France’s Nutty Socialism

François Hollande described Tuesday night’s press conference, his first since becoming France’s president, as a “teaching moment” to explain his controversial economic program. One of the lessons, it appears, is that the French must learn to eat their crêpes sans Nutella. While we should not make too much of the popular hazelnut and chocolate spread, it is possible that its fate has become oddly entwined with that of French socialism.

French socialism has long tended to be less doctrinal than inspirational. In part, this resulted from its ancestry: Several different streams — some purer, others deeper, but all of them flowing from the French Revolution — converged in 1905, forming the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière.

Socialism’s beginnings were wrapped in mystique, not politique. The promise inherent to socialism, channeled by titanic figures like Jean Jaurès, was to invest politics with a moral and civic imperative: to create a society where “every citizen has the time and liberty to devote themselves to the commonweal.”

The S.F.I.O. was a hybrid in another important respect: a vehicle built for the working class, most of its drivers were bourgeois intellectuals. Thus Jaurès, the party’s founder, began as a professor of philosophy, while Léon Blum first made his name as a literary critic, and François Mitterrand always seemed more comfortable with Montaigne than Marx. Leaders talked the revolutionary talk, but never truly contemplated walking the walk.

In 1936 Blum famously distinguished between the prudent exercise of power and revolutionary conquest of power — no one doubted which he preferred — while Mitterrand announced straight-faced in 1979: “Without a strategy of rupture the Socialist Party would lose its identity. What use would it be for us to become a vague copy of reformist parties, which always end up as the bedfellows of the dominant class?”

Despite such flights of revolutionary rhetoric, the Socialists ended up less as bedfellows of the dominant class than the dominant class themselves. Their pragmatism has been both eminently reasonable and inevitably detrimental.

Despite the trills of socialist accomplishments — the 40-hour week and paid vacations with Blum, the abolition of capital punishment and decentralization of power under Mitterrand — the basso continuo of technocratic governance became dominant. What happens, though, when all that is left is the basso continuo? One, moreover, that keeps striking wrong notes?

When he defeated Nicolas Sarkozy last May, Hollande became France’s accidental president. He had excelled as a party administrator but had little national exposure, and few considered him a serious contender.

This changed with the sordid scandal that enmeshed the party’s presumptive candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the intense animosity spawned by Sarkozy’s controversial private life. France was ready for a leader whose greatest virtue seemed to be his blandness. Dubbed Monsieur Normal, Hollande defeated President Bling-Bling.

But bling is now waxing, while bland wanes. Since the summer, President Hollande’s popularity, along with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s, has plummeted to levels previously tasted by Sarkozy. In the most recent TNS-Sofres poll, scarcely 36 percent of respondents expressed confidence in Hollande, and even fewer in Ayrault. A recent Harris poll revealed that nearly half of the respondents preferred to see Sarkozy back in power.

In part, Hollande’s government has been its own worst enemy: Ayrault has put his foot so often in his mouth — most recently in declaring that he was willing to discuss changes to the party’s sacrosanct 35-hour work week — that it is not available to put down with his cabinet colleagues.

More fundamentally, history seems to have caught up with the Socialists. The French economy, which is running an annual deficit of 4.5 percent, staggers under the costs of an increasingly untenable welfare state that the Socialist helped bring into being.

At the same time, one of the party’s greatest achievements — the devolving of significant powers from Paris to the provinces — has been overshadowed by an even more powerful centralizing institution, the European Union. Given the E.U.’s ironclad rule that a member state’s annual deficit cannot exceed 3 percent, Hollande’s government must either slash spending or raise taxes — equally grim options for an economy that has effectively stalled.

Hollande has proposed to do both — which brings us to Nutella. Rather than increase taxes on individuals or corporations, the government instead aims to raise the already onerous sales tax (T.V.A.) from 19.6 percent to 20 percent on a range of consumer goods. At his press conference, Hollande vowed to maintain the T.V.A. hikes.

Moreover, the Socialists plan to quadruple the tax on palm oil. This will affect a range of comfort foods — most crucially Nutella, the hazelnut and chocolate spread from Italy that is a staple of French working class households. France is the world’s largest consumer of the paste, annually devouring 75,000 tons. Ergo, “Nutella tax.”

To be sure, the Socialists argue that Nutella is bad for our health and worse for the Amazonian rainforests. But the increase also appears, as one Communist deputy exclaimed, to be little more than “a tax on the workers.”

Of course, a revolution is not in the offing. Yet for voters for whom the Socialists’ health and global concerns are as distant for struggling French workers as work itself is for three million of their unemployed fellow citizens, they may not bother to go to the voting booth next time, either.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.

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