It has been a little over a year since the election of France’s second Socialist president. However, now that the left occupy the executive and legislative branches, there seems to be some buyer’s remorse. Whilst few would have predicted that the return of the left to power would be at a time of economic crisis, social turbulence and an opposition both more divided and more visceral than ever before, added to that are historically low approval ratings, making a dangerous cocktail.
This first anniversary of the Socialist administration has been met with an orgy of circumspection, analysis, debating and soul-searching on the left, the right and centre as to the meaning to be found in the first year of this new Socialist government. The right has characterised the first year as a “total failure”, with the country verging on collapse. The centre has largely tacked with the right. The far left has screeched at broken promises and betrayal. But where does the truth lies in all of this?
Criticism of François Hollande’s administration is oddly contradictory and can be split into three main issues: a lack of authority, a lack of direction and a lack of consultation.
Hollande’s lack of authority has long been a criticism that has dogged him. In many internal party disputes during his presidency of the Socialist party, his inability to impose his own will over that of his bickering colleagues (many of whom have long felt they, not he, were destined to occupy the top job) was often thought to have contributed to the Party’s years in the wilderness. The divisive internal battle over the Party’s position on the 2005 referendum for the European Constitutional Treaty left scars that are still evident today. In that battle, Hollande decided to conduct an internal party vote on whether to support or reject the treaty, which was to be put to voters the following year. He won the vote comfortably (59% for, with a massive turnout by Party members).
The consensus fell apart minutes after the vote result was announced and the Socialists went into the referendum campaign divided. The no vote was vindicated when a wide margin of French voters rejected the treaty. Laurent Fabius, now the number 2 in government as Foreign Minister, was a key figure of the “no” campaign. That he holds high office could be indication that Hollande at least does not hold grudges, or at least, not when the alternative is a politically expedient restitching of a torn Party. Some see it as a sign of weakness: Hollande cannot hold a grudge because he cannot afford to…
One of the key refrains from the UMP opposition is that Hollande runs the country in the same way that he ran the Socialist Party. I commented previously on the remarkably wide range of interests that were represented in his first government. The Socialists have always had various streams (“courants“) which represent different philosophical and political sensibilities within a Party whose tent is bigger than appears from the outside. These streams can be a source of strength for the Party, in that they can allow debates to be organised and channels to a final synthesis of policy ideas. They also bolster the social-democrats who run the Party (at least today) but are only a small minority of the Party, let alone the country. But if they are not managed, or if they are manhandled by an authoritarian leader, they will fracture. Hollande’s quest for the synthesis is not merely borne of habit – it is a question of survival.
There are also examples of the approach functioning rather well in national politics. Contrary to expectations, social partners were allowed to negotiate labour market reforms which have now been implemented. Whilst the agreement probably doesn’t go as far as it should (as I have argued), the agreement was received positively by the opposition as well as most of the Socialist Party. Synthesis in times of division would seem to have its uses.
That Hollande is nothing more than a wobbly dessert might be considered bad enough – he is also charged with lacking a course. Time and time again opposition politicians have decried the absence of a “cap“ in his speechifying. And every time, this point sticks less and less.
Whilst Hollande’s public interventions were few and far between in the first months’ of his Presidency, we forget that this was part of a plan to calm the political mood and shift from the frenetic style of his predecessor. It also worked. Looking back now however, the press focuses on a certain drift in the messages that got through to the public. Lest we not forget of course, the media was obsessed (and rightly so) with the much more interesting public flagellation in the UMP’s primary election, and so had the government wanted to communicate better, it would probably have been crowded out.
So is there a course? There is, but it is a slightly fuzzy, and very social-democratic one. Its fuzziness is a consequence of the pragmatism of its ideological underpinnings. It is the fruit of compromise and is carefully laid out in the 60 commitments Hollande laid out prior to the Presidential election. The opposition may disagree with them, but Sarkozy made no such public policy commitment, and the UMP is today incapable of providing its own programme (although, four years before the next national election, they have no political incentive to do so, either…).
That the course is not stark is therefore not a criticism, but a consequence of social-democratic government. And that is not an evil in itself.
Finally, and perhaps the most ironic criticism of them all, is that Hollande is authoritarian. Quite how this sits with a President who is both floppy and wavering (per the critiques above) is not clear. And yet, both his friends on the left, and his opponents on the right, have denounced his personal decision making to the exclusion of consultation, as an authoritarian or ideological trait.
This argument is of course used by those who disagree vehemently with the particular decision taken, and we should therefore look at those issues individually. On the left, the criticism is levied as a result of the competitiveness tax credit. As we have discussed, this costly, somewhat innovative (albeit complex) measure was swiftly announced after the Gallois Report was published. It was largely a personal decision by the President, but there had formed around the question a large consensus. The opposition had proposed a simpler but similar measure in the dying days of the Sarkozy administration. The left were mollified (somewhat) by the tax credit mechanism, which avoided accusations of providing a gift to employers.
On the right, the example that is endlessly cited is the Taubira Law that extended the rights to marry and adopt to same-sex couples. Despite it being a measure supported by a majority of voters, despite it being a part of Hollande’s 60 commitments and an issue in the final debate between Hollande and Sarkozy, the right and the extremists that have attached themselves to the issue (and, sadly for tennis fans, continue to do so) continue to argue that the President is forcing the issue on voters, with no respect for democracy or the constitution. Again, this is not about style, but substance. In any event, with the law in place, even the UMP is backing down from its opposition to the Law.
That some disagree with this style of government have more to quarrel with the Fifth Republic’s constitutional order that enables the President, using his government to push legislation through a parliament where he holds a majority, to act this way, than with Hollande himself.
So what does he do?
Overall, the three criticisms made of Hollande’s first year miss the point somewhat. Whilst he has at times sought consensus when there was none, sought to blur the lines of what he really wants (largely to secure the consensus he so cherishes), he has taken a number of tough, perhaps even daring positions, particularly on societal issues and foreign policy.
But unemployment continues to rise, the economy continues to retract, and the public mood (whilst softening a little recently) continues to be morose. Until such time as that improves, Hollande will remain inaudible, and his critics, despite using the wrong arguments, will continue to shape the image of the President.