- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

PARIS — United Press International Paris correspondent Elizabeth Bryant interviewed three experts in the fields of politics, economics and religion, who predicted a turbulent 2004 for France.

POLITICS: Dominique Moisi, analyst at the French Institute for International Relations:

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.

Domestically, it’s feared that the extreme right and extreme left will do very well in general elections. We shall see. But the two represent nearly 40 percent of French public opinion. That’s huge, and a very bad omen for democracy.

ECONOMICS: Veronique Riches-Flores, economist on European affairs, Societe Generale Banking Group:

We’re predicting France’s economy will grow only 1.2 percent in 2004. That’s lower than estimates by the government.

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.

We predict French businesses are going to continue with massive layoffs.

On health and other reforms, we don’t have much choice. 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.

There’s an impression that France is losing steam, including in foreign investment. And that’s going to continue in 2004.

RELIGION: Jean Bauberot, director of the Group of Sociology of Religions and Secularism, in Paris. He is also a member of a presidential commission that recently urged a law banning “ostentatious” religious symbols in French schools. Mr. Bauberot abstained in voting for a ban, which is considered mostly aimed at Islamic headscarves:

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 suit. 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.

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