Austerity Has Come for France's Wine

Matt Berman
National Journal

It's no secret that France's economy is a mess. The country barely avoided a recession with 0.1 percent economic growth in the first quarter of 2013, after a 0.3 percent contraction at the end of 2012. President Francois Hollande has given up on meeting a 2013 budget deficit target, which France had promised the European Commission it would hit. That's after missing a promised target in 2012. France's unemployment rate hit 10.6% it the last quarter of 2012, with a record number of people out of work. Things in France are very, very bad.

But lest you think austerity and economic hardship is only for the masses, France's Socialist government found some solidarity in the bowels of the Élysée Palace. Hollande has decided to auction off some of his government's much-celebrated wine.

The Élysée Palace's wine cellar, which is guarded by an armored door and was founded by President Vincent Auriol in 1947 (because, YOLO, no more world wars), is now home to 12,000 bottles of wine that make appearances at the palace's receptions and dinners for foreign dignitaries. Hollande, with the aid of the Élysée's chief sommelier (the White House sort of has one of those, too), has decided France could do without a tenth of that.

French President Francois Hollande enjoys a glass of wine. (AP Photo/Charles Platiau)

The 1,200 bottles of wine—which include a 1990 Petrus Bordeaux that could sell for over $3,000—will go up for public auction at the end of May, courtesy of the Drouot auction house. Drouot estimates the bottles will sell for anything from €15 (about $20 USD) to, well, Petrus Bordeaux. The proceeds, which are estimated to surpass €250,000 ($327,800 USD), from the auction will replenish the wine cellar with some humbler wines, and the surplus will go to the state budget.

France's government isn't the first to turn to a wine auction in a drive for austerity. The British government—which as a wine cellar with an estimated market value of £2.95 million (well over $4.5 million USD) that operated at a loss to taxpayers in 2012—auctioned off 54 bottles of French wine in March through Christie's.

This kind of government self-sacrifice isn't new, nor is it limited to Western Europe. After sequestration set in in the U.S., President Obama pledged to give 5 percent of his $400,000 salary back to the Treasury Department. Some members of Congress and many of Obama's Cabinet secretaries are donating some of their salaries, too.

But it's not as if the sacrifice will have an obvious benefit. In France, The New York Times' Steven Erlanger writes, auctioning off some of the Élysée's famous wines "is a bit like selling grandmother's silver," especially when the country's massive deficit means the proceeds from the wine are just "highly exclusive drops" in the bucket. And in the U.S., most of the politicians who are giving up some salary are quite wealthy, so their belt-tightening is really a bit like donating a threadbare holiday sweater.

Neither the wine auctions nor the salary donations will make a noticeable dent on budget deficits. That's the case even if France and England just swap out every bottle in their wine cellars for 'Austerity Wine.' Which exists. The sacrifices, of course, also won't help the millions of unemployed people in the U.S., the U.K., and France.

So what's the point of the government sacrifice? It's better than doing nothing for governments with very, verylow approval ratings.

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says these acts are designed to express empathy, and that sometimes small gestures can matter. And, West says, "when the French sell antique wine, that's a big gesture."

But, as West points out, Obama can pretty easily sell some books and make back whatever money he sent to Treasury. And Francois Hollande isn't going to be saved by a bit of spilled wine. "When public opinion moves in a big way, it takes something big to change that."