The French are finally starting to believe in their president. Now he has to convince the Germans and the Greeksby Jonathan Derbyshire / February 5, 2015 / Leave a comment
As Christine Ockrent observes in her piece in the current issue of Prospect, the “French political class looked better than it had done for some time” in early January, in the wake of the slaughter at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the murder, two days later, of four French Jews at a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris. This was particularly true of the President himself, François Hollande, who seemed to shrug off the weight of more than two years’ worth of dismal approval ratings and, as Roy Jenkins used to put it, rise to the level of events. “The French people,” Ockrent writes, “discovered that they have a President.” (Previously, Hollande had seemed anything but “présidentiable,” singularly incapable of embodying the grandeur and dignity of the Republic, as residents of the Elysée Palace since de Gaulle have been expected to do. But his numbers do, finally, seem to be shifting: a YouGov poll for Huffington Post and i-Télé, published today, shows his approval rating climbing six points to 22 per cent—which also shows just how bad things had got for him.)
The question was how long national unity would last. The answer came on Sunday, three weeks after that remarkable day in January when more than three million people marched through the streets of French cities to mourn the dead and reassert their commitment to Republican values. The far-right Front National (FN), whose Republican bona fides the Socialist Party (PS) had called into question before the big march on 11th January, won in the first round of a by-election in the eastern department of Doubs with more than 32 per cent of the vote. The Socialists came second, ahead of the centre-right UMP, the party of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The day after the by-election, Sarkozy announced that he would not be respecting the convention, established in the second round of the 2002 Presidential election, of a “Republican front” designed to prevent a victory for the far right. He wouldn’t recommend that UMP voters back the PS in the run-off with the FN. His position was “ni-ni”—neither the FN nor the PS.
So much for the “spirit of 11th January.” Hollande, though, was desperate to invoke it at a two-hour press conference held this morning at the Elysée. His remarks were full of bromides about “national cohesion” and the “unity” and “implacability” of the Republic, promises about new anti-terrorist policies and measures to inculcate the values of “laicité” (secularism) in French schools.
Politics-as-usual intruded, however, not least in the shape of the crisis in the eurozone and what Hollande called the “challenge” posed by Greece after Syriza’s election victory. Hollande, who met the Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras in Paris yesterday, seems to be trying to steer a path between Berlin and Athens (or Scylla and Charybdis). “France’s role,” he said, “is to find a solution, to contribute to an agreement that respects both the Greek vote and European rules.” While he acknowledged that there “would be nothing worse than humiliating the Greeks,” he also warned Tsipras and his comrades not to fall for the fantasy of socialism in one country. “Nothing would be worse for them than to go their own way.”
Of course, giving unsolicited advice in the Elysée is one thing and negotiating with European partners in Brussels quite another. And nearly three years into his quinquennat, Hollande has been an unconvincing performer in EU negotiations. If he’s learned, belatedly, how to be de Gaulle at home, he now needs to be able to emulate the general abroad.