Steady As She Goes

Hollande 14 juilletSpeaking to the two main national television channels after yesterday’s traditional Bastille Day military parade, François Hollande signaled that he isn’t changing course; but is the Presidential ship taking on so much water, she risks sinking?The Bastille Day TV interview is now a key component of the Presidential communication machine, so much so that it is surprising that François Hollande doesn’t make a better fist of it.  Instead, we had a performance that was plodding, repetitive and, judging from today’s newspaper coverage, failed to capture the public’s imagination.

Hollande said little that was not either part of his new-found business-friendly vocabulary since January, or that had been announced by his hyperactive new Prime Minister in the past few weeks.  No new announcements were made, presumably disappointing media outlets so much that some ran with the “news” (announced by the Prime Minister two weeks ago) that tax cuts were coming for the middle classes in 2015.

There was however a slight change of tone, and not simply because Hollande’s new glasses give him an air of seriousness.  Ever the natural optimist, François Hollande is ill-equipped to sound grave, but he gave it a shot, admitting that that he was disappointed he had not kept his landmark promise to bring about a reduction in unemployment by the end of 2013.  He did however slip back into announcing the recovery, saying that the Euro crisis was over and France was no longer in recession, and therefore what needed to be done was nurture fragile growth.

This is startling for three reasons.  First, it is probably wrong.  Wobbly Bulgarian and Portuguese banks show that, whilst the Euro as a currency is probably here to stay, European economies still have significant problems to deal with, and given the European Central Bank’s stress tests, these problems will come starkly into the light this autumn.  In addition, flat-lining growth across the Eurozone and worrying drops in output in Germany signal that there is a real danger of a triple-dip recession for France.

Second, it is too early to credibly claim that France is on the road to recovery.  The so-called “Green Shoots” syndrome is well-known in the UK: a politician calls the end of a recession before the public is ready to hear the news.  British politicians in the 1990s and 2000s have been guilty of this, and been smacked down by the Prime Minister (and press) of the day.  Sadly, Hollande is a serial offender of green-shoot talk, having announced on no less than four occasions that the recovery had arrived. Whilst he may genuinely believe that talking up the economy could increase confidence and therefore spur growth, no one will believe him with record unemployment.  He should put up and shut up on this point, and instead focus his verbiage on talking of necessary change and sacrifice, to better frame structural reforms, for example those sketched out in a recent report on closed professions.

Third, even if unemployment was coming down (it isn’t), and the French were feeling better about themselves (they aren’t) Hollande needs to realise that the French no longer trust his assessment.  They feel that he is unaware of what is really going on, and is disconnected.  That doesn’t mean he can’t rekindle the ever important link to the people (the Presidential election is talked of as a meeting between “one man, and one people”, but for now he is inaudible.  In fact, he might even be toxic, and thus should not risk sullying the message and let Manuel Valls do more of the media legwork on the reformist agenda, lest it be tainted by the President himself.  This need not be fatal – if the audacious gamble Hollande made in January pays off, popularity will (probably) flow back to him, especially in light of the chaos on the right.  But it is a gamble, and there is no more time for any more bets before the 2017 election.

Perhaps timing is the real problem.  Much of what his Prime Minister has been doing in the past months since his appointment, has been to undo what was done during Jean-Marc Ayrault’s reign.  There is a sense in the press, and the country, that Hollande has wasted the first half of his term, and that any improvement will take that much longer to show itself.  He sought to brush over that in yesterday’s interview, focusing on the changes brought in over the past six months. He failed to address the nagging doubt that, if he was wrong from 2012-2014, what means he is right now?

It is incredibly unfair that so much hinges on 45 minutes of interview with two journalists who tend to spar more with each other than with their subject.  That was obvious from the rather odd range of questions – Gilles Bouleau’s question about whether there would be another First Lady was a rather desperate attempt by TF1 for a headline (Hollande quickly batted it back) and his question about Sunday working was straight out of the parent company of TF1’s wishlist.  Much of the political class complained that the President didn’t mention such-and-such-an-issue, but the limited time limited the dialogue.

Hollande should seriously consider ditching these interviews all together.  Neither he, nor the starry French journalists who conduct them (save for an honourable mention for Yves Calvi) do a very good job, in contrast to Hollande’s clear skill in handling a room full of journalists in a much longer press conference, where he can flex his intellectual muscles over a wide range of subjects, and follow-up questions allow for points to be properly fleshed out.  

Although the message is repetitive, although it stretches credulity due to the lack of results, and although the format is clunky, bordering on soporific, what is becoming clear is that since January, Hollande has worked out what his Presidency is for and what tools he needs to bring about the economic change he wants to see.  He also set out a timetable for change for the remaining two and a half years: 2015 will be all about health; 2016 about institutional change.  If he can stick to that, it would be interesting, but the old Hollande kept creeping back in, saying that reforms will happen “if possible”.  That might not be good enough, Mr President.

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