Always campaigning, never explaining

27 juin 2013

French politicians believe and make believe that everything is possible  ?  but the public have long lost faith in big political promises

On May 2, 2013, the title of the French daily Le Monde to name the one-year anniversary of François Hollande’s presidency was “the terrible year”. The Guardian even called it “Annus horribilis” in an article published the same day. It was indeed a terrible year for Hollande and for the left in power in France. Unfortunately, there was no real surprise in what happened and it might therefore be called a “chronicle of a failure foretold”.

Hollande’s first year in office was marked by several records in France. In the economic field, the public debt rose to a record level, with 90.2% of GDP in 2012. France also failed to meet its budget deficit target in 2012 (with a public deficit of 4.8% of GDP) and will certainly miss it again in 2013. The public spending, at 56% of GDP, is one of the highest in the EU. The French economy is currently in recession: the economy shrank in the fourth quarter of 2012 and in the first quarter of 2013. Moreover, experts forecast that the recession will persist in France throughout the year with a negative growth rate of -0.1% according to Eurostat and the IMF estimates. In the social field, the unemployment rate hit record levels, too. The number of registered jobseekers has risen for the 24th month to 3.26 million in April 2013, thus surpassing the peak in unemployment reached in 1997. In 2012, purchasing power fell for the first time since 1984. Last but not least, in the political field, François Hollande’s approval rating is at record low. It is even the lowest approval rating for a reigning French president a year after his election. The Socialist party also lost every by-election since the general election of June 2012 and consequently eight seats in the National Assembly. So its majority has dangerously shrunk in Parliament.

It seems that François Hollande came to power at the wrong moment. In fact, he had to face

a very bad economic situation in the eurozone and to deal with the difficult legacy from the Sarkozy’s presidency without having any clear mandate and any experience at the highest level of power (François Hollande and his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had never been ministers before 2012). However, this is not the only reason why François Hollande has become so unpopular today.

How could this be explained?

The first explanation is that Hollande has been the latest victim of the French defiant society. French public opinion habitually rejects the country’s political elite, especially because of their inability – for more than three decades – to fight the rising unemployment seen as the main source of concerns by the French, as well as their involvement in several political scandals. So the unemployment record level rate, Jérôme Cahuzac’s affair (related to his secret Swiss bank account), together with other political scandals could easily explain why Hollande is so unpopular.

The second explanation is linked to some inappropriate choices in terms of popularity made by François Hollande regarding the growth of the tax burden of roughly 20 billion Euros in 2012 and the enactment of the law legalising same-sex marriage, a highly divisive issue in France. The latter triggered all types of opposition to Hollande’s policy in the same way as Obamacare brought about a huge controversy in the US.

The third explanation is that French public opinion, the media and even politicians had become accustomed to the way Nicolas Sarkozy worked as president. Hence, a French president who is not hyperactive, who does not appear in the news every day and who seems to lack leadership skills is perceived as passive, hesitant, and unable to make hard choices and to fight the crisis; in short, he is judged as incompetent for the job. Unlike Sarkozy, François Hollande is rather in line with François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac’s presidential style which has probably become outdated.

The fourth explanation is that François Hollande is making exactly the same mistakes as his predecessors by applying the strategy: “never explain, always campaign”. Actually, French leaders never really explain what they do because they are afraid of the reactions of the “street” and later of those of the voters. At the same time, French politicians believe and make believe that everything is possible. That is what is called the myth of “political voluntarism” which is at the heart of French political culture.

Hollande matches this typical French political pattern in having initially underestimated the gravity of the crisis and in refusing to acknowledge the true nature of his economic policy, which is in reality an austerity programme. He also took decisions that broke his campaign promises such as the ratification of the European budgetary pact signed on March 2, 2012, the enactment of policies in order to improve the competitiveness of the French industry following the publication of the Gallois report, the flex-security reform of the labor market and a probable reform of the retirement system following the proposals of the Moreau report.

Finally, disillusionment is always high when the public understands that not everything is possible, and that is exactly what has happened since the election of François Hollande. Voters understand that the French government cannot convince the German government to change its policy in order to foster growth in Europe; that it cannot successfully fight the financial system; that it cannot save jobs in the ArcelorMittal Steel Plant in Florange (Lorraine); that it cannot enact a 75% income tax rate on the wealthiest categories; and that it cannot guarantee that the middle class will not pay more taxes or that the target of curbing the rise in unemployment before the end of this year, as Hollande had promised, is realisable. The result of this kind of policy it that the French public thinks that the government does not tell the truth, that it does not take into account their concerns and that it is powerless or even incompetent to do the job.