The travails of François Hollande are a symptom of France's deeper malaiseby Christine Ockrent / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
“The President is expected to behave as the embodiment of the Republic… Hollande is struggling to look the part” © Pool/Reuters/Corbis
At the end of May, François Hollande visited the Institut d’Études Politiques (or “Sciences Po”) in Paris, one of France’s elite universities and a supply line for the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where the country’s top bureaucrats, known as énarques, are trained. Opening a conference on the future of Europe organised by the Berggruen Institute on Governance, Hollande reminded the audience that he had been a student on the same benches, and had taught economics in the same lecture hall. After a few words of greeting from the host, the President clapped heartily. That was awkward. The Président de la République is not supposed to applaud anyone but his peers, and then only sparingly.
Ever since the execution of Louis XVI, the French have thought of themselves as revolutionaries. But the truth is that they long for a monarch. They want the man (and so far it has always been a man) they elect to the Elysée Palace to come from le peuple—no businessmen or aristocrats allowed (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing made it, but he is a fake aristocrat). Once anointed, the President is expected to behave as the embodiment of the republic, the institution in full majesty. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, forgot this basic principle when he involved his family in a Kennedy-esque inauguration ceremony and later used foul language to insult a passer-by, and spoke of his love affair with the model Carla Bruni at a press conference in one of the gilded rooms at the Elysée Palace (“With Carla, it’s serious stuff”). Hollande is struggling to look the part too, though for different reasons.
Disillusionment with traditional political discourse among the French people, of both right and left, has deepened as the economy has slowed and unemployment has grown. France is not the only country in Europe to be suffering from a kind of democratic fatigue, but the syndrome here seems particularly acute, and it has got worse since Hollande was elected. Populists of both right and left have been emboldened: Marine Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the extreme left denounce a self-satisfied elite, while a series of juicy political and financial scandals have helped to further stoke popular discontent. Trust in politicians, the media and the institutions of national and European government is draining away fast, while opinion polls show an unprecedented degree of pessimism about the future.
Hollande’s popularity has collapsed dramatically since his election. In early June, just over a year into his tenure, only 28 per cent of respondents in a poll trusted him to deal with the country’s problems effectively (this was a record).
Hollande’s problem is that although he has mastered the language—unlike Sarkozy, he went to the right schools—he simply doesn’t convey authority. During the presidential campaign in 2012 he tried hard to lose weight and look younger; now he dyes his hair too dark, the way older men do, and his waistline has expanded—though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Georges Pompidou, who was rather stout, is now remembered with fondness for his short but successful presidency. In fact, Hollande behaves exactly the way his friends describe him to be in private: good natured with a great sense of humour, a sharp mind and a quick tongue—the kind of jolly, clever fellow one is always pleased to have dinner with when he comes to Paris. He’s like your favourite cousin from Corrèze, the province which has elected him as enthusiastically as it once did Jacques Chirac.
This style is exactly what Hollande had promised the French people during the campaign: unlike his jittery predecessor, a one-man show of a president, he would behave “normally.” Nobody quite knew what he meant at the time, but voters were so exhausted by Sarkozy’s hyperactivity that they didn’t care. Their enthusiasm didn’t last long, however. While the French want their president to exude quiet authority, they also crave grandeur, energy and panache. And whatever one thinks of Sarkozy, he sometimes managed to play the part. Hollande enjoyed no honeymoon with public opinion after the election. His victory had been narrow (he won 51.6 per cent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 48.4) and disappointment set in almost immediately. He chose a Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is just like him, only shallower, and set about running his government in the same way that he had managed the Parti Socialiste during the decade he spent as its First Secretary: with all ideological tendencies included and none neglected.
In office, Hollande has continued to behave as a party boss rather than a president, wasting time and political capital in appeasing internal conflicts, many of which have in fact only got worse. This is especially true in the Ministry of Economy and Finance, where no fewer than seven ministers share portfolios but not the same views (the most debilitating conflict being that between the Finance Minister and protégé of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Pierre Moscovici, and the Minister for “Industrial Renewal,” Arnaud Montebourg, who ran to Hollande’s left in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary).
Hollande’s approval ratings rose briefly at the beginning of this year when, as “Commander-in-Chief,” he waved the drapeau tricolore and sent French troops into Mali. But at home his trips to la France profonde, where he insists on talking to ordinary people, cracking jokes and kissing cheeks, have backfired. Familiarity has bred contempt and, on a few occasions, the President has had to endure public abuse of a kind his predecessors never experienced.
They didn’t face such dire economic and social conditions. Not that the French people are suffering anywhere near as much as the Spaniards, the Portuguese or the Greeks, of course. But they are convinced that austerity is already taking its toll (during the election campaign, Hollande promised to restore “budget discipline” but was recently forced to acknowledge that France will fail to meet the target of reducing the deficit to 3 per cent of GDP by the end of 2013) and that stringent reforms to the labour market and social security are under way. In short, they think that the future is bleak and the present much worse than the past.
According to polls, the French are the most depressed people in Europe. They are also in the grip of a kind of cultural nostalgia. News magazines sell more copies when they put “the glory of Louis XIV” or “the genius of Napoleon” on the cover than they do when they choose to go with current affairs. And the recent large demonstrations across France against the legalisation of gay marriage and adoption were not simply protests against a government that had sought to divert attention from the country’s economic woes. They were also the expression of a deep longing for a time when change was slower and family values appeared to have been entrenched in a strict Catholic social code—the moral corset that the generation of May 1968 had thrown off.
Some of Hollande’s difficulties are specific to his political tribe. The left in France has not undergone the kind of ideological shift that Willy Brandt in Germany and Tony Blair in Britain succeeded in imposing on the Social Democratic party and Labour party respectively. There has been no Bad Godesberg or Third Way for the Parti Socialiste. The words “social democracy” are rarely heard on the French left, a legacy, perhaps, of the influence of the now nearly-defunct local Communist party. Invited to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the SPD in Leipzig on 23rd May, Hollande praised social democracy “for its sense of dialogue [and] its search for a lasting compromise between economic performance and social justice.” He even went so far as to praise the labour market reforms introduced by the last German Social Democratic Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder—reforms of the sort that most of his party comrades find it impossible to countenance in France.
This was a speech designed specially for a German audience. A week earlier, during a press conference at the Elysée intended to demonstrate the President’s resilience and determination to “go forward,” the language was quite different. Hollande was asked why he refused to describe his policies on the budget deficit, tax reforms and job creation as “social democratic.” His reply took an almost psychoanalytical turn: “You are asking me who I am? Terrible question. I am a socialist. Do I have to say ‘social democrat’? It happens that I have run the Socialist party for years. I am a socialist who wants to lead France to success.”
This was quintessential Hollande: playing with words, moving crab-like, keeping the mask on, gaining time. For what purpose? To achieve his goal of reforming the country in the course of his five-year term without losing his political base, his supporters maintain. To continue denying harsh realities, say his critics. Several well-sourced stories have appeared in the French press recently in which Hollande’s closest advisors have complained that they can’t read the President’s mind—he always seems to agree with the last person to have seen him.
Dissecting Hollande’s character has become a favourite pastime among Paris’s chattering classes. They pronounce on his middle-class childhood, his right-wing father, good schools and good grades, his lack of idiosyncrasies, save for an aversion to marriage (he never married Ségolène Royal, the mother of his children), his mainstream politics pitched somewhere between François Mitterrand’s taste for Machiavellian strategising and the European ideals of Jacques Delors, his mastery of the nuts and bolts of party politics and lack of charisma and government experience. There is nothing remarkable about him, yet this is the man who overcame the vicissitudes of the French power system, albeit thanks to Strauss-Kahn’s sexual indiscretions, and made it to the top.
Aside from the question of character, what is fascinating about the Hollande presidency is what it tells us about the evolution of the French elite, their grip on the levers of power and their painful adjustments to globalisation.
Born in 1954, Hollande embodies both the strengths and weaknesses of the system set up in France after the Second World War to train a new, meritocratically selected class of public servants. He studied political science at Sciences Po and economics at the HEC business school and ended his training at ENA, the finishing school for the upper echelons of the civil service. He emerged from ENA in 1980, as part of the graduating class known as the “promotion Voltaire,” where he met most of his closest friends and political allies, many of whom today hold key positions either at the Elysée or elsewhere in the state apparatus.
Apart from a few eccentrics who decided at an early stage to go into business or, even worse, to study abroad, Hollande’s circle have no professional experience of private enterprise, no knowledge of business except in the publicly-owned industries and little curiosity about the outside world (Hollande’s first visit to China, all 36 hours of it, took place in April). To them, Brussels was—and still is—foreign territory, a posting at the European Commission regarded as a kind of exile and certainly a waste of time compared to a place in one of the Paris ministries or a job in local politics. Mastering a foreign language was never a priority. They were brilliant and ambitious, the best and the brightest, and they made their way convinced that their duty was to perpetuate the glory of the mighty centralised state.
Times have changed, however. One or two generations later, the system of “énarques et polytechniciens”—the science-orientated École Polytechnique being the other reservoir of top civil servants—is under fire. It is criticised for producing a self-perpetuating caste, for promoting women only reluctantly and for the most part excluding people of immigrant origin. It nurtures, the critics say, incestuous relations between political and business networks. This has bred a small-town mentality (a cruel blow to the reputation of cosmopolitan Paris), with the members of the caste practising the kind of “omertà” that kept Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour from the public gaze for so long, and allowed Jerôme Cahuzac, the former Budget Minister, to join Ayrault’s cabinet despite rumours about his lack of financial self-discipline (he was forced to resign in April, after it was revealed that he had not declared a secret account he kept at a Swiss bank to the tax authorities).
Intellectual critics of this system tend to be more influenced by Marxism than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe. Much the most compelling criticisms, however, come from insiders, people who have been through the same training and now denounce it as provincial. You find them running multinational companies, whether in luxury goods, pharmaceuticals or engineering. They come from the same schools and belong to the same networks as the hauts fonctionnaires, but have adjusted their ambitions to broader horizons. Unless they are directly targeted—like the “pigeons,” a group of entrepreneurs and investors who successfully defeated some extravagant tax measures a few months ago—these worldly-wise executives don’t comment on domestic economic policy, fearful of media exposure and fiscal harassment. As a result, their experience and knowledge of best practice and global trends are restricted to their own kind.
The French remain culturally suspicious of business. “My enemy is the world of finance!” Hollande exclaimed to great applause at a rally during his campaign. A few months later, his government hit very high salaries with a 75 per cent tax. Except for Emmanuel Macron, a highly regarded young presidential advisor and énarque with a stint as a banker at Rothschild’s on his CV, nobody in Hollande’s staff, or the Prime Minister’s for that matter, has any experience of private enterprise. The same goes for members of the cabinet (the one exception, until recently, was Cahuzac, who used to run a hair transplant clinic).
In Paris, politicians, high-ranking civil servants and political journalists talk to one another. There is a great deal of talent and competition, and a respect for rhetoric and verbal flamboyance. Vocabulary matters. Finding the right formula to describe a problem is regarded as almost as good as solving it. The more complex the approach, the better. ENA does not teach you pragmatism—what matters is to be “intelligent,” a very French notion that is difficult to express in any other language.
During the election campaign, both candidates promised to restore a mythical Golden Age of French prosperity and pre-eminence, while barely mentioning Europe and not uttering a single world about globalisation, China or the rest of the world.
Since then, unemployment has risen steadily, reaching a historic high in the spring. The latest official figures, showing that more than 3.2m people are out of work, one in six of them under the age of 25, emerged as Hollande was holding a joint press conference with Angela Merkel in Paris. Clinging to his pledge to reverse, against all the odds, that trend by the end of the year, the President showed once again how difficult it is for a French leader to acknowledge that his country has become the junior partner in the Franco-German axis. He also demonstrated how deft he is at double-talk. He called for better governance of the eurozone and succeeded in getting Merkel to agree to the appointment of a full-time chairman in charge of coordinating budget and social policies in exchange for deepening structural reforms. Yet, the day before, in true Gallic fashion, Hollande was fulminating against the European Commission for being so bold as to specify which reforms France should actually pursue. “France will never take its orders from Brussels,” he declared, just as Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy all had at one point or another. Only circumstances have since got rather worse.
The French know better than their elite would like to admit that the country must come to terms with decline. Ever since the revolution, they have been taught to believe that their message is universal. Now they realise it needs translating. They are weary. They are legitimately proud of what they have accomplished and enjoyed over decades, but cower from the prospect of what is to come.
France is not alone in fearing a diminution of its former influence under the pressure of globalisation. But words here have yet to be adjusted to facts. The president still has not addressed the country, with the degree of solemnity appropriate to his office, and explained clearly what is at stake and what his course of action will actually be. But this is not the way he does politics. There is never a good time to face reality, and anyway, there will be local and European elections next year.
Hollande promised during the campaign that he would “revive the French dream.” One year on, the contradictions of his presidency—he calls for reforms without sacrifices and wants to cut the deficit while preserving the system of social benefits—remain unresolved.