paid leave, decent public health care and free schooling. The magazines cite the 300,000 French estimated to be living in London and the 200,000 French residents in Belgium — a 25% rise since 2010, according to Le Figaro. Each magazine interviews young go-getters who’ve upped sticks for New York City, Dubai, Shanghai and elsewhere for better pay, more-rapid promotion and a chance to make their mark — things that those profiled say are all-but impossible under a sclerotic French system. Alexandre Perrot, 30, featured in Le Figaro, moved to New York City a year ago and works for a business-intelligence company, is quoted as saying that France’s system “does not value or stimulate active youth.”

If there’s anyone who still needs convincing that France is in a dyspeptic funk, a flurry of statistics last week showed just how serious the situation is. The statistics suggested that the problem might not be due only to Europe’s economic crisis, as Hollande argued during his press conference on May 16. On May 14, Pew Research published a poll saying that “no European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France,” with 91% of those surveyed by the organization saying that the economy was doing badly and 67% ranking Hollande as doing “a lousy job.” The next day, May 15, France’s official statistics agency INSEE announced that the country had entered its third recession in four years, with unemployment rising more than 11% since Hollande came to power. And on Friday came a new poll by Gallup, showing that only 16% of French youth were optimistic about their future, the lowest rate in the E.U. Compare that with Spain’s youth, 49% of whom felt optimistic about their future, even though their country’s unemployment rate is double that of France.

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In the face of all this, Hollande is pleading for patience. During a press conference last Thursday he told the country: “My duty is to bring France out of it lethargy.” But his words made the faintest of imprints. They were all but drowned out by another statement that same day — David Beckham’s announcement that he was retiring from soccer. For Parisians, Beckham’s move last year to Paris St.-Germain (PSG) was celebrated as sure proof that their elegant city was still a strong enough lure for one of the world’s most adored icons. As it turned out, the thrill of having Beckham in Paris was short-lived. After playing his final game for PSG last Saturday, he told fans, “To finish my career here could not be any more special.” And with that, he added one more departure to France’s gloomy spring.