To what extent should a government consult with the wider society before implementing a policy? When, if at all, should commissions and reports take evidence and write wordy tomes that are published, digested, discussed and chewed over before the government drafts legislation, on which the parliament cogitates for months on end? Such is the dilemma faced by all governments, and the Hollande administration is no exception.
Except that in the past month, the Socialist government in France has managed to anger those who want to go fast, and those who prone going slow. How has the government managed to get in such a mess over process, and does it ultimately matter?
A Deliberate Method
One of François Hollande’s chief promises in the 2012 Presidential campaign was to change the tone of politics in France. Out would go the whizz-bang announcements and shock policy drives of the Sarkozy era, instead Socialist government would be methodical, full of respect for social partners, consultation, commissions, discussion, debate and ultimately a clear consensus towards the issues with the government implementing the measure that would emerge from the mists of a divided society.
Of course, that was idealistic, but it did reflect the way that the Socialist Party has traditionally decided on policy matters and the favoured “synthesis” of François Hollande’s time as party chief showed that he had a flair for drawing threads together to make something like a coherent line. Critics will argue (fairly) that often the threads were so fine that the party position was meaningless babble, or worse, the party failed to agree on major issues and instead split. Such was the outcome of the 2005 referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty which many thought could permanently split the party and wipe out Hollande whose authority had been undermined by rebels such as Laurent Fabius (now Foreign Minister) due to the shambles that was the internal party consultation.
No sooner had Hollande been elected and the Ayrault cabinet installed in their ministries that commissions began to bloom across Paris. The great and the good were asked to look at specific hot topics. Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin looked at public life, dealing with tricky issues such as cumulative elected positions and the President’s criminal liability. Journalist and publisher Pierre Lescure began looking at funding cultural policy. Philippe Gallois looked at competitiveness. Countless other decisions were deferred until the relevant report was in.
The conservative opposition attacked this approach with blistering hostility. Despite having used parliamentary reports frequently, either to collect data or to kick an issue off the agenda for a few months, it decried the Socialists’ prevarication in the face of issues that were well-known (i.e. had not been dealt with for some time…by the same conservatives when in power) and required urgent action.
Picking up the Pace
The government therefore got into the habit of announcing quick wins. The tax credit following the Gallois report was an example of this – a policy that perhaps was not as carefully constructed as it could have been, despite the fact that the long and detailed report (the contents of which surprised no one) was published prior to its announcement.
This month education policy has drawn the ire of the right, but also many parents, for choosing to move forward quickly rather than spend months on consultation. Vincent Peillon, having attracted controversy for controversial statements about legalising cannabis, announced that he would proceed with the long-anticipated reinstatement of an extra half day of school on Wednesday mornings. Unbelievably for foreign ears, French primary school children have had a four day week, since 2008 when the Sarkozy administration abolished school lessons on Saturday mornings. The overall consensus, including in a report commissioned by Sarkozy’s last minister for education, Luc Chatel, was to reinstate those lost hours and reduce the length of the school day, which runs from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm (the length of a full time working day for adults).
At the same time, the reform would provide for out-of-school activities provided for by local councils during school lunchtimes, which would be extended to 90 minutes, and Wednesday afternoons. The peculiar French practice of using schools primarily as low cost childcare rather than an educational environment will therefore be preserved.
Teach Them A Lesson
Whilst most parents’ groups have been broadly supportive in principle of a measure that has been widely discussed since 2008, teachers are up in arms at having to go back to work on Wednesday mornings, with strikes being called several times since the announcement. Parents’ groups are said to be horrified at the corporatism of the teachers’ unions and public opinion has turned against the teachers.
The Conservative UMP have denounced the move as improvised and being forced on the country. Seemingly forgetting that they intended to introduce the policy, and had spent months angrily decrying the government as wasting valuable time, they claim that the policy (which won’t come into force until September 2013, or even 2014 for those councils who request a derogation) is being rushed in without thought. When the debate turns to the substance, the criticism withers and dies – it would seem this measure of commonsense is good, but the method is bad.
Mr Peillon has attracted more opprobrium this weekend following his musing that the summer school holidays should be shortened from their record breaking 8 weeks, down to 6. Again, this is an idea that has been banded about ever since the role of the child in the summer harvest became less important, but the UMP has again claimed that suggesting a review in 2015 with this idea at its core (which is what Mr Peillon actually said) is again a “gaffe”. Again, when the substance of the idea is debated, the opprobrium subsides, as teachers, parents and even the tourist industry (whose interest it is that families spend as much time away from the classroom as possible) agree that it is broadly a good idea.
Wading Through the Coverage to the Content
The media maelstrom this week has predictably picked up on Peillon’s openness about his thought processes, save for a particularly sensible piece in Le Parisien today which looks at the content of the idea, rather than the presentation. Let the media play the UMP’s game. What people will retain is what the policy was, not how it was first presented. This is a vital mistake that Nicolas Sarkozy failed to understand, thinking that implementation was boring and the announcement would be enough to move things along. Instead, people became disheartened by the constant reactionary announcements that were never or poorly implemented. A cynicism about politics became evermore predominant and politicians were labelled as serial liars. The UMP seems to have learned nothing about his decline, and continues to argue that presentation issues are what matter more.
Yes, Vincent Peillon should watch what he says, because his adversaries will misconstrue it. Yes, the government should always seek to consult in some way on social policy, lest they be tasked with having failed to do so whilst arguing that their consultative instincts are in the country’s best interests. But if the substance of the policy is good (and consultation is likely to help that, rather than hinder it), that’s what matters.
Let’s celebrate again the return of substance over style.