In May 2012 France bid ‘Goodbye Le-nain’ to their hyperactive President, Nicolas Sarkozy, installing ‘Monsieur Normale’ into the Élysée Palace.
President Hollande, given the pejorative sobriquet of ‘Flamby’ after the crème caramel pudding, has the air of a regional bank clerk instead of arguably the most powerful individual politician in Europe. A Socialist party grandee, he had never held an elected governmental position before stepping up to be the French President.
Underestimated by many, his domestic political position is less wobbly than his namesake. His opposition, the UMP, are embroiled in a fratricidal fight to elect their new leader and define their new political direction. Unlike in the USA, where the Republican controlled Congress repeatedly blocked Obama, the Socialists in France control both the upper and lower houses of the parliament. Hollande has a large personal mandate for radical change within France and also for altering the course of the march of austerity that seems no closer to solving the Eurozone crisis. With all of this behind him, why does Hollande have a reputation as a ditherer?
First of all, one must look at the power balances at play in Europe. Like the economist whose wife turns to him in bed one night and says, ‘honey, do you love me?’ and gets the reply ‘relative to what?’, the Franco-German axis upon which the whole European project has been constructed is no longer an equal relationship. France is still the second most powerful country within the Eurozone, but relative to Germany, it is now economically and diplomatically the inferior partner.
The third major power of the EU, Britain, was traditionally used by Germany to balance French opposition to free trade and by France to balance German uneasiness about an interventionist foreign policy. A sign of Britain’s ever increasing insularity and sheer lack of awareness on all issues European is that David Cameron’s speech promising a referendum, if elected with a Conservative majority in 2015, was originally scheduled on the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Élysée Treaty which served as the bedrock of the rapprochement between France and Germany after the ravages of the Second World War.
Hollande was elected on the platform of renegotiating the European fiscal compact in order to restore growth to the Eurozone. A sign of France’s increasing impotence in the face of Germany’s economic clout is that this promise was quietly dropped soon after his inauguration due to German intransigence on the core of the issue.
Domestically, Hollande’s ‘symbolic’ tax rate of 75% over earnings of €1 million has been struck down by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional (not on confiscatory grounds, but because it is taxed on the individual and not on the ‘foyer’ or household). This will most likely pass in some form later on this year when it has been reformulated. Meant as a gesture to prove that ‘France is all in this together’, the 75% tax rate was never projected to raise much money. However it is perhaps ‘symbolic’ of France’s continuing indecision about the naked accumulation of personal wealth. Whilst Blair’s New Labour government was, in Lord Mandelson’s words, ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, the French Socialists are decidedly less so.
At least this policy has had the happy consequence of making Gerard Depardieu, the French film director, a Russian citizen. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Prime Minister, berated Depardieu for being ‘unpatriotic’ as he fled into Putin’s arms. Oligarchical governments at least have pliant tax regimes.
There is a deepening resentment of Hollande’s progressive agenda among ‘la France profonde’. This sector of French society is made up of, in broad brushstrokes, an alliance of De Gaullist nostalgia, the Catholic faith and the agricultural classes. January saw 1 million people on the streets of Paris, not for the austerity measures that Hollande passed in his first budget, but for what they are calling an ‘attack on marriage’. One wonders how they circumvent their Orwellian doublethink on this matter, ‘Hollande is attacking marriage!’ ‘How?’….. ‘By empowering more people to be married!’ Quelle horreur. Whilst Hollande will meet opponents of gay marriage this week, he appears to be resolute that a bill will be presented before Parliament this spring.
With domestic problems mounting despite a lack of organised political opposition, Hollande has started to shed his risk-averse persona in the last two weeks. Like Sarkozy before him in Libya, Hollande has taken the European lead in Françafrique. Interestingly, the French intervention in Mali (‘French Sudan’ until 1960) to combat the ‘islamic rebels’ (NB. look how many times this phrase is used in European press releases without any sort of definition of what it actually means or any nuanced understanding of what the disparate groups are actually fighting for), also highlights the inconsistencies and ambiguities of French foreign policy towards its former colonies.
In December, the president of the Central African Republic, François Bozizé appealed for outside assistance (ie. France) to defeat rebels who were threatening to take the capital, Bangui, in a military advance. Mali pleaded for its former colonial master to help retake the northern part of Mali, which had essentially been annexed by rebels (with arms from the spill over from the Libyan conflict). Bombers, attack helicopters and French soldiers on the ground were delivered almost immediately. The difference between the two cases? The former is an attack on a sovereign who himself came to power through a coup d’état, and the latter is an attack on the sovereignty of Mali. Whilst the early stages of the intervention have met little resistance, the post-conflict stabilisation phase is the key to any modern war after the shock and awe recedes.
Hollande suddenly looks more decisive and statesmanlike than ever before. However, a France with hazily defined objectives in its former colonies (where have we heard that before?!), a general lack of economic competitiveness and a ballooning debt to GDP ratio means Monsieur Normale will have to transform himself to Monsieur Extraordinaire to meet the challenges ahead.