All political leaders have their bad patches. Ronald Reagan, for example, wasn’t exactly the most popular politician in America in 1982. But few politicians have experienced as sharp a reversal of fortune as France’s embattled Socialist president, François Hollande.
May 15 marks Hollande’s first anniversary in office. Yet just one year after he defeated Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande is scoring the lowest-ever approval ratings for any French head of state since polling began. According to one poll, if an election were held this month, Hollande would lose to the leader of France’s far-right National Front, Marianne Le Pen. “Mr. Normal,” as he was dubbed by way of contrast to his egomaniacal predecessor, is starting to look like “Mr. Irrelevant.”
So why such a rapid fall from grace? Some of it is of Hollande’s own making, such as his effort to impose a 75 percent tax on personal incomes over €1 million. Though the measure was eventually ruled unconstitutional, it managed to alienate a business community already suspicious of someone who once publicly proclaimed, “I dislike the rich.” The fact that Hollande is now trying to levy the same tax-rate on businesses that pay salaries over €1 million isn’t helping matters.
Nor did it help that the minister charged by Hollande with cracking down on tax-fraud, Jerome Cahuzac, was forced to resign after admitting he had maintained a Swiss bank account for over 20 years. Cahuzac is now under investigation for tax-fraud. The situation worsened when Hollande ordered his ministers to fully disclose all their personal holdings. Everyone in France has thus been reminded that most of the Socialist ministers who regularly rail against les riches are themselves quite wealthy. Caviar-Limousine-Champagne Socialism, anyone?
Another cause of Hollande’s woes was been his government’s insistence upon legalizing same-sex marriage. This is despite millions of French citizens regularly, loudly and insistently protesting this move on the streets of Paris and other French cities. The left’s response was to try and dismiss it all as a “Catholic thing.” But that turned out to be not so easy once it became evident that many secular-minded people, feminists, Jews, Muslims, and even some gay activists were among the movement’s leaders and marchers.
One example is Sylviane Agacinski, a feminist philosopher and wife of the former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. She’s no conservative. Yet Agacinski views same-sex marriage as reflecting a general tendency to pretend there aren’t any meaningful differences between men and women — something which, as a feminist of la différence school, she regards as nonsense. Agacinski also believes children need a mother and father. Hence she’s had no hesitation in joining millions of others demonstrating against the government’s marriage policy.
As a rule, the French are rather tolerant about sex. But beneath the general live-and-let-live attitude, France is more socially conservative than many people realize. And the gently spoken Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, has played a brilliant hand by placing the well-being of children at the heart of his public argument against same-sex marriage. This has resonated throughout France (including in socialist strongholds like Brittany), because, as anyone who has spent time in France knows, the French are profoundly attached to their children.
The upshot of all this is that the government’s ramming of the law through France’s parliament (which produced wild scenes in the National Assembly) looks like yet another imposition upon society by an out-of-touch political elite with whom France’s citizens have long since lost patience. Indeed Vingt-Trois capitalized upon this frustration by suggesting many times that there are surely more pressing issues facing France than gay marriage: most notably the nation’s fast-unraveling economic situation and severe unemployment crisis.
Which brings us to two of the biggest problems that have corroded Hollande’s credibility: his apparent inability to address France’s economic difficulties; and a growing awareness throughout France that la grande nation is slipping into the minor league when it comes to countries that wield influence in the EU.
Back in March, France’s unemployment-rate hit 11 percent (for young people, the figure is an ugly 25 percent). That translates into 3.2 million unemployed, thereby exceeding the previous record set in 1997. Germany’s unemployment rate, conversely, is 5.4 percent.
Like Hollande, many French blame the country’s economic crisis upon austerity. Yet as the Economist noted late last year, France’s competitiveness has been declining for years. That’s partly because of its high-taxes and the heavy social charges levied on French business. Nor (unlike Germany) has France reformed its heavily regulated labor market. The formidable obstacles to dismissing anyone in France thus mean employers remain reluctant to hire people.
Then there is the 35-hour work week as well as many French employees’ curious work habits. The latter were recently brought to the world’s attention by the American businessman Maurice “The Grizz” Taylor, when he informed France’s industry minister that he saw no reason to invest in a factory in which the employees were effectively toiling for no more than 3 hours a day. All of this adds up to a distinctly unfriendly climate for economic prosperity.
Part of Mr. Hollande’s problem is that substantial economic reforms would infuriate some of his key constituencies, including most of his own party. Hollande’s other conundrum is that he can’t persuade Germany to change course with regard to the tough medicine that Berlin insists Europe needs.
Once upon a time, Germany would take seriously whatever France said was necessary for the EU’s well-being. Those days, however, are long gone. In a recently leaked report produced by Germany’s economics ministry, senior German officials pointed out while France has the EU’s “second lowest annual working time,” its “tax and social security burden” were the highest in the Eurozone. The casual reaction of German politicians (including many Social Democrats) to the public airing of these and other criticisms of France’s economic policies indicates they aren’t so concerned about France’s reactions anymore.
Of course, Hollande could follow the Mitterrand precedent. After being elected president in 1981, François Mitterrand implemented several left-leaning economic policies (such as nationalizing banks) only to find that, well, they didn’t work. He quickly reversed course by, among other things, re-privatizing nationalized industries and gradually easing Communist party ministers out of his government.
Somehow, however, I don’t think Hollande will do this. For one thing, he’s not the chameleon that Mitterrand was. Mitterrand started politics on France’s nationalist-right in the 1930s, served as an official in Vichy France, joined the Resistance and then moved steadily leftwards. Not only, however, did Mitterrand reverse his government’s early economic policies. He also terminated his government’s damaging confrontation with the Catholic Church over the funding of Catholic schools. Mitterrand even ended up enjoying a friendship with another archbishop of Paris, the formidable Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who presided at his funeral.
François Hollande, however, has literally done nothing in his life except be just another European career-politician. He subsequently has no real experience of anything outside those surroundings. And this world is a very sheltered world, especially in France. It’s also an environment that doesn’t encourage creative thinking about France’s challenges.
Status-quo thinking, however, is fast becoming an unaffordable luxury for France. The sheer scale of dissatisfaction with France’s political class is palpable. As figures ranging from Louis XVI to Charles de Gaulle have discovered, the French have ways of venting their fury that often has less-than desirable consequences. The fact they know they’re stuck with Mr. Normal for another four years isn’t likely to lessen their frustration.