Plummeting poll numbers this month have forced a rethink by the government in their approach to communicating the long promised “change”. In the face of accusations by the right of inertia and dithering and media sniping about ministers at war with each other, a frustrated government has realised it is not enough to develop policy under the radar and allow the media to busy itself.
The perception that hangs around the President and the Prime Minister now is however a direct consequence, not of weakness in government, but of five years of a hyperactive government that appeared to announce more than it actually did. How can the new government dig itself out of its hole?
That Sinking Feeling
The media of course has an answer to why François Hollande’s approval rating has sunk from +5 to -15 and Jean-Marc Ayrault’s from +12 to -9 according to TNS-Sofres: the supposed avalanche of gaffes by ministers since the new government was formed in May. During the Sarkozy era gaffes happened; indeed it is surely more of a problem for a government that the Minister of the Interior is found guilty by a court for insulting racist language (and remains in office nonetheless) than a Minister of the Interior who questions whether a manifesto pledge should be implemented before the end of the year or at some other point during the President’s term of office (both received equivalent media coverage). What often led the media off the scent, and led to the rise of an alternative branch of internet-based sites who were more overtly critical of the Sarkozy-Fillon administration, like Rue89, was the wave of constant policy initiatives and announcements.
The Change in Course
Hollande could not have been clearer about the change in course for the development of public policy , and I have blogged about that from the Summer Conference this year here. It seems however that the media, and political journalists in particular, of which there appear to be endless hoards, frustrated at the boring process of consultation and deliberation (there is nothing sexy about yet another conference, as the sometimes scathing coverage shows), chase after gaffes to fill column inches.
Peillon the Philosopher
This week’s storm in a tea-cup is the admittedly ill-advised statement by Vincent Peillon, Minister for Education, who stated that he felt that there should be a debate about decriminalising and licensing the sale of cannabis. Ill-advised, as Ayrault and Hollande (on two separate occasions in the past six months no less, here and here) had made it known that they were opposed to any change in the way that cannabis is dealt with by the Criminal Code. Leading the charge against the permissive and decadent left (the stench of homophobia, pungeant thanks to the debate on equal marriage, adding to the bouquet), Jean-François Copé, for whom no statement is too outrageous, demanded clarification “by the end of the day” of the President’s position. Ayrault slapped Peillon down shortly afterwards, confessing that he would prefer if Ministers abstained from voicing their personal philosophical views when they ran counter to government policy.
Digging out of a Communications Hole
What does this incident (that will disappear from view next week, let alone in five years time when national elections will roll round again) tell us? Three key issues:
– Firstly, the government’s communications machine is not up to scratch. Ministers are clearly not properly briefed on sundry topics that don’t fall within their mandate. As they are frequently asked questions outside their portfolio, they either need to know the government’s position (without having to profess it as their own, as was demonstrated by Cecile Duflot on the issue of cannabis way back in June, even if she was predictably beaten like a piñata by the right), or need to dodge the question by referring the questioner to the relevant Minister;
– Secondly, the government’s method (which might be described, were it not for the clumsy syntax, as methodical) is the right one. It should not cede to the lure of quick and easy announcements, “shiny things”, to give the media something to digest every night. The government must stay the course; and
– Finally, there will however come a time when the method will need to change. The run up to elections will need a dramatically different approach – perhaps some kind of policy lock-down – and a push on the communications front. Worthy policies that have been passed, like the price supervision law for the overseas territories, or today’s details on the public investment bank, are being crowded out of much media space by the chaff. A concerted effort to look at the “bilan” and take the public and the media through what has been done will be essential prior to the municipal elections in 2014, where the government is likely to take a beating as France will be in full mid-term blues. But this shift in gear should not come until the election campaign begins, reform takes time and effort and above all people are suspicious, after five years of hyperactive announcements that were not followed by positive action, that talking about policy is just a policy of talking.
But will Ministers be as keen to adopt the muzzle that Duflot so quickly adopted?