By Mohamed A. El-Erian
Four years ago, France was undoubtedly the “sick” team of the World Cup competition in South Africa. Awful play fueled disastrous team disaccord, resulting in an embarrassing first round exit for a team used to playing much deeper into the competition. In the process, French fans fell out of love with a team that had brought them great pride in the previous World Cup, when France beat Spain and Brazil on its way to a controversial championship game that it narrowly lost to Italy.
What a difference four years can make. Today, the French team is back, and in an impressive fashion. It has played a solid World Cup, earning a quarter-final berth against mighty Germany on Friday. And few are ready to dismiss France’s chances even though Germany has showed amazing consistency over the years.
There are lessons for France in how it turned around its World Cup football play and closed the gap with Germany, lessons it should apply to turning around its economic performance as well. Many observers now regard France as the “sick” economy of Europe – stuck in low-level growth, with mounting debt, high unemployment, social tensions and a lack of national unity it needs to rebound.
France's president, Francois Hollande, is keen to follow the example of Didier Deschamps who took over as manager of France's national football team in 2012 and embarked on a significant — and successful — revitalization effort. Hollande has changed members of his ministerial team, including the prime minister, and put in new economic plays. But, at least so far, his prospects are less bright than Deschamps.
Hollande has yet to deploy the type of transformational policy that would shake France out of its economic malaise. Politically, his national playing field is a lot more complicated than Deschamps's, due in part to the surge in popularity of Marine Le Pen, leader of France's ultra-conservative party, the National Front. His own popularity ratings are very low. The geo-political landscape is also challenging for France. And the international economic environment is just as tough, with more countries competing to grab a bigger share of a slow-growing global economic pie.
The French national team is likely to give Germany a run for its money on Friday. Unless Hollande re-invigorates his policy stance in a comprehensive fashion by pushing much harder for France to become more competitive and productive, he won't be able to turn around the French economy — now, or even in the next four years.
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