March 28 (Bloomberg) -- A French baguette has to measure between 21.6 inches and 25.6 inches, or between 1.8 and 2.1 feet. Civil servants are required to check how windows open and close in the nation’s public buildings.
The 400,000 norms that go to make France France -- many of them “absurd” -- cost the state more than 500 million euros ($640 million) to implement and need to be reviewed to stop them strangulating the country, a 116-page report said this week.
“In this period of economic crisis, industrial decay, explosion of unemployment and crumbling public finances, it’s becoming irresponsible not to target the norms problem,” said Alain Lambert and Jean-Claude Boulard, the authors of the report commissioned by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
For President Francois Hollande, who this month promised a “stronger, simpler, more powerful, faster, more efficient state,” unshackling France may be among policy cornerstones, with a series of measures to eliminate norms coming as early as April 2. In his 10th month in power, Hollande is grappling with a contracting economy and the highest joblessness since 1997.
A 2010 report by Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says norms cost European countries as much as 4 percent of gross domestic product. France, whose rules determine everything from the height of sidewalks to the composition of the concrete used for construction, is one of the world’s most-regulated countries.
Lambert and Boulard cite philosophers Montesquieu and Montaigne in their report’s opening remarks to illustrate how ruling every detail is part of the French way of life and one of its biggest burdens.
Rules including those that ensure hotel stairs are bi-colored and that four-year-old children’s public school lunch has the protein equivalent of half an egg and two chicken nuggets have cost France more than 2 billion euros between 2008 and 2011, with more than 700 million euros just for 2011, according to the report.
“Recovering competitiveness is not just about economizing but also in the rules,” the authors of the report said. “With the accumulation of rules, paper time has gotten longer than construction time.”
The push for simplification comes as Hollande’s government has conceded that it is unlikely to make its target of a budget deficit of 3 percent of gross domestic product this year. He is also struggling to keep his pledge of cutting public spending by at least 10 billion euros annually over his term.
The Socialist leader risks the wrath of his core supporters as he seeks to shrink the pension system, which had a deficit of 14 billion euros in 2011. He will have to cut on welfare spending to meet his budget and debt-reduction targets.
France’s international partners want Hollande to step up efforts to improve competitiveness by holding down wages and increasing labor flexibility. The OECD said last week that Hollande has a “unique” opportunity to overhaul the economy.
The stakes to modernize France are high for Hollande, who according to polls has became the most unpopular president since 1981 and is facing defiance from his own supporters in the streets and in parliament.
In a televised appearance tonight, Hollande may seek to focus on the dire state of the economy he inherited, his efforts since May to fight the economic crisis and measures he will seek to put in place in the months ahead.
The report’s authors say scrapping some of the norms that frame French lives would be a step in the right direction.
“We must shake up our rules and get back our right to do things freely,” Lambert and Boulard said.
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