France is “Remarkably Effective at Deploying Funds Quickly”

The “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” say that when it comes to stimulus programs, “The country that is behind is the U.S., not France.”:

France, Unlike U.S., Is Deep Into Stimulus Projects, by Nelson D. Schwartz, NY Times: French workers normally take off much of the summer, but this month,… throngs of tourists will be jostling alongside stonemasons, restoration experts and other artisans paid by the French government’s $37 billion economic stimulus program.

Their job? Maintain in pristine condition the 800-year-old palace of more than 1,500 rooms where Napoleon bid adieu before being exiled to Elba and where Marie Antoinette enjoyed a gilded boudoir.

Besides Fontainebleau, about 50 French chateaus are to receive a facelift, including the palace of Versailles. Also receiving funds are some 75 cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris. A museum devoted to Lalique glass is being created in Strasbourg, while Marseilles is to be the home of a new 10 million euro center for Mediterranean culture.

All told, Paris has set aside 100 million euros in stimulus funds earmarked for what the French like to call their cultural patrimony. It is a French twist on how to overcome the global downturn, spending borrowed money avidly to beautify the nation even as it also races ahead of the United States in more classic Keynesian ways: fixing potholes, upgrading railroads and pursuing other “shovel ready” projects.

“America is six months behind; it has wasted a lot of time,” said Patrick Devedjian, the minister in charge of the French relance, or stimulus. By the time Washington gets around to doling out most of its money, Mr. Devedjian sniffed, “the crisis could be over.” …

As it turns out, France’s more centralized, state-directed economy … is proving remarkably effective at deploying funds quickly and efficiently in bad times. …

It is easier to find money for castles and cathedrals, of course, in a country that believes “art is equal to other investments, not secondary,” as Mr. Devedjian puts it. But the largess is driven as well by President Sarkozy’s support for more spending to combat the recession, even if it means borrowing more and running up big deficits.

That contrasts sharply with the commitment by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to hold down stimulus spending and move as quickly as possible to curb her government’s budget deficit.

So what about the criticism that Europe is not being as aggressive as the United States in combating the global slowdown, with only tepid stimulus packages? That’s not the way the French see it.

“You lost time with changing a president and no decisions were made in the last three months of 2008,” Mr. Devedjian jibed. “Nothing happened in January 2009, and in February, there was just a speech.”

“The country that is behind is the U.S.,” he said, “not France.”

While the scale, $37 billion versus close to $800 billion, is a bit different and probably ought to be accounted for in the comparison, there does seem to be a difference not just in the speed of deployment, but also in the focus of the policy. It will be interesting to see how that difference, which seems to place somewhat more emphasis on boosting employment and aggregate demand immediately than on long-run growth in France as compared to the U.S., translates into a differential response to the fiscal policy boosts in the two countries.


Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.