France’s leader was elected on the promise that the rich would pay—now everybody doesby / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
François Hollande is the least popular French President in history, according to polls. “Another couple of weeks, and we’ll be able to call [our supporters] by their first names!” a presidential advisor said bitterly the other day, summing up the mood at the Elysée. The President had just been booed on Remembrance Day. The Prime Minister was ridiculed in parliament by members of his own Socialist party. Protestors in Brittany—who have taken to wearing red caps like their ancestors resisting the King’s taxes—tore apart new toll gates on highways. Farmers circled Paris with tractors, slowing down access for almost a day. Truck drivers, poultry breeders, teachers, midwives, craftsmen, even riding instructors and their ponies have taken to the streets to yell at tax rises.
Across the eurozone, there are signs that economic conditions are improving—and yet in France there are daily demonstrations and business failures. Representing only 8 per cent of the workforce, trade unions are unable to channel this anger. Violent protests burst out and public outrage is stoked by the bonuses granted to CEOs. “Ras le bol! Enough is enough!” France is fuming with rage—and the party that is profiting from the situation is the far-right Front National.
A year and a half into his mandate, Hollande has run out of steam. Despite the bravura of his foreign policy—Mali, Iran, if not Syria—the French now doubt his leadership abilities and the competence of his government. The rumour is that cabinet members are already looking for other jobs. Politicians and pundits compare scenarios: will the President change his Prime Minister? Will he call elections and risk losing his majority to the conservatives? Should he resign, as some suggest, even though, short of his committing murder, French institutions protect the President for the duration of his five-year mandate? “None of that will happen,” sighs the Elysée advisor. “Don’t underestimate his capacity to stay put in the merde…”
An optimist and champion of economic cycle theory, François Hollande staunchly believes the situation can only improve, repeating against all odds that there is no recession, that unemployment will decrease by the end of the year, that public debt will diminish and welfare will be protected. History and François Mitterrand have convinced him that the French cannot endure harsh facts, and that the art of politics starts with mincing words. his appeasement strategy has backfired. The Socialist President was elected on the promise that the rich would pay. Now almost everybody does—since 2009, taxation has risen from 42 per cent to 46 per cent of GDP. The Prime Minister announced an overhaul of spending, a political coup to save his skin, but people worry that taxes will rise even more. Hollande has been credited for taking small steps in the right direction—so small that competitiveness measures have not boosted business, job flexibility regulations have not paid off and neither have pension reforms. The public service system is about to become the largest proportionally in the world, at 57 per cent of GDP. The core of Hollande’s electorate are public servants, who resent not being rewarded more. Their support is dwindling.
Beyond dire economic circumstances, the legalisation of gay marriage, pushed through parliament before the summer, has stirred up French society. Shaken by globalisation, wary of immigration and deceived by electoral promises, people have reacted strongly. The opposition UMP party, weakened by internal fighting, has not benefited from government disarray. Seventy-four per cent believe the conservatives would do no better. A new form of populism is emerging, more individualistic, a blend of anger at the elites, right and left, and at the sense of national drift.
The Front National is revelling in all this. It is ahead in the polls for the forthcoming local and European elections. Her political platform may be inconsistent, her economic program inept, her anti-immigration stance deceitful, but FN leader Marine Le Pen speaks the language of the common man. The vocabulary of the extreme right is melting into common parlance, its racial undertones amplified by social media. Christiane Taubira, the Justice Minister, born in French Guiana, and the eloquent champion of the gay marriage bill, has become the target of foul racial slurs. The political vacuum allows for less inhibited public speech and tactics.
The French have gone through similar periods before, rage simmering without leading to radical change. The elites should brace themselves for the elections in the spring.