Edith Cresson is a watchword in French politics for bumbling incompetence. The much-maligned former Prime Minister (her tenure lasted less than one year from 1991 to 1992) and scandal-ridden European Commissioner managed to accumulate gaffe after gaffe in her short career, alienating supporters and enraging opponents. Now, with the current Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, spending a whole day backpedaling from a confusing comment on abolishing the 35 hour working week, the knives are out in the media and the opposition for a Prime Minister whose “Cressonisation” is apparently accelerating. Is the Prime Minister really about to fall, leading to a dissolution of the National Assembly and a return of the right, as predicted by Jean-Louis Borloo?
A careless answer
It is probably fair to say that Jean-Marc Ayrault had no intention of abolishing the 35 hour working week with his glib answer to an unclear question from a reader of the lowbrow Le Parisien newspaper. After a series of questions on the future of the 35 hour threshold under which normal pay is applied, and above which overtime is paid at time-and-a-quarter or time-and-a-half, he replied, seemingly responding to the idea of having a debate over the subject, “Why not? There are no taboo subjects…”.
Except of course, that there is little point in debating a subject when the government’s stated position is that there shall be no change. Sensing a change of position, the media launched on the comment. The 35 hour week is the third rail of French politics. Add to that the clearest calls for abolition of the 35 hour week from both candidates for the leadership of the main opposition party, the UMP. No new position being evident, instead the media then launched on Ayrault, calling his answer another gaffe (or “caouc” – quack – in French. On top of an avalanche of articles decrying his absence of authority over his ministers, who feel too free to contradict the government’s positions or each other.
Popularity in free fall
Ayrault’s fall from grace is all the more spectacular considering that, as recently as June, he was beating records for approval of his job performance. That decline, from one extreme to another, says more about the quality of the polls and the attitude of voters, than it does about actual assessments of the Prime Minister and his government. But a febrile media, writing stories about declining poll numbers, quickly finds disgruntled MPs who are ready to voice their concerns.
Ayrault and Hollande now sit at 36% and 33% approval respectively. This compares unfavourably to every other new government in the history of the Fifth Republic, but of course does not take into account the economic situation of the country when those new governments came in (the first year of the Sarkozy administration was the last year of economic growth before the Great Recession began). The President has, in an odd comment that could be too easily misconstrued, that politicians are no longer “indulged” or “respected”. Clearly the pressure is being felt at the top.
The next big test
That is a good thing, for next Monday brings the government’s greatest test: the publishing of the Gallois Report and the government’s response. What Ayrault and Hollande propose to do about competitiveness and the necessary structural reforms is crucial. The response needs to be concrete and well communicated. The government needs to sing harmoniously from the same song sheet; the debate over what taxes should rise or fall needs to finish, the government should present a single case. Whether ministers are capable of doing that given the agonising hand-wringing over various possible ways of reducing the cost of employing people in France is unclear. If they aren’t, Ayrault needs to show the same ruthlessness that he showed Nicole Bricq: heads will need to roll.
Of course, the more important issue will be what the government actually proposes to do. If it can come up with an innovative and effective plan, both the calumny over this week’s interview, and the concerns over authority will be blown away by the economic progress that the country will make. Edith Cresson lurched from crisis to crisis without ever having a moment of truth: the one big project that she could call her success and change the narrative that surrounded her. There is no danger that Ayrault will mirror Cresson’s ineptitude, brandishing the Japonese as “ant-like” and describing homosexuality as “strange and marginal” and something that Anglo-Saxons did. But Ayrault’s game-changing opporunity comes next Monday. If he blows it, Martine Aubry will be waiting by the phone for a call from the President.