The new president will have to deal with the effects of years of rigidity
When the dust settles on the Ségo v Sarko presidential election campaign, the harsh reality of the economic challenges that face the victor will still be there like a hangover after a party.
France's poor labour market performance is well known and has been a problem for decades. But until recently the economy was propped up by low interest rates and robust consumer spending.
Now, though, it has flagged, especially when the sluggish growth of the French economy is contrasted with the runaway success of Germany. France grew more slowly than Germany last year for the first time in a decade and is now one of the poorest performing major economies in the eurozone.
Germany is as interesting in its success as France is in its lack of it. This is a worthwhile comparison because it gets away from the stale "Anglo-Saxon" v "European social model" debate. Germany has held down wages for six years. Real wages have barely risen at all, pushing the share of workers' pay as a proportion of national income to its lowest for four decades, which is surprising for a country with a strong social model. Germany has regained international competitiveness - hence the success of its exporters. Those in work are reaping the benefits of years of belt-tightening and unemployment is falling rapidly, though from a high level.
In France, wages have continued to rise, helping support consumer spending but gradually leading to a loss of competitiveness that is now becoming painfully apparent. "The French economy did well for many years and outperformed Germany. But now it has become the real laggard in Europe and is now growing as slowly as Italy," says Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics.
"Their problem has become a complete lack of competitiveness in overseas markets because of things like labour market rigidities and stronger wage growth than in Germany. France is now the sick man of Europe."
France's poor growth is particularly disappointing when the world economy is in its longest and fastest period of expansion for at least three decades.
So what has Nicolas Sarkozy, who looks to be the likely victor, promised to do? He says France is craving a sense of direction and leadership amid recent fears of decline. He has promised a "reformist crash programme" as part of which he hopes to get agreement from the unions before the autumn on a unified, more flexible work contract, on minimum service standards during strikes in public services, and renegotiation of workers' rights between unions and employers.
He would also in effect do away with the 35-hour working week by imposing a 25% premium on overtime hours worked, paid for by scrapping any tax and national insurance on them.
The unified, more flexible work contract sounds harmless enough but it goes to the heart of the problems in the French labour market. French workers are either "insiders" on permanent contracts and in effect have jobs for life with short working hours, or they are "outsiders", either jobless or working on precarious short-term contracts.
France looks great to the millions of tourists who flock there each year, but to a young person trying to find a job, especially if he or she is an immigrant from one of the banlieues (suburbs), it can be a very difficult place.
Contrary to the idea held by many people in Britain - that the French have a better quality of life - studies suggest they are less content with their lot. Danny Blanchflower, a Bank of England economist, has researched relative happiness levels across many countries and the results are clear: the French trail the British in terms of happiness, life satisfaction and job satisfaction.
As unemployment has a strong correlation with happiness levels, it is probably safe to conclude that jobless figures at close to 9% - the eurozone's highest - is the main reason. And unemployment remains particularly acute amongst the young, at over 20%. Small wonder, then, that so many young French people come to London to find work. This is a loss to France since many of them are highly educated.
In Britain they enjoy the flexibility and jobs that the UK labour market offers them. About 300,000 now live in Britain and France has suffered the biggest emigration since the Huguenots fled in the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, Mr Sarkozy came to London earlier this year appealing to these émigrés to return.
The French economy cannot be turned around swiftly and the new president may struggle to make changes, as they may cause the type of civil unrest that has derailed so many attempts at reform in the past.
Signs of hope
Throwing public money at the problem, which is the traditional urge of French politicians, will be difficult since the country is running a budget deficit of 2.5% of GDP - well above the eurozone average of 1.6% - and has debt levels of 64% of GDP, double those of Britain. With the state already accounting for half of GDP, the public-spending route now looks exhausted.
Reform of the labour market and public finances are not enough. Like any country seeking to generate jobs, France needs growth, which has become its latest problem and one which may take a long time to address. The French economy grew rapidly around the turn of the millennium but has struggled since then, only once exceeding 2%.
There are signs of hope. Many of Europe's biggest companies are French and they have highly productive workforces. Some labour market reforms carried out in the past couple of years appear to be bearing fruit. The Paris region, in particular, is becoming a magnet for global IT and services companies and is sucking in record amounts of inward investment.
So, rather than gloating at France's misfortunes, it is best to wish the country "bonne chance et bon courage" as it tries to make itself as attractive to its own people as it is to the rest of us.