Lies, damned lies, and statistics

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While the French government argues that a national recovery is now underway, Laurent Mauduit details here how a closer study of the economic statistics in fact reveals a country of deepening social divides and rising frustrations.
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The opportunity was apparently too tempting for French budget minister François Baroin. While the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) had planned to publish the October issue of its economic review, 'Conjuncture in France'1, on the evening of the last day in September, on the morning of that same Baroin broke the embargo by revealing one of its key points: INSEE had revised upwards its growth forecast for 2010 to 1.6% - compared to a forecast of 1.4% it previously made last spring.

The minister was wrong to do this, for two reasons. Firstly, he blatantly violated European rules for publication of statistics. But most of all, he tried to give credence to the idea that the French economy is faring better, although a swathe of recent studies suggest precisely the opposite. According to these studies, France is suffering from increasingly deep social and economic divisions and social frustration is reaching its limits.

To a lay person, Baroin’'s first breach would appear unimportant. However, it is a very serious one. Major European countries have adopted a code of practice to guarantee the independence of statistical institutes and prevent them from being subjected to pressure or manipulation, which calls for rigorous procedures for the publication of economic and social indicators.

When, in 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy was finance minister [he was elected as president in May, 2007] he frequently broke those rules. Since 2007, the current finance minister, Christine Lagarde, has followed suit - and now Baroin continues to manifest the same disdain for INSEE’'s independence.

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1: INSEE publishes its economic review 'Conjuncture in France' quarterly, but the spring and autumn editions are a more limited update of the previous review. All direct quotes from the October issue are taken from the institute’'s own English version published on its website.

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