PARIS, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Just about every indicator -- from a sagging economy, to the prospect of social unrest over unpopular reforms and a looming religious symbols ban -- points to a turbulent 2004 for France. United Press International's Paris correspondent Elizabeth Bryant interviewed four experts in the fields of politics, economics, religion and culture. Here's their forecast for the year ahead.
ON POLITICS: Dominique Moisi, analyst at the French Institute for International Relations:
France-U.S. ties: Relations between France and the United States can only improve in the year ahead. The Americans need the international community -- including France -- to rebuild Iraq. And the French want to restore a more balanced and normal relationship with the United States... especially assuming they may have to live with the Bush team for at least 5 more years. So on both sides there's a resignation to a warming relationship.
France and Europe: What happened in Brussels -- with the failure to agree on a European Constitution -- was a major failure for Europe. What we're witnessing is a return to national emotions in Europe prevailing over the idea of European Unity... and French and German actions were also largely counterproductive. If they had not violated the stability pact (on budget deficits), and offered a very bad example, they would be more popular. It will be difficult to counter all this in 2004...
Domestically:It's clear (French President Jacques) Chirac has a very weak prime minister. That's normal in the Fifth Republic -- the prime minister is there to make the unpopular decisions, which Jean-Pierre Raffarin has been doing relatively well, until a few months ago. Chirac may replace him after the regional and European elections, next spring...
...During the general elections it's also feared the extreme right and extreme left will do very well. We shall see. But the two represent nearly 40 percent of French public opinion. That's huge, and a very bad omen for democracy.
Economy: Veronique Riches-Flores, economist on European affairs, Societe Generale Banking Group.
Economic Growth: We're predicting France's economy will grow only 1.2 percent in 2004. That's lower than estimates by the government and INSEE (the French statistical agency.)
A lot of economists believe France will be saved by the resurgence of the U.S. and Asian economies, and export growth. But the euro is growing strongly, and we think that will prevent French companies from taking advantage of the international demand...
A number of factors will also continue weighing on household income and spending. For example, we predict French businesses are going to continue with massive layoffs.
Health and other reforms: The problem is, we don't have much choice besides reform. The government's got to reduce the deficit. The big risk comes if the government fails to reform the health sector, and they increase social security taxes instead...
France is generally less advanced compared to other EU countries. Germany, for example, has launched a reform program -- although it has a long way to go.
Public debt: The government's going to have to do something sooner or later...because we'll soon arrive at a point we're borrowing exclusively to pay interest on the public debt. So I think the government's going to take steps to address the public debt.
Foreign investment: There's an impression that France is losing steam, including in foreign investment. And that's going to continue in 2004. Foreign investment here will be less significant than it was during the past two years.
RELIGION: Jean Bauberot, director of the Group of Sociology of Religions and Secularism, in Paris. Also member of a presidential secularity commission that recently advised a law banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in French schools. Bauberot abstained in voting for a ban, which is considered mostly aimed at Islamic headscarves.
Impact of a religious symbols law: I think the most-likely reaction will be the creation of new private, state-subsidized Muslim schools in a few years. So we may be heading toward a bizarre situation in which the headscarf is banned in public schools, but the French government helps finance private schools accepting veiled pupils. That appears to be among the most counterproductive aspects of a law.
Across Europe: I don't think other European countries will follow suite. The question that is coming up in Germany, for example, deals with teachers, not students. Besides, Germany is a federal state, and other European countries are more decentralized than France...
That's one of my fears -- that France will become a little bit different in Europe... certainly, freedom can't be limitless. But in the case of the headscarf, I'm not certain whether there needed to be a restriction on expression.
On a religious reference in a future European Constitution: "There's a chance of more debate... and in France as well. In 2005, France will celebrate the centennial of the 1905 law (separating church and state). But the debate over secularity isn't over. It's resurging -- in part with the defeat of the European constitution, and with Chirac's pronouncement in favor of a religious symbols law.
Society and the arts: Georgina Oliver, arts and style columnist and assistant editor for the Paris Voice, an English language magazine:
French society and government: There's always a push and pull between government and non-government... It's come up with this year's protests by the "intermittents du spectacle" (part-time performing arts workers), and by tobacconists over proposed cigarette price increases. Or with this "CNN a la Francaise" (expected to be launched in 2004), which will be partly state financed, but doesn't want to be reliant on the government... It's a push and pull that's evident in other aspects of French life, but it's more evident in the cultural field.
And French museums: It's the same thing. You can't organize any event without private sponsorship. At the same time, state-initiated projects play a vital role. For example, we're finishing the year of Algeria (featuring Algerian art, music and other cultural exhibits) and launching the year of China -- which will include a Chinese New Year's parade down the Champs Elysees... All this also connects to France's foreign relations strategy, and which countries it wants to cultivate.
The private sector: Museums are becoming business-style brand names, with private sponsorship for exhibitions, whether in the form of transportation, logistics or food for an opening. At the same time, private companies like Renault (the French automobile manufacturer) are adding a cultural twist. For example, Toyota is hosting free jazz events at its main show room in Paris.
Cafe society: Cafe culture, in the sense of a renewed cafe society, is thriving in France. Cinemas aren't just multiplexes -- you'll see all kinds of things added on to the idea of going to a cinema. For example, Le Balzac -- the only surviving, independent cinema near the Champs Elysees -- organizes theme dinners... but most of the old-style "tabac" bistros really need cigarette sales to keep going.