France and Poland: A Comparison
by Lauren Davis
Introduction, Characteristics, History
The republics of France and Poland have historically experienced different positions in the world order. While France has held empires that include vast stretches of Africa and Asia, Poland has been under foreign occupation for much of the time since 1795. Since World War II, France has pursued some Socialist policies, most of which have been dismantled or are currently being reformed. Poland adopted Soviet-style Socialism which it discarded in 1990, and it has been on a fairly steady road to recovery since. More recently, France was instrumental in creating the European Union and enjoys membership benefits; Poland hopes to be able to join by 2004. Both nations are currently in the process of decentralizing their major government-owned industries, and reforming social welfare programs.
With 95% of the Polish population being Catholic, the election of a Polish Pope and the Papal visit in 1979 to Poland were moments of pride for the Polish people. During this time of political unrest and labor strikes, the Pope's visit brought hope for peace and freedom. "His triumphal visit to Poland in 1979 probably provided an added impetus to the already existing revolutionary trends, thus setting the stage for the eventual downfall of communism there"(Radio Free Europe). This is an especially large honor for Poland, considering that the last non-Italian Pope was elected more that 450 years ago.
In comparison with Poland, where 75% of the religious population is practicing, France represents a much broader spectrum of religious diversity. Ninety percent of the French people consider themselves Catholic, but a much lower percentage is practicing. France also has a Muslim presence, due to its former holdings in North Africa, and four percent of its population does not belong to any religion.
The French people are extremely proud of their culture, almost to extremes. French art and literature are held in high esteem throughout the world, and the language is protected from outside influences. La gastronomie, the "art of food and drink" makes up a significant part of French culture. Over centuries, French wines have evolved with the help of records kept by the Church. Today, under French law, the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) classifies wines by the geographical region in which they are grown and the strictly controlled conditions under which they are made. France also produces some 400 varieties of cheese, which also have strict labeling laws applied to them. Most cheeses consumed are mass produced, but the finer cheeses are still farm-produced in small quantities. Inspections from agriculture ministries are frequent to ensure the quality of the products.While French cuisine is world-renowned, Polish food tends to be much simpler and heartier, though it is still an integral part of Polish culture. Polish meals usually feature meat and potatoes or other root vegetables, such as beets. Pickled foods and breads are also important.
France and Poland are both relatively large nations geographically when compared with their European neighbors, though France happens to be more than fifty percent larger than Poland. France's economy is also much larger, with a GDP of $1.448 trillion as opposed to Poland's $327.5 billion in 2001. GDP per capita in France is nearly three times higher than in Poland: $24,400 compared to $8,500. Real growth of GDP in Poland has slipped from 4.8% for the year 2000 to 1.2% at the end of 2001, as a result of measures to lower inflation, while France expanded by 2.2% in 2001.
France's economy is based in the service sector, comprising 70% of GDP. Poland, by contrast has a smaller service sector, 60% of GDP, and higher shares of industrialization and agriculture. France has a trade surplus, while Poland has run a deficit lately, reflecting its dependence on imported energy sources.
Poland's main economic goal is admittance into the European Union by 2004. To meet the requirements for membership, the budget has been tightened and so there is less money available for social welfare programs. There are many reasons why Polish residents are not wholeheartedly behind the move to join the EU, among them being the increased opportunities for land speculation. After being occupied by foreign powers for much of their history, Poles are wary of letting foreigners (especially Germans) buy their land, a condition set forth by the EU. Land is important to the Polish people; one-quarter of them are farmers.
In comparison, only three percent of France's GDP comes from agriculture, yet it is enough to make France the largest agricultural exporter in all of Europe, and utilizes fifty-five percent of the nation's total land area (countrywatch, 1). Much of France's agricultural industry is devoted to producing its famed wines and cheeses, yet it exports large amounts of wheat and other grains as well, most of which are exported to other EU member nations.
From the end of World War II until 1992, indicative planning was utilized intermittently in France. The plans were voluntary targets for firms, as opposed to mandatory targets under Communism in Poland from 1945 until 1989. In 1990, after the Communist regime was voted out of Poland, a "shock therapy" program began in an effort to control inflation and the growing defect.. Prices were allowed to float as well as the exchange rate. In the short-run this produced negative results, but by 1992 steady growth of GDP was achieved.
Today Poland has an independent central bank, which has managed to control inflation. However, while an independent central bank may help Poland gain entry into the EU, many people believe that the costs of the central bank's policies, such as the recent low growth in GDP, merit its incorporation into the government.
France is also currently battling high unemployment, which is currently at nine percent. In 2000 the workweek was cut down to 35 hours, a move which has been protested by workers.
The French elected a Socialist government in 1981, which led to two years of economic turmoil. During this time, nationalization occurred quite rapidly (infoplease, 4). One of the lingering results of this former Socialist policy is an extensive social welfare system, as evidenced by the fact that half of GDP currently goes to government expenditure. France's universal health care system is one of the best in the world; life expectancy is 78.9 years, as opposed to 73.42 years in Poland and 77.2 in the U.S., the infant mortality rate is 4.46 deaths/100 live births compared to 9.39 deaths per thousand in Poland and 6.76 per thousand in the U. S. On the other hand, France has an extensive unemployment system which is often exploited, and with an unemployment rate of 9%, this system is costly. The government is finding reforms of social welfare to be difficult because of the high degree of unionization of the labor force. For example, earlier in 2002, French doctors threatened to strike unless they were granted a raise in the price for house-call visits, or in 1996 truck drivers barricaded roads for twelve days, demanding a retirement program which, in the end, would be partially funded by the government.
Poland also has historically had an actively unionized labor force. Poland was the first Marxist state to recognize the right to unionize (infoplease, 3) in 1980. Shortly afterwards, the Solidarity movement, founded by Lech Walesa, began to protest working conditions and demanded a shorter work week, "garnering a membership of 10 million in its first month, a million of these coming from Communist Party ranks" (lonelyplanet, 2). In 1989 when elections were once again held, members of Solidarity won the majority of the Senate and the Presidency.
By contrast with France, the Polish social welfare system has had difficulties providing service. The inconsistent programs offered under Communism, which varied between industries and firms, became smaller as liberalization was attempted. In 1999, reforms were passed to create health insurance organizations which are funded by an income tax. Still, the system is under-funded, and attempts to privatize it have been delayed. "Structurally, the level of expenditures, and taxation, is high for Poland's level of development. Some spending on subsidies and transfers to households is inefficient and would better be saved or partly diverted to more productive uses" (IMF, April 2002). The unemployment system was revised in 1991, reducing the time a person could receive unemployment benefits to one year. However, unemployment remains high, and in December, 2001, it rose to its highest level since the collapse of Communism. Part of this rise in unemployment is due to the efforts of the central bank to curb inflation. Since the end of 2000, inflation has fallen from 10.2% to 3.5% in February 2002 (newnations, 1). Poland has a much higher percentage of residents living below the poverty line than France, 18.4% in 2000.
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