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The making of... Quelle Catastrophe! France with Robert Peston

By Director Adam Jessel

Dialling a French office in August is pretty much like calling on Christmas day. When we started our inquiries into France’s current economic crisis, nobody was around to answer them. The irony did not go amiss. Then again neither did the feeling that it might be nicer to be a French “citoyen” chillaxing in the Pyrenees than an English TV director wrestling with the BBC’s phone system.

This set the premise of the film up neatly. Here are the ultimate "bons viveurs". From their fabled food and “chic” to their lavish healthcare and benefits systems. Oh and even the best manicured roundabouts. But for how much longer?

Ask many French and they’ll tell you straight up. Their country is in, excuse my French, “la merde”. Massive endemic unemployment, increasingly fractious social divisions and a supine political class.

All of which has played right into the hands of Marine Le Pen’s increasingly popular Front National party. It’s now far from impossible that Le Pen could win the next Presidential election in 2017 and pull France out of the European Union. The consequences not only for the French, but also for us in the UK, would be enormous. Many would say catastrophic.

So where else to begin interrogating this great French malaise than the capital, the most visited city in the world. There were the predictable joys of filming in central Paris. It was tricky to find an unattractive building or (with our trip coinciding with fashion week) person. More surprising were all the nooks and crannies of the mighty French state. It even helps make sure the all important boulangers (bakers) don’t take their summer holidays at the same time, thereby securing sufficient supplies of fresh bread in August. What could be more sensible? And more French?

But as we moved on to the glorious south, it became apparent how this cult of the state is also at the root of France’s woes. The very pleasant university city of Montpellier is symptomatic of how national public spending has reached 57% of GDP, almost the highest of any developed economy in the world.

Of course there is nothing wrong with high public spending per se. The problem diagnosed by many economists is spending beyond your means, when the private sector is no longer generating the necessary revenue to fund this.

In the sleepy town in Astaffort, we met the boss
of a magazine publishing company. He was adamant heavy regulation and taxation were strangling his business. He has 48 employees, but was desperate to avoid taking on any more. 50 employees would bring a legal requirement to pay for a raft of worker committees and face tortuous consultations on admin issues like moving office.

Back in Paris, against the ornate backdrop of the Bibliotheque St. Genevieve, we came face to face with France's 3600 page red book of labour laws, the Code du Travail. This provides enviable protection for French workers, but it makes businesses struggle to fire and reluctant to hire, helping trap millions in unemployment. According to the French private sector, this is the key obstacle to growth. And so to how the country’s politicians propose to sort out the mess. We secured an interview with the government’s new minister of the economy. A suave 37 year old former banker Emmanuel Macron has been tasked by President Hollande with re-boosting economic growth through cuts to taxes and spending. By French standards, Macron’s plan is hugely controversial for many. Rather too “Anglo-Saxon” for their tastes.

Which brought us finally to a meeting with Europe’s ultimate political outsider - Mme Le Pen. Charismatic and energetic, it didn’t take long to understand why she has attracted so many voters. Extolling workers rights and railing against the impact of globalisation and the EU, her message is true to France’s tradition of more state, not less. With such a gaping chasm between Le Pen and would be reformers like Macron, it’s difficult to see anything but more fractious times ahead.