Friday, 2 December 2016

FRANCE: Francois Hollande's Presidency

Francois Hollande, France's first Socialist president in 17 years, has announced he will not run for a second term in office. Never before has a French president fallen in public sentiment as quickly as François Hollande. Since taking office, Hollande has experienced the fastest drop in popularity ever seen in French presidential politics. 

After Hollande became the Socialists' candidate for president -- in the party's first-ever direct primary election -- he relished the public strolls that brought him closer to his supporters. They were scheduled at every campaign event, and Hollande was happy to take the time for them. So many elderly women wanted kisses on the cheek from him that, shortly after his election, he jokingly called himself le président des bisous, or "the president of kisses." But 4 years gone, Hollande's trips across France become shockingly PR disaster. 


The first year of his presidency saw his popularity sliding in inverse proportion to the rise in unemployment, which has climbed as high as 10 per cent. A series of mishaps, from a barrage of tax rises to a very public falling out between his ex-partner, Ségolène Royal, and his then partner, Valérie Trierweiler, heaped ridicule on the president, and by the end of that first year, Hollande had become, in record time, the most unpopular leader France has ever known.

He and his advisers made every effort to start year two on a sounder footing. He told his ministers to stop arguing and to clear press interviews with his office. They were to take only very short holidays and preferably in France. His then prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and he would take their short breaks in turn so the state didn’t close down for the summer as it has a tendency to do. The government team was seen to be making every effort to put France back on its feet again. None of it worked. Even the apparently successful military action in Mali in January 2013 allowed Hollande but a brief moment of respite in the polls. 

Francois Hollande's biggest problem is that he's not just unpopular in one political demographic, but in many. That's true as much among parts of the Socialist Party base, which has already labeled light reforms and minimal budget cuts as betrayal, as it is among many centrists, who had expected more pragmatism from him. That's not to mention the right, which is just as incensed by Hollande's economic policies as it is by his decision to legalize same sex-marriage.

Hollande struggles also to find convincing counterarguments as unemployment has risen to 11 percent, economic data looks more dismal by the week, industrial output is taking a nosedive and national debt is 90 percent of gross domestic product, the economy is barely growing and public spending is at 57 percent of GDP.  As long as the economy doesn't improve, nothing could boost Hollande's popularity.

Few pundits in France are wholeheartedly defending Hollande. Even in the left-wing media, which had previously been inclined to grant him favorable coverage, commentators are now accusing him of having no vision, doing too little, speaking publicly too seldom and leaving his government muddling through.

During his presidential campaign, Hollande often made it sound as if he could reform the country effortlessly, talking of "renewal" rather than of the painful measures that would be necessary to achieve it. Many of his campaign promises gave the impression that there was money available, just waiting to be given out. But 4 years gone, he has done nothing at all.

Socialist of the classical, orthodox and anlytical variations argue that because social democratic programs retain the capitalist mode of production, they also retain the fundamental issues of capitalism, including cyclical fluctuations, exploitation and alienation. Social democratic programs intended to ameliorate capitalism, such as unemployment benefits, taxation on profits and the wealthy, create contradictions of their own by limiting the efficiency of the capitalist system by reducing incentives for capitalists to invest in production.

Here, perhaps, lies the greatest dilemma of Hollande's presidency. In the midst of the economic crisis, Francois Hollande was confused. France was calling for nationalization of some industries and ''deglobalization'', but the president shies away from necessary structural reforms. Failing to walk on his shoes of ''reformer'' and ''leaning toward ''Left-wing'', the French Socialist President in 17 years, has abandoned his Social Democrat stance and become more of a liberal capitalist.

The Fifth Republic element

The problem of Hollande's presidency is not just the economy, the rocketing taxes, the cuts, the unemployment and the social divisions. It is about the nature of the Fifth Republic and Hollande’s failure to grasp the exigencies of presidential office. There is a general sense that not only does he not know what to do in terms of governmental policy, but doesn’t know how a president is supposed to behave, what he is supposed to be. And it was on this “question of character” that he was elected president in May 2012.

During the presidential campaign of 2012, Hollande was right to attack Sarkozy’s brash, bling, in-your-face style; but in the hyper-personalised presidential system of French politics, you cannot be a president without a character and a perceived relationship to the French, because that character is on show and in action all the time, and in a permanently evolving relationship to public opinion.

In the run up to his election and for a while after, Hollande revelled in his reputation as “Mr Normal” but normal does not actually mean anything; and he has gone zigzagging between ordinary – catching trains instead of planes (that didn’t last long), to trying belatedly to sound “presidential” and just seeming in turns bombastic and banal, such as when he threatened Syria with imminent punishment and then ultimately did nothing. The irony is that Hollande is as much in the spotlight as Sarkozy ever was, but without a defined personality or purpose or sense of direction.

The rather jolly optimistic personality he does have (and it is his real one) is utterly out of touch with the mood of the time right now, and simply infuriates people. It is as if he is in a kind of psychological denial, unable to see the realities of the crisis. The result has been a public reaction that runs from indifference to anger. Every intervention he makes sees his opinion poll ratings fall even further and he now finds himself on the edge of the abyss.

This is partly because the Fifth Republic is personalised to the point of being dysfunctional. Each new president enters into a highly complex relationship with French public opinion. It is a relationship that can be calm and reassuring, but can also be highly volatile. It manifests the range of emotions that we find in real personal relationships, from admiration and respect to the exasperation.

And because the regime is so personalised, all political competition in the regime is too. In its ten years in opposition after 2002, the Socialist Party spent so much time squabbling amongst itself, it forgot to develop any policies. When it regained power in 2012, its members had no idea how to govern, hence the current chaos in every government department.

Now in power, little of the government’s legislation – apart from the tax rises – seems to have had any effect apart from irritating people, whether it is in education, housing, pension reform, health, the civil service or justice. No bold decisions have been taken on anything, so fearful are the Socialists of upsetting their disintegrating electoral base, and none of the structural reforms that other European countries are putting through have been replicated. Even the gay marriage bill brought the country to the verge of civil strife. In the UK, the same bill took an afternoon to pass.

Hollande's decision ( not to run for the second term in office) leaves the way open for a bitter Socialist primary race in January to decide who will run in his place. Manuel Valls, the ambitious prime minister who is tough law and order voice and pro-business reformist on the right of the party, could now decide to run to become the Socialist candidate.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Political Analyst/Author