Letter From Paris

Color France Red

France’s new president looks like a kinder, gentler variety of Socialist. But his programs are strictly on the left.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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THE OMENS WERE INAUSPICIOUS. François Hollande celebrated his first day in office, May 15, by riding up the Champs Elysées in an open-top car to predictable cheers. It’s an old and honorable French custom, using the grandiose setting of the world’s most famous avenue for a bit of harmless self-aggrandizement. But the political gods (presumably conservative ones) chose to greet this newcomer, a career politico with no government experience who owed his election largely to the sex scandal that demolished Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s candidacy, with a cold shower. The drenching downpour soaked his suit and fogged his glasses as he doggedly smiled and waved, trying to set the tone for a presidency he had promised would be one of “dignity but simplicity.” And the gods weren’t finished with him. When he later took off for Berlin and a date with Chancellor Angela Merkel, they struck his plane with lightning, forcing him to return to Paris and take a backup.

It’s a measure of Hollande’s low-key, unflappable character that he managed it all with affable aplomb. Indeed, we might be looking at the first president in postwar France who can actually be called—get this—unassuming. But make no mistake: Hollande may seem bland, but he is a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist apparatchik who declared during his campaign, “the world of finance is my enemy.” His election makes France red all over.

Having won the ultimate prize of the presidency, the Socialists now control the town halls in every big city and all but one of the country’s 22 regions. With the main conservative party (UMP) left in disarray by Nicolas Sarkozy’s humiliating defeat and abrupt departure from politics, the right is unlikely to keep the majority it has had in the National Assembly since 2002, and will probably lose control to a Socialist-led coalition. (Parliamentary elections were held after this magazine went to press.) Polls suggested leftwing parties could get better than 45 percent of the vote in the first-round ballot on June 10, while the UMP, with no clear coalition partners, trailed in the low 30s. Hollande himself enjoyed a strong 61 percent approval rating in early polls of his presidency. That’s less than the 65 percent Sarkozy garnered at the start of his term, but much better than the 54 percent for François Mitterrand, the last Socialist president and Hollande’s mentor, when he took over the Elysée Palace in 1981.

At this early point, Hollande looks like a sleeper. After DSK self-destructed in a New York hotel, Hollande came from behind to seize the Socialist Party’s nomination last year, overcoming opponents such as party leader Martine Aubry and other grandees. Generally considered a 97-pound political weakling (Aubry herself called him “spineless”) who had rarely set foot outside France and demonstrated little grasp of foreign affairs, he began his first week in office with a dizzying round of international summitry. During his visit to Berlin, he stood up to the redoubtable Angela Merkel. He appears to have convinced her that the recently inked, austerity-based European Union fiscal pact must be renegotiated to include chapters on growth and job creation. That won him applause from other EU leaders resentful of Germany’s iron insistence on fiscal rigor as the only solution to Europe’s debt crisis.

At each of his following meetings with world leaders—a one-on-one get-acquainted talk at the White House, the G8 at Camp David, the NATO summit in Chicago, an EU conference in Brussels—he surprised with his sure-footed grasp of the issues.

And his lack of strutting hauteur. You could almost hear a sotto voce sigh of relief from other summiteers over not having to put up with the aggressive, grandstanding Sarkozy. Hollande came as close as a Frenchman can to being unpretentious. Asked at a Chicago press conference if he felt a bit American, he replied simply, “I try to be a Frenchman, hoping to convince the Americans that we have common interests. I’m just myself.” Try to imagine any Fifth Republic president, from Charles de Gaulle, to Giscard d’Estaing, to Jacques Chirac, saying that. In Brussels, where he arrived by train—a frugal contrast to the high-living Sarkozy—he ventured to mock the long-windedness of the other EU chiefs of state. “Who knows why some of them talk a good part of the night,” he quipped with faux naïveté.

BUT HOLLANDE'S MISTER NICE GUY number goes only so far. He immediately began implementing some of his campaign pledges—all tinctured with mainlining Socialism. He had promised to withdraw France’s military contingent from NATO’s ISAF force in Afghanistan this year? He announced at the Chicago summit, to the muted dismay Of the U.S. and other participants, that France’s 2,000 combat troops would indeed be out two years earlier than the Alliance’s target date for withdrawal, at the risk of destabilizing the established plan to let Afghan forces take over gradually during the next 30 months. (Some non-combat units will remain for training, education, and humanitarian missions.)

At home, he swiftly decapitated the French police system, replacing the chief of national police, the Paris police prefect, and the head of the domestic intelligence service with cronies loyal to him. He wowed the feminists with a cabinet staffed equally by men and women in ministerial posts. He pleased his leftist constituents with a symbolic 30 percent pay cut for himself and cabinet members. Workers of the world will unite to applaud Hollande’s anti-capitalist witch hunt, which includes requiring top executives of government-run companies like the railways and utilities to reduce their salaries to no more than 20 times their employees’ lowest wage; demanding that the former head of Air France renounce his $500,000 bonus; imposing a 75 percent tax rate on income over $1.25 million; and ratcheting up the wealth tax.

The start of the new era of Socialist free spending is to be marked by the creation of 60,000 new teaching jobs, though exactly why and where these instructors are needed is unclear. Then there is the retirement age, which is to be brought down to 60; a 25 percent increase in the annual welfare payments at the start of the school year (intended to help poorer families purchase school books and children’s clothing, but more often spent on smart phones and flat-screen Tvs); and a boost in the minimum wage.

Left deliberately vague is how this new spending will be financed in a country whose coffers are notoriously empty—the previous government’s premier declared, “France is broke.” Hollande’s Delphic answer, “We’ll find it somewhere,” can only be Socialist-speak meaning taxpayers’ pockets and companies’ profits. With public spending already accounting for 56 percent of GDP and the IMF forecasting a deficit close to 3.9 percent next year (he has promised to reduce it to 3 percent), Hollande will have very little wiggle room. For one thing, he will have to find an extra $25 billion in savings annually to meet that deficit goal. His new spending alone will account for nearly that much. But there is always that old ploy of a new party in power: the more difficult budget choices will wait until a complete audit of public finances is in. Anybody want to bet against Hollande announcing gravely that the Sarkozy administration was less than truthful about France’s finances, and so he will have to trim back some promises?

PERSONALLY, HOLLANDE'S FINANCES are just fine. In fact, he amassed a tidy fortune while working for the Socialist Party to alleviate the pain of the laboring masses. Though the source of his wealth remains vague, it has come out that he is worth something over $1.5 million. That includes his Paris apartment near the Eiffel Tower, two others on the Riviera in glamorous Cannes, a villa in the chic, arty hilltop village of Mougins, where Pablo Picasso used to hang out, and a number of bank accounts. Somehow all this puts the self-declared value of his holdings conveniently under the sum that would make him liable to France’s wealth tax.

His private life is just as complicated. On election night, for instance, he addressed massed supporters at Place de la Bastille while flanked on one side by his former mistress, Ségolène Royal, with whom he had four children while never marrying, and on the other by his current one, Valérie Trierweiler, a hard-eyed, 47-yearold, twice-divorced journalist. Marriage is against his Socialist principles. Or as he puts it, “Marrying is not something one does on the pretext of being president.” Thus it is that for the first time in France’s long history, its chief of state lives with a consort without benefit of matrimony. Call her First Girlfriend.

Scoff if you will, but this has the puzzled French diplomats at the Quai d’Orsay losing sleep over how the presidential concubine should be addressed and listed on official invitations. Should it be “Madame Valérie Trierweiler, companion of the President”? How about stretching the truth to “Madame Valérie Trierweiler-Hollande, the president’s spouse”? The superlatively tolerant Gauls, of course, shrug this off. As did Michelle Obama when she entertained wives and one French girlfriend at the White House during the G8. But inconvenient protocol could complicate official visits to more traditionalist, less liberal societies like India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few that come to mind. The Vatican is sure to veto the idea of a joint papal audience. And how do you explain these living arrangements to the straitlaced old lady who inhabits Buckingham Palace?

There will likely be ample time to work all this out. With the fragmented conservative opposition now marked by post-election squabbling, fingerpointing, and infighting, the Socialists can probably look forward comfortably to two five-year terms in the Elysée Palace with a majority in the National Assembly. That is a scary prospect for the minority of the French population not living on handouts. With Hollande’s declared policy of soaking the rich, many of France’s richest families have been heading for the exit. “It’s open season on the wealthy in France,” says a happy executive at a Lausanne-based company that offers customized services to those eying a move to Switzerland. “The number of French asking us for assistance has tripled in the last 18 months.”

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.