The paradoxes of the Hollande presidency

6 juillet 2012
Eddy Fougier - Policy Network
It is a sign of the times that one of the most powerful mandates in French political history offers Francois Hollande precious little room for manoeuver

A year ago, the French right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) held the presidency and the majority of the French Parliament (National Assembly and Senate). Surprisingly, François Hollande and the Socialist Party (PS) have since achieved a kind of political “hat trick”, winning the battle for the Senate in September 2011, the presidential election in May 2012 and the general election in June 2012.

Indeed, the Socialist Party and its closed political allies (the Radical Party of the Left and the Movement of Jean-Pierre Chevènement) gained the majority of the National Assembly in the recent parliamentary elections. As a result, François Hollande and the government led by Jean-Marc Ayrault have their “hands free” to implement their policies without necessarily having to seek the support of the rest of the Left parties (the Green Party and the Left Front) and make compromises with them.

As president, François Hollande has thus even more power than Charles de Gaulle had when the latter was the occupant of the Elysee Palace: for the first time in French History, the Left is at the head of all levels of political power in France, namely at national level (presidency, government, National Assembly, Senate) and at local level (21 out of 22 regions, 60 out of 101 departments and 12 out of 17 towns with more than 150,000 inhabitants).

However, the path ahead of François Hollande could be rather complicated as he has to face at least four major difficulties. The first one is that he has no clear mandate. Hollande was not really elected because voters supported the policy agenda he advanced during his campaign, but rather because they disapproved of the way Nicolas Sarkozy governed and the outcomes of his policy. Thus his mandate is mainly to handle problems Sarkozy seemed unable to deal with, to solve problems in a fairer way and to heal the pain brought about by the Sarkozism – which was often described as extremist, unfair and divisive – by dismantling lots of the former president’s decisions (on fiscal policy, retirement reform, and so on).

The second difficulty is that the Hollande presidency does not inspire great expectations in terms of public opinion. The low expectations stem from the fact that there is a common doubt about Hollande’s ability to fight the economic crisis and rising unemployment. The reality is that pessimism tends to be the prevalent spirit among the majority of the French people. Some even fear that France could soon find itself in the same dramatic situation as Greece and Spain. And low expectations do not necessarily mean that people’s capacity for disillusionment with the mainstream political class will remain low.

The third difficulty is that Hollande’s room for maneuver is very limited, especially on the economy where a number of factors (huge public deficit and debt, growing unemployment, declining growth rate, lack of competitiveness among French companies) hamper his ability to implement his programme. In June, the INSEE national statistics institute reported that the French economy would grow by 0.4% in 2012 (whereas economic growth was 1.7 % in 2011) and the French unemployment would rise to 9.9% by the end of 2012 (as against a rate of 9.3% in 2011).

Moreover, Hollande’s capacity to change the European, and above all, the German visions of austerity and growth might prove to be overestimated. So even if Jean-Marc Ayrault stated in his first address to the Parliament on the 3rd of July that there was no “U-turn” on austerity programmes in Hollande’s policy, there is de facto a “U-turn with no name” with higher taxes and public spending cuts.

The fourth difficulty is that François Hollande has a historical responsibility because if he fails, the distrust towards political elites could grow dramatically. This could even lead to the victory of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election, especially given the fact that the right-wing seems highly divided on its political strategy and ideological line.

Although François Hollande and the PS are in power, we can consider that they do not really have the power to restore the balance of power between France and Germany, between governments and financial markets, and between the right and the left in Europe.

In this situation, two options seem possible. Firstly, because of the severity of the economic crisis, Hollandism could turn out to be no more than Sarkozyism with a human face. It simply means that austerity plans would be implemented in a fairer way than during the Sarkozy presidency. Secondly, Hollandism could be the beginning of a new progressive trend in Europe, maybe a kind of “conservative progressivism”, based on a neo-keynesian policy and a hard line on law and order issues more in tune with blue collar workers’ values, which could be the left’s answer to the “progressive conservatism” described by Patrick Diamond.
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