Sarkozy’s deficit leadership

There is no way on Earth to make the French president serious about budget restraint

“Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on Tuesday called for closer coordination of economic policy among the 17 countries that share the euro currency and proposed that they enshrine in their constitutions an obligation to balance their national budgets.”

New York Times, tonight

“France and Germany will propose that the 17 member states of the Euro zone adopt, before summer 2012, the golden rule on budget balance, to write into their Constitutions the objective of deficit reduction. The prime minister, François Fillon, will make the ‘necessary contacts’ with the various French political forces to see whether a consensus is possible to adopt this golden rule, Nicolas Sarkozy said.”

Le Monde, tonight

M. Fillon should not waste too much time on this. Even if there were a consensus in France on a constitutional amendment to require budget balance, or at least to require a fond willingness to pretend to be moving toward something approaching budget balance (it is satirical to call something this vague a “golden rule”), I’m here to tell you there is no way to amend 17 national constitutions for any purpose before next summer.

Besides, as everybody knows, there is no way on Earth to make Nicolas Sarkozy serious about budget restraint. Might as well try to make him modest and tall. A brief stroll down memory lane: 

July 2007: European Central Bank expresses dismay over French budget deficit delay

February 2009: French budget deficit jumped by 44 percent in 2008

March 2009: France and Spain must lower budget deficit by 2012

March 2010: France’s budget deficit hits record high

September 2010: French budget aims to cut deficit

June, 2011: French budget deficit widens

Readers will say: There was a recession in there, it forced odd choices, even Canada has run a deficit. Sure. But Canada’s has been declining. France’s was growing before the recession and it has continued to grow since. That’s even though France already has a quasi-constitutional obligation, under the Maastricht treaty, to keep its deficit under 3% of GDP. The good news is, France isn’t the only country that ignores its Maastricht obligations. Most of them do.

When he became president in 2007, Sarkozy made a great show of seeking to imitate Canada’s mid-90s conversion to fiscal discipline. I wrote a column about that, one that was comically over-optimistic until the last two paragraphs. It took almost exactly two months to figure out that Sarkozy wasn’t serious about fiscal discipline or much else. This column contrasts Sarkozy’s modest, serious prime minister, François Fillon, who will probably never get to be the president France needs, with the strutting clown who has Sarko’s ear, the senior advisor Henri Guaino. When Sarkozy met Fillon yesterday to discuss budget restraint, Guaino attended. Nothing gets better. This autumn Sarkozy will begin his re-election campaign. He may believe he can change his stripes in the middle of a popularity contest, but nobody else is fooled. One day, Merkel’s memoirs will be a fascinating read.

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