NYT: The Center Is Right in France

In corporate media, centrism is generally considered as the right place to be, politically speaking. That was certainly the message the New York Times was sending with the January 16 piece, “French Leader’s Policy Proposals Seek Centrist Path.”

French President Francois Hollande.

French President Francois Hollande: The US finds his economic policies sexy.

While much of the rest of the corporate media were focused on Hollande’s private life sex scandal, the TimesAlissa Rubin was suggesting Hollande’s embrace of austerity economics was good news:

President François Hollande startled the usually staid world of European economic policy with proposals to take France in a centrist direction with tax cuts for companies, reductions in public spending and a business-friendly tone.

It’s hard to imagine that tax cuts for corporations and spending cuts for families is the “center” of French politics, but that’s the impression the Times is giving. “France’s far-left and far-right parties expressed dismay,” readers learned, since they believe “the nation needed a generous government safety net.”

But austerity, according to the Times, is not just centrist–it’s good economics, too:

Economic experts, while gratified that Mr. Hollande finally seemed willing to wrestle with France’s intractable unemployment, which has hovered between about 10 and 11 percent for close to three years, and an economy that is barely growing, remained skeptical that he would be able to persuade his party to support the changes.

One would expect that getting his Socialist Party to embrace these right-wing economic principles would be difficult. But are “economic experts” really gratified by Hollande’s policy ideas? The Times cites one, but it’s not hard to find other economists who offer a very different take.

Progressive economist Mark Weisbrot, for instance, wrote a column for the Guardian (1/16/14) arguing that Europe’s slow recovery has a lot to do with pursuing the kinds of policies that Hollande appears to be embracing for France. 

Closer to home, the Times has a columnist who one might count as a economic expert: Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. He wrote a whole column (1/17/14)  arguing that Hollande’s “embrace of discredited right-wing economic doctrines” is “shocking.”

For four years, Europe has been in the grip of austerity fever, with mostly disastrous results; it’s telling that the current slight upturn is being hailed as if it were a policy triumph. Given the hardship these policies have inflicted, you might have expected left-of-center politicians to argue strenuously for a change in course. Yet everywhere in Europe, the center-left has at best (for example, in Britain) offered weak, halfhearted criticism, and often simply cringed in submission.

When Mr. Hollande became leader of the second-ranked euro economy, some of us hoped that he might take a stand. Instead, he fell into the usual cringe — a cringe that has now turned into intellectual collapse.

Economist Dean Baker concurred, writing at his Beat the Press blog (1/16/14) that the Times

is presenting a position that has been decisively defeated in the economic debates of the last five years as the consensus within the economics profession. If anything, the consensus view within the economics profession is that Hollande’s program will slow growth and raise unemployment.

Baker was perhaps the first economist to spot the housing bubble, and to predict the dire consequences it would have on the US economy when it popped (CEPR, 8/02).  But that doesn’t make you an “economic expert” in the eyes of the New York Times–cheerleading for austerity does.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.