The euro crisis no one is talking about: France is in free fall

January 9, 2013, 7:26 PM UTC
France president Francois Hollande

FORTUNE — Given investors’ confidence in its sovereign debt, and its image as Germany’s principal partner in the sturdy, sensible “northern” eurozone, you’d think that France endures as the co-guardian of the endangered single currency. Indeed, the rate on France’s ten-year government bonds stands at just 2%, just a few ticks above Germany’s. From a quick look at the headline numbers, France doesn’t appear nearly as stressed as the derisively titled “PIIGS,” Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. So far, the trajectory of its debts and deficits isn’t as distressing as the figures for the PIIGs, or even the U.K. and the U.S.

France’s vaunted role in the creation and initial success of the euro enhances its aura of solidity. It was President Francois Mitterrand who in 1989 persuaded Chancellor Helmut Kohl to back monetary union in exchange for France’s support for German reunification. In fact, France and Germany, along with the Netherlands, dramatized their commitment by effectively uniting the franc and deutschemark in a currency union that held their exchange rates in a narrow band, and heralded the euro’s birth in 1999. In the boom years of the mid-2000s, France virtually matched Germany as the twin growth engine of the thriving, 17-nation eurozone.

A deeper look shows that France is mired in no less than an economic crisis. The eurozone’s second-largest economy (2012 GDP: 2 trillion euros) is suffering more than any other member from a shocking deterioration in competitiveness. Put simply, France’s products — its cars, steel, clothing, electronics — cost far too much to produce compared with competing goods both from Asia and its European neighbors, including not just Germany but even Spain and Italy. That’s causing a sharp and accelerating fall in its exports, and a significant decline in manufacturing and the services that support it.

The virtual implosion of French industry is overlooked by analysts and pundits who claim that the eurozone had dodged disaster and entered a new, durable period of stability. In fact, it’s France — not Greece or Spain — that now poses the greatest threat to the euro’s survival. France epitomizes the real problem with the single currency: The inability of nations with high and rising production costs to adjust their currencies so that their products remain competitive in world markets.

So far, the worries over the euro have centered on dangerously rising debt and deficits. But those fiscal problems are primarily the result of a loss of competitiveness. When products cost too much to make, the economy stalls or actually declines, so that even modest increases in government spending swamp nations with big budget shortfalls and excessive borrowings. In this no-or-negative growth scenario, the picture is usually the same: The private economy shrinks while government keeps expanding.

That’s already happened in Italy, Spain and other troubled eurozone members. The difference is that those nations are adopting structural reforms to restore their competitiveness. France is doing nothing of the kind. Hence, its yawning competitiveness gap will soon create a fiscal crisis. It’s absolutely astonishing that an economy so large, and so widely respected, can be unraveling so quickly.

The world’s investors and the euro zone optimists should awaken to the danger posed by France. La crise est arivée.

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France’s decline is best illustrated by the rapid deterioration in its foreign trade. In 1999, France sold around 7% of the world’s exports. Today, the figure is just over 3%, and falling fast. The same high costs that are pounding exports draw an ever rising flow of goods from Germany, China and even southern Europe. Those imports are taking an increasing share of sales from pricier French-made products. In 2005, France’s trade balance was a positive 0.5% of GDP. Today, it stands at minus 2.7% of national income, meaning imports now far exceed exports, turning trade from a growth-generator into a major drag. An excellent illustration of the competitiveness gap is the chasm between German and French exports to China. Germany sends $70 billion in cars, machine tools and other products to China each year, seven times the figure for France.

Even tourism is suffering because of the France’s high prices. France is now struggling to attract clientele from a surging, bargain-seeking tranche of the market, travelers from Asia, Brazil, India and Russia. In the mid-2000s, foreigners spent 15 billion euros more visiting the Champs Elysees and the Riviera than the French paid to vacation abroad. That surplus has since fallen by one-third, to around 10 billion euros.

The main reason for France’s cost disadvantage is the burden of labor, a factor that typically accounts for around 70% of all corporate expenses worldwide. In France, the problem comprises high wage and social costs, and rigid laws, including a 35-hour work week that allows French employees the lowest number of working hours in the developed world. An astounding 86% of all wage earners enjoy “contrats a durée indéterminées,” permanent contracts that make layoffs extremely expensive and time-consuming.

In France, 42 euros for every 100 euros in total expenses go to social charges, versus 34 euros in Germany, 26 in the UK, and 20 in the US.

Obviously, the restrictive laws and hostile unions are nothing new. What’s causing the crippling malaise is the recent rapid rise in labor costs when rivals are lowering or moderating the weight of their workforces.

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Since 2005, France’s unit labor costs — the expense of producing a single car or steel beam, for example — has jumped 17% compared with 10% for Germany, 5.8% for Spain, and 2% for Ireland. Today, French workers earn an average of 35.3 euros per hour, compared with 25.8 in Italy, and 22 in the UK and Spain.

The result is a steep fall in French manufacturing and the services that support it, everything from consulting to logistics. Corporate profits have plunged to 6.5% of GDP, about 60% of the euro zone average. That’s because French exporters are losing market share, and the ones that survive must lower margins to charge competitive prices. As a result, they lack the funds to invest in new plants and technologies. France now has half as many exporting companies as Germany and, amazingly, Italy. German industry benefits from 19,000 robots, five times the number in France. As for R&D spending, it’s dropped 50% in the past four years.

Remarkably, the Hollande government is raising revenue by heightening the burden on business. In September, France announced new laws that limit deductions for corporate interest payments and loss carry-forwards, effectively heaping higher taxes on business. Those measures will shrink already meager profits, and crimp future investment.

The cost-gap wouldn’t be so damaging if France specialized in sophisticated, high-margin products. Indeed, the nation remains strong in fashion, luxury goods, and pharmaceuticals. But though those offerings symbolize France’s economic élan, the nation is heavily dependent on autos, textile, steel, telecom equipment and other mid-to-low margin products that are extremely price sensitive on world markets. “France has never been strong in high-end, sophisticated products like machine tools or computer equipment,” says Jean-Christophe Caffet of Flash Economics in Paris. “And even in the high-end, it’s lost a lot of market share to Germany.”

Germany, for example, specializes in fancy cars, Audis, Mercedes and BMWs that folks are willing to keep buying if prices rise a bit. By contrast, France makes cheaper Renaults and Peugeots that risk losing sales to Ford or Fiat unless manufacturers hold down prices — or settle for puny or non-existent profits.

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Nor is France reacting to the looming crisis by following its neighbors’ campaign to lower labor costs. Germany made big strides in the mid-2000s with its Hartz IV reforms that lowered the social charges on businesses. Spain recently raised the retirement age for full pensions from 65 to 67 and allows wage negotiations at the company level, a departure from the centralized system of imposing mandatory nationwide increases in pay. Italy is gradually raising the retirement age for women from 60 to 66 over the next six years.

But Francois Hollande, elected president in May, is taking far more tepid steps. The government is pledging to modestly lower social charges on businesses, but the reforms don’t start until 2014, and last just two years.

It’s the prospect of a future without growth, a direct legacy of the competitiveness problem, that could unleash a fiscal crisis. It’s remarkable that in the mid-1990s, France had a lower unemployment rate than Germany, smaller deficits, less debt to GDP, and approximately the same growth rate. All of those measures have now totally reversed.

In 2012, the French economy expanded at just 0.2%, and its real growth rate for the past three years averaged 1.2%, less than half Germany’s 2.7% performance. For 2013, France’s ODDO Securities makes a persuasive case that the economy will actually shrink. The unemployment rate stands at a 14-year high of 10.9% and rising, compared 6.7% for Germany. Debt to GDP is nearing the danger zone of 90%, and could hit 97% in 2013.

It’s not that France has been raising government spending at an outrageous rate. The issue is that a nation with already high spending levels and no growth has run out of room to keep lifting expenditures, and debt, at all. It’s extraordinary that from 2004 to 2012, the private sector in France showed no growth whatsoever, adjusted for inflation. The entire rise in GDP, a mere 7.3% over eight years, came from government spending. It’s the private economy that supports that spending, and it will keep dwindling, driving France further and further into debt.

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Government spending now accounts for 57% of GDP and increasing, 12 points higher than Germany. By the way, Germany’s private sector is growing briskly as public expenditures drop as a share of national income. The opposite dynamic is plaguing its long-time partner.

It’s totally implausible to blame “austerity” for France’s poor growth. Austerity is generally defined as large reductions in budget deficits, mainly driven by falling government spending. But France’s spending has increased in real terms, and its deficits have been remained at a substantial 5% or so of GDP in 2011 and 2012, with the same figure likely for this year.

It’s unclear when the crisis that’s going mostly unacknowledged by investors and the Hollande government will erupt into a panic. The chance that France will lower labor costs by the 20% to 30% needed to restore growth is practically zero. Reforms can only happen when the economy is expanding and citizens feel good about the future, the antithesis of the gloom now enveloping France.

France is heading towards an economic Bastille. The longer it stays on that path, the more possible that the eurozone regime it labored so hard to create will crumble.