French, Germans Show Different Attitudes To Crisis

A funny thing about bailouts in Europe: The Germans appear to be worried sick about them, because they'll have to pay. But the French don't seem too concerned, even though they'll be paying too — and they can't afford it.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

And we begin this hour with a eurozone crisis. Germany and France, the eurozone's largest economies are also the biggest contributors to its bailout fund. Each kicks in about one percent of its GDP. But in contrast to Germany, in France there is hardly any political or media questioning of the ongoing bailouts.

As Eleanor Beardsley reports, the different attitudes toward the crisis may have been shaped by history or temperament, but they're also a result of the way the crisis is now being portrayed in each country.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: There's a lot of talk in the international media about German taxpayer angst over having to bail out Greece. But just next door in France, people don't even seem to question it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

BEARDSLEY: Customers file in and out of a branch of Societe Generale in downtown Paris. It's one of the French banks most heavily exposed to Greek debt and one recently downgraded by Moody's ratings agency. But no one here seems terribly worried by that. Time and again, when I asked people about the euro crisis, they answer like this.

ARNAUD DUBOURG: (Foreign language spoken)

JEAN DUPONT: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: They will work it out. We've got professionals dealing with this, says Arnaud Dubourg. I'm not worried, says Jean Dupont. It'll work out. It's the dollar that's more troubling, he adds.

And it's not just the man in the street. French politicians don't rail about Greek fiscal irresponsibility and there seem to be no polls to reflect growing anger or even concern among citizens. In such a climate of confidence or perhaps disinterest, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been able to cast himself as the savior of Europe.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We have a historic responsibility to Europe which is incarnated in the common currency, Sarkozy waxed on recently, adding that the eurozone would never abandon one of its own. But faced with angry taxpayers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has only recently begun doling out such hearty endorsements of European solidarity.

Markus Kerber, a German professor of finance who teaches in Berlin and Paris, says one of the main reasons the euro crisis is perceived differently in the two countries is because the Germans deeply regret giving up the Deutschemark.

MARKUS KERBER: The French haven't given up something as strong as the Deutschemark. And the French think, at least the political elite, that the creation of the euro is a great French achievement, which of course it is not. So, as it is a French achievement, it cannot fail.

BEARDSLEY: There's also a great difference in the understanding about who's going to pay for the bailouts.

SEBASTIAN BARNES: In both countries there's quite a selective few of what's going on.

BEARDSLEY: Sebastian Barnes heads the eurodesk at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

BARNES: Basically, France and Germany have relatively similar debt levels, but the deficit is much larger in France. And so, for France finding the extra money, even if it's not, in some sense, a huge amount of money, it's much more difficult than it is in Germany.

BEARDSLEY: And French officials don't want to call attention to that, says Barnes, so it's not discussed politically. French economist Michel Godet goes even further. He says the French people aren't being told the truth.

MICHEL GODET: (Through translator) Our austerity plan is partly to bail out Greece and people don't know that. The truth is, we're all so living beyond our means and we're no longer competitive because of the 35-hour week. There's going to have to be a massive tax hike and France needs to get back to work.

BEARDSLEY: Goday says neither the left nor the right want to pass that unpalatable message to the French people just as a presidential election campaign begins. Other economists say both France and Germany are keen to avoid talking about their banks. German lenders are also heavily exposed to southern European economies. But as one analyst put it, it's easier for the Germans to blame the Greeks.

Parisians soak up the autumn sun at an outdoor cafe. Among them sits Berliner Udo Prenzel. He teaches German to the French at the Goethe Institute in Paris. He chalks up the different perceptions of the euro crisis to media coverage.

UDO PRENZEL: German people is much more informed than French people. So, if you see the German television, you have a lot of discussions. But here in France, it's much more interesting to speak about the affair of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, for example, or Mr. Sarkozy.

BEARDSLEY: Economist Michele Godet says the French need to wake up and start reacting a bit more like the Germans or they may end up like the Greeks.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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