François Hollande: a day of reckoning for France’s Mr Normal

For the past six months the French have been trying to figure out who, in François Hollande, they have elected to the Elysée. “Is there really a president?” asks the news magazine L’Express this week. We may find an answer on Tuesday, when the president holds his first press conference since taking office.

Hollande’s performance so far has not always been convincing. Previously the leader of the Socialist party for 11 years, with no government experience, he has behaved as if he is still more interested in balancing sensitivities within his own majority party – even though he enjoys full political control of the parliament and most of the regions for the duration of his five-year mandate. He seems to believe that the only legitimate actors on the public scene are political parties and trade unions – however weak these may be – not the business community, which is kept off his radar. The interdependence with other European partners is hushed up. Paris seems oblivious to how openly anxious economists close to the German finance minister have become about French policies, or lack of.

For too long Hollande believed that clinging on to his “normal guy” image would be enough to set him apart from his fidgety predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. In fact, there’s no denying that the pace of the presidency has changed since the days of his role models, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand. For all the hysterics of the “Sarko show”, there is now a very real need for reactive and emphatic policymaking. Instead, the new president’s vision has so far been a blur. His government has not helped either: in the first six months there have already been several U-turns, undisguised rivalries and weak leadership from the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault – who, as one commentator put it, “is like Hollande, only worse”.

To be fair, the Socialists have taken charge in dire circumstances: high and growing unemployment, a huge public debt, an escalating trade deficit, and massive layoffs in core industries, starting with Peugeot and Renault. To top it all, there is a severe crisis in the eurozone, with Berlin hammering on about the need for its partners (France included) to initiate structural reforms to put their houses in order. The urgency of all this became dauntingly clear last week, with the publication of a government-commissioned report that stressed the need for a “competitiveness shock” to avoid “the certitude of decline”.

At least it provoked a reaction: instead of politely burying the report, the prime minister announced a battery of new measures, some of them direct reversals of earlier electoral promises – such as a VAT increase in 2014, a Sarkozy decision the Socialists had initially scrapped. Ayrault also announced further public spending cuts and big new tax breaks for companies – in direct contradiction to the 2013 budget at present being passed in parliament. Not quite the “competitiveness shock” the report asked for, not enough to fully reassure Berlin and Brussels, not really “the Copernican revolution” hailed by the finance minister, Pierre Moscovici – but certainly a new commitment to reform.

Does this amount to a full U-turn, or is it just a matter of changing emphasis? Given the French obsession with semantics, the wording at his press conference will certainly be cautious – insisting on a “pact” with the French electorate to smooth out his political course over the five years of his mandate. Will he address the high labour costs and rigid market rules that are part of France’s competitiveness problem, but also a Socialist taboo? Where and when does he want to make cuts in the public sector, which still accounts for 56% of GDP but also feeds most of his political supporters? How far will he go on the road to austerity, a process that has barely begun, but that the French are already convinced they are reeling from?

Unlike all its European comrades, the French Socialist party has long shunned turning social democrat – a label that Hollande and Ayrault are only slowly feeling comfortable enough with to claim as their own. Whether the president has become bold and pragmatic enough to embrace the kind of social liberalism that became a European trademark with Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair remains to be seen. Starting on Tuesday, François Hollande has to demonstrate his will as well as his skill.

Christine Ockrent is a journalist and former chief operating officer of France 24 and RFI.

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