A weekend by the sea, part two: The return of substance

To the outside observer (as I am) the French media seems obsessed with matters of style. This is perhaps unsurprising in a country where aesthetics are considered to be part of the nation’s identity. French food, architecture, the language and fashion all give stock to the idea that how you say something is as important (if not, sometimes, more important) that what you say. Political commentary, during the Sarkozy era, was no different. But now, after a flurry of unoriginal, repetitive articles over the slow summer on the change of style in the new government of France, substance has returned to the fore. But this is not the result of a collective maturation of the chattering classes, but simply the exhaustion of style: for France no longer has a stylish government.

That’s not a criticism. Government should be effective, efficient and representative. Sometimes it is all of those things and manages to do it with a certain panache. The early Blair years, 1997 to 2001, were an example of a strikingly effective government who managed to introduce a new way of doing governmental business, particularly in the way it projected it’s own image. The past five years under Nicolas Sarkozy in France on the other hand has often been closer in appearance to the later Blair years in terms of presentation: an increasing dependence on targets and messaging (and not always very effective messaging) without visible results.

Francois Hollande’s campaign slogan, “Le Changement, c’est maintenant”, was about change. This meant lots of different things to different people, and therefore served its purpose of federating a heterogenous cluster of competing ideas around it. But, as has been suggested by some, perhaps the core of this change was a change in style. Out with the blustering/energetic flurry of ideas and in with consensual, thoughtful, and yes, slower politics. Out with a mediatised, sexy President (and his even sexier wife) and in with a pleasant but dull man and his ordinary family life. Of course, as I’ve blogged, the First family is in fact far from ordinary, but Hollande has managed to purge the Presidency of its more glamorous touches in remarkably short order.

The media rejoiced over the slow summer, having something easy to write about, here, here and here (to cite but a few) of this change. Since then, the subject seems to have exhausted itself. Frankly, the media are faced with a problem: the President, and his Prime Minister, are two rather ordinary, even-tempered and consensual men who don’t make controversial statements or seek to gee-up particular segments of the country with provocative statements.

Indeed this slightly dull and ponderous nature of the executive is blamed by some as the reason why their approval ratings have now dropped to around 55%. The right wing press, so delighted with the energy of Sarkozy after the sclerosis of the Chirac years where, particularly between 2005 and 2007 nothing seemed to get done, sees a more serious problem. Instead of thoughtfulness, instead the slower decision making process is a way of avoiding tough choices. The government, they say, fiddles with round-tables and commissions and France burns.

There are a number of problems with this thesis. First, the legislative process in most modern democracies is designed to be slow, not because it tries to avoid legislation being produced, but because it (in theory) produces better laws. Why should the same not be true of the executive? Whilst that won’t apply to genuine emergencies, there hasn’t been one yet (the current rise I’m petrol prices is not the emergency the right suggest either)? Second, as I wrote elsewhere, France can’t be governed in a purely top down manner (particularly with regard to social policy). That means preparatory phases (public debate and so forth). The UMP recognises this for social issues like gay marriage where I have written about their habit of dodging questions by suggesting a public debate.

I’ll leave the final word to Michel Sapin from this weekend’s Summer Conference. The round tables aren’t about dodging the issue; they are about creating policy for the next five years. This government is therefore fundamentally different to the Sarkozy administration which was constantly after “quick wins”. Conscious of the work to be done and secure politically for the next five years, this is the first government in many years to have such a medium term view. That’s not a guarantee of quality for the policies that are produced but it certainly might help.

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3 thoughts on “A weekend by the sea, part two: The return of substance

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