N THE smouldering economic landscape of the euro zone, the future is riding on two men. In France Manuel Valls (pictured, right) is leading the most reformist government in years (see article). In Italy, whose economy is in even worse shape than France’s, Matteo Renzi (the hugger on the left) is also talking of change. Both have been in office for barely half a year and have a promising Blairite agenda. But the Vallenzi are also open to the same criticism: that as far as reform goes, they are all mouth and no trousers. France and Italy pose a grave threat to the single currency. They are the euro zone’s second- and third-largest members. Growth in France is flat and unemployment stuck at over 10%. The budget has not been balanced for 40 years, and public spending takes 57% of GDP—far the highest in the euro zone. Italy is no better. It is in recession, and its debt is over 130% of GDP.
They are also laggards in reform. Whereas Spain has started to get to grips with its structural problems, France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, has not even tried. Instead of reducing taxation, he has raised it. Instead of encouraging business, he has added to its burdens. Instead of promoting reforms, he has avoided them. In Italy, a series of well-meaning prime ministers have been unable to overcome the formidable vested interests that see reforms as a threat to the special deals they have carved out.
This combination of size and lassitude is dangerous, because France and Italy are at once too big to fail and too big to bail out. But the two countries’ governments now offer reason for hope. Mr Renzi has overseen constitutional change that should make it easier to force through reforms, and promised a “revolution” to speed up justice and promote investment.

Hollande’s only hope

Mr Valls has reshuffled his government to dump its most leftist anti-reformers. He sounds pro-business and promises to cut spending, reform welfare and the labour market and open up protected professions. The 35-hour working week is being made more flexible, and the top tax rate of 75% will lapse next year. Until now Mr Hollande’s unpopularity has been a weakness, but as the least-popular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, backing Mr Valls may be his only chance. After two years of failure, French voters seem to understand that there is no alternative to reforms: they are now even in favour of working on Sundays. Mr Valls may also get most Socialist deputies to accept change by threatening fresh elections if they do not.
Two things could help the Vallenzi: more public investment to boost demand in the euro zone (see article) and a longer time-frame in which to cut their deficits. Other member states may be unwilling to give them that much leeway. Eastern European countries whose people suffered through the imposition of tight fiscal discipline immediately after the crisis see little reason why richer member states should be indulged, especially since previous relaxations of discipline have been followed by backsliding.
Their misgivings are understandable. Thus the discipline the European Commission imposes should be eased only if the Vallenzi implement reforms as well as promising them. But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, should get on with raising public investment. Germany itself is again on the brink of recession, and if the euro zone cannot somehow regain its zip, it may not be only budget-deficit ceilings that are broken: it may be the single currency itself.