Like anyone familiar with the French definition of budgetary discipline, I didn’t spill my coffee in shock on Wednesday morning when Michel Sapin, finance minister, disclosed that France wouldn’t bring its public finances in line with EU-set targets until 2017 – two years later than previously agreed.
From the day of the euro’s launch in January 1999, it’s never been any different in Paris. No grande nation worth its salt would balance its budget on the orders of some bumptious bureaucratic bean-counter in Brussels.
What gave me pause for thought, however, was that it had been less than 24 hours since Wolfgang Schäuble, Mr Sapin’s opposite number in Berlin, had summed up, in a speech to the Bundestag, what Germans mean by budgetary discipline.
Read what Mr Schäuble said, and you will see that, in terms of aspirations and achievements, the gap between Germany and France on budgetary policies has never been bigger in the euro era.
The Christian Democrat-Social Democrat grand coalition that rules Germany is aiming to achieve a structurally balanced federal budget in 2014, two years earlier than required under the “debt brake” clause inserted in 2009 into the German constitution. But Mr Schäuble said the government was also setting itself the goal of making no new borrowing next year for the first time since 1969.
Now, I suppose you could criticise the Germans for making a fetish of balanced budgets and blinding themselves to deflation, a lack of demand, high unemployment and other eurozone-wide problems. This is certainly what you’d hear in Paris– and not just from Arnaud Montebourg and other leftists ejected from President François Hollande’s Socialist government.
But the real significance of the gap on budget policy between Paris and Berlin is that it matches a wider gulf in attitudes between the French and German publics.
This comes across when you look at the 2014 edition of one of my favourite annual German surveys – Die Ängste der Deutschen (“The Fears of the Germans”). Conducted since 1992 for the R+V insurance company, the latest survey – out last week – contains an Angst Index which, this year, has gone down by two percentage points to 39 per cent.
Now, if you like, you can spill your coffee. It’s official: Germans are less angst-ridden than at any time in the past 20 years.
This is not the same as saying that they are happy about the way the world is going. One of their top concerns is the cost of eurozone financial rescues. Another is – you’ve guessed it – the cost of living. Yes, with eurozone inflation at record lows, Germans are losing sleep about rising prices.
On the whole, though, Germans seem pretty satisfied with their national condition. By contrast, the next edition of Le Baromètre de la confiance politique (“The Barometer of Political Confidence”), produced by SciencesPo university’s Centre of French Political Studies, will surely make for grim reading.
In the last edition, published in January, the top three words that French people used to describe their state of mind were morosité (“gloom”: 34 per cent), lassitude (“weariness”: 31 per cent) and méfiance (“distrust” or “mistrust”: 30 per cent).
Other differences between French and German public opinion are visible, as is clear from the annual Transatlantic Trends survey published on Wednesday by the German Marshall Fund of theUnited States. This showed that 61 per cent of French people had a favourable opinion of the EU and 38 per cent an unfavourable opinion, against comparable German figures of 75 per cent and 23 per cent.
Is there any quick fix for making the French happier and more pro-EU? Of course, not – but when your government misses its budget deficit target year after year after year, who wouldn’t be gloomy, weary and distrustful?