Things may just have got worse for the French presidentby Jonathan Derbyshire / June 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
In the current issue of Prospect, I’ve written a short note to accompany Christine Ockrent’s excellent essay about the travails of François Hollande. I discuss the scandal that consumed Hollande’s former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, who was forced to resign in April this year after it emerged that he’d kept the existence of a bank account in Switzerland containing more than €600,000 a secret from the French tax authorities.
Although Hollande acted swiftly once Cahuzac resigned, launching legislation designed to “re-moralise” public life, I suggest that he still has “much to fear” from the affair. A parliamentary inquiry into the way the government handled it began in May, and it has already caused the president some embarrassment. Last week, an Elysée Palace aide, Alain Zabulon, told the inquiry that Hollande had been briefed about Cahuzac’s financial affairs on 15 December (nine days after the story first broke on the website Mediapart) but that his office had chosen not to take the matter further.
The impact of Cahuzac’s disgrace has been felt in other ways – in Hollande’s approval ratings, which continue to plumb historically unprecedented depths and, most recently, in the lamentable failure of the Parti Socialiste (PS) to hold on to the parliamentary seat in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the south-west of France vacated by the ex-minister. The PS’s candidate, Bernard Barral, was eliminated in the first round of voting in a by-election on 16th June, beaten into the third place by Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne, the telegenic, 23-year-old candidate of the far-right Front National (FN). Barral got 23 per cent of the votes (in the 2012 legislative elections, Cahuzac had scored 46.9 per cent in the first round), Bousquet-Cassagne 26 per cent, with Jean-Louis Costes of the right-of-centre UMP coming first with 28.7 per cent.
In yesterday’s run-off, Costes beat the man from the FN by 53.8 per cent to 46.2. But it was the far right that was celebrating, with Bousquet-Cassagne declaring that whilst this was an “electoral defeat, it was an ideological victory”. His party leader, Marine Le Pen, drew a similar lesson from the relative narrowness of the UMP’s win. “The so-called ‘republican front’ is dead,” she said, referring to the cross-party appeal to anti-FN voters that had seen Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie crushed by Jacques Chirac in the 2002 presidential run-off.
In truth, the republican front has been on life-support for several years, since Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 after a campaign in which he’d tacked right on the FN’s favourite topics of immigration and national identity. The architect of that campaign was Patrick Buisson, a right-wing commentator who’d imbibed the monarchist, revanchist conservatism of Charles Maurras’s Action française with his mother’s milk. In a recent interview with Le Monde, Buisson referred approvingly to the large demonstrations against gay marriage legislation called earlier this year by predominantly Catholic groups, describing them as the efflorescence of a new “Christian populism”. Asked who he thought was the politician on the right best placed to exploit these developments, he referred unhesitatingly to his former employer, Sarkozy. “His candidacy is the right’s only hope,” he said.
And, sure enough, this weekend Le Monde splashed with the following headline: “Sarkozy prepares his return”. Life for François Hollande might be about to get even more difficult.