Hollande: Wait and See

President François HollandePhoto: flickr.com/jmayrault

President François Hollande
Photo: flickr.com/jmayrault

Last Thursday, March 28, the President of the French Republic François Hollande spent seventy-five minutes on primetime television explaining his actions. The program, which was supposed to boost (or at least stabilize) the President’s popularity, had overall little effect as no announcement was made to correct the country’s rising unemployment.

Instead, Hollande stuck to the same strategy he has employed since his election. He repeated at various times during the interview that the main reforms had been put in place, and all we had to do now was to wait and see. Before 2014, the downward employment trend will stabilize before reversing in the beginning of next year, Hollande forecast.

This strategy is bizarre to say the least. After five years of perpetual action from Nicolas Sarkozy, French politics had gotten used to a certain dynamism that does not well tolerate the apparent passivity of Hollande. Even if Hollande were right – but who can tell? –  appearing on TV to tell the nation to simply wait for economic reversal is political suicide.

As the last campaign revealed, more and more French voters are persuaded that their country is losing ground economically to its long-time rival Germany. In fact, the German model that saw the social-democrat government impose ultra-liberal reforms on the labor market may have even become the norm on the French side of the Rhine.

But contrary to his predecessor, Hollande is no strong-handed imposer. As a member of the elite coming from the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), he knows perfectly well the functioning of the state machine and refuses to force the reforms on a society that has been shocked by five years under Sarkozy. Instead, he chooses to rely on the functioning of the ‘State machine,’ on the established bodies to reform themselves.

And it has worked, partially. The recent agreement on complementary pension stands as a model in this vein. Summoned by the government to find an agreement that would reform and finance the system for the next years, employers and workers, through their unions, managed to reach a deal. The same strategy has been executed with the first labor market reform, with the same success.

But this strategy has several limits. While being more effective and consensual than imposing a reform from the top down, it does not show the government at work. In fact, most of the political work is being done during negotiations that are closed to the public and the media. This matters because it is the media that report on government action, and a closed negotiation between unions does not display as much action to the viewing public as the parliamentary debate around gay marriage and adoption.

The popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy was based on the love and hate he managed to create within the French society. François Hollande’s election has proven much more paradoxical. On the one hand, he was elected on the majority sentiment of disgust towards Sarkozy’s government, while on the other hand, he pleads in favor of a unified French society.

Now, almost a year after the election, Hollande has alienated the right-wing electorate, which has largely remained in Sarkozy’s camp of radical opposition. But he has also alienated a share of the left-wing electorate, which was hoping for revenge.

And finally, is not Hollande’s strategy largely self-destructive?

In the short term, Hollande’s popularity will not improve. He will continue to give this impression of frailty and obsession with consensus for which people reproach him. But in the long term, Hollande’s goal is to get the French used to the traditional style of French politics that suppose slow but progressive reforms. The question will be, is this style of politics fit for a presidential system with a five-year term and omnipresent media?

If it is not, Hollande will take the risk of being seen as an inefficient President likely to lose the 2017 election for this very reason. Hollande is clearly not a spontaneous decision-maker. The only instance during his campaign that gave the impression of a determined hardliner was in promising the 75% tax for revenues over a million euros. Now the defeated tax bill is a burden on his platform.

In truth, he is a calculating man who has a deep knowledge of the French State and society, which is perhaps why he might be the best man to reform the country in a meaningful way. But the risk will be that deep reform efforts do not translate into popularity on the surface. While policies should be about efficiency, politics are all about superficiality. That’s why Hollande is so much disliked today, and why the TV interview last week will not change this.

Trackbacks

  1. […] still 0.3% higher than the target. The report was released just after Hollande’s appearance on television and will likely not serve to build hope in his promises that he is capable of mending the […]

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