If Wishes Were Fishes…

President Hollande perhaps on the lookout for a few wishes of his own…then we would all cast nets in the sea.  Perhaps this phrase above all others is on the French government’s mind as they contemplate what 2013 might bring.  It has been called the Year of all the Dangers by even their friends.

And yet the executive in France is in a privileged position, able, if it chooses, to guide political discourse and shape the beginning of the year due to both its constitutional power (it holds a large majority in the National Assembly, a slim relative majority in the Senate, and the majority of large municipal and regional councils) and the unique “Wishes Season” that dominates the month of January.  So what should the government use its wishes for?

Not Just a Pretty Phrase

The act of presenting one’s best wishes for the New Year is something the French take very seriously.  Not only are French wishes a florid affair (a simple “Happy New Year” is considered rude if not accompanied by some kind words about one’s family, personal goals or hopes for success), but they have become a key institutional and corporate communications tool.  President Hollande will spend much of the month of January presenting his wishes to various bodies, social partners, the diplomatic corps, business leaders and the like, in the form of detailed speeches which are in fact simply policy props disguised as a conventional greeting.  Government ministers will do the same, as will Mayors and other local government politicians.  The dominance at all levels of government and the legislature of the Socialists will mean that they largely dominate this discourse, and of course all will be endlessly replayed on rolling news channels.  This gives the President and his government a once-a-year opportunity to shape the tone of the debate for the year and keeps the opposition on the sidelines.

Opening Shots

The President’s first opportunity to put forward his case came in his New Year’s address given on New Year’s Eve.  His address, given standing behind a podium (a sign that a fireside chat in a Mitterrand or Chirac style was inappropriate given the economic state of the country), was short and punchy.  Interestingly, whilst he accepted that economic conditions were tough he struck an optimistic note about 2013, promising again to begin to reduce unemployment by the end of the year.  This now landmark promise was, he said, his only goal for the year.

His address scored well in television and radio ratings, but was generally pessimistically received.  The French are particularly moribund at the best of times (more pessimistic about life than even the Afghans…) but the opposition’s attacks on the address fell flat.  Arguing that the President had failed to address a laundry list of special interest issues like the removal of a tax break for overtime in a New Year’s address still shows that the UMP in particular is searching for a line of attack against an economic policy that is far more prudent than their Socialist 1970s’ caricatures would allow for.

Making a Wish (And Talking About It)

The President’s wishes are an opportunity for us to see the new communications strategy within the administration.  To much fanfare, Claude Sérillon, a former newsreader and journalist, has been appointed Presidential Adviser and is handling communications strategy.  A longtime friend of Hollande, he provided effective communications advice during the President’s primary campaign and has now been brought on board full-time.  Hence the flurry of ministerial visits, speeches and a more muscular tone.  We have already talked about the government’s difficulty with explaining its approach to the public – the issue is not so much the policy, but the explanation of subtly to a public who were used either to total inertia under Jacques Chirac, or Nicolas Sarkozy’s whizzbang announcements.

Sérillon should help to stop the constant stream of bad press and communications missteps that have plagued Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.  But the press is jumpy.  Rumours of a cabinet reshuffle, particularly surrounding a government post for Segolène Royal, have been squashed – Hollande prefers stability to distracting changes.  In a year without an election the press will remain febrile.  Whilst the UMP provided a distraction for several months, that battle has for now subsided, and the press will continue to chase the governments, looking for gaffes and internal squabbles.  They will inevitably find some.

The President must be wishing that they will be few in number and small in size.

Happy New Year!

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