Francois Hollande's Really Bad Year

The headlines that greeted French President Francois Hollande as he celebrated his first year in office this week have painted a sober picture of a man -- and a country -- in deep trouble.

“The lonely man” was the kindest of the titles, in the left-of-center newspaper Liberation; “One year after, Hollande isolated in Europe,” said Le Figaro, the main daily for the right; and “How revolutions are born: Are we in 1789?” asked Le Point magazine.

Hollande's confidence rating, at 24 percent, is a record low for any French president. He wanted to be known as Mr. Normal, the calm president after the hyperactivity of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, he is seen as Mr. Weak. "He is looking more and more like a loser,” said Maurice Fraser, a professor of practice in European politics at the European Institute of the London School of Economics.

What went wrong for Hollande?

A big part of his problem is the French Socialist Party, which never underwent the kind of modernization that most of its counterparts elsewhere in Europe experienced in recent decades. To see off the electoral threat from the even more radical Left Party, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, Hollande had to pander to “bash the rich” prejudices, Fraser says. Now his broad church government is an ungainly mix of social democrats and old-style leftists.

More damaging was the affair that led to the resignation in March of Jerome Cahuzac, the minister responsible for cracking down on tax evasion. He was found to have had an undisclosed and untaxed 600,000 euros ($788,000) in a Swiss bank account for the past 20 years. At first, Cahuzac denied the allegations, but then admitted them.

Hollande promised clean government in his election campaign and he says he didn't cover up for Cahuzac. Unfortunately for him, that hasn't helped. His opponents say he must be either lying or naive, and many ordinary French people can't believe that he knew nothing.

If this were just a case of a failing president, it might not be so worrying. Yet the entire French political class appears to be in trouble. In March, an investigation was opened into whether Sarkozy took illegal campaign-finance money from Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the fortune of cosmetics company L’Oreal SA. Then, last month, prosecutors began an investigation into allegations that Sarkozy took illegal campaign cash from Muammar Qaddafi, the former Libyan dictator who died in 2011, not long after Sarkozy took a lead role in deposing him.

On top of this, Claude Gueant, an interior minister under Sarkozy, was found to have had a 500,000 euro deposit in his bank account. He says that the money came from selling two 17th century Dutch paintings of naval scenes, although a similar work by the same artist sold for just 17,000 euros that year. Gueant rejects accusations that the money came from Qaddafi. He says he struck a good deal.

The danger in all this is that the only people who stand to benefit from France’s elites being seen as corrupt liars are the far left and far right.

The far left, under Melenchon, has been crying treason over how Hollande is betraying socialist values. Meanwhile, opinion polls show that the far right, under Marine Le Pen, is advancing steadily. According to a recent poll by the TNS Sofres agency, the number of people who consider the party a danger has hit the lowest level since the mid-1980s. This has produced some apocalyptic comparisons to the conditions that triggered the French Revolution.

On May 4, Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party, published an article in Le Figaro dismissing comparisons with 1789, or the 1930s. Instead, he said, the year to which France should look for inspiration is 1958. This was when General Charles de Gaulle returned to power and showed that France, at the time “caught between two blocs and betrayed by exhausted elites,” still had the energy to recover.

“Today, France needs another 1958,” wrote Cope. “The French right has an historic responsibility. It is up to us to carry forward this legacy. It is up to us to continue to write the future.”

That's disturbing if taken literally: De Gaulle’s return was only made possible by a military putsch in then French-ruled Algeria -- and Hollande still has four years left in office. So it isn't clear what "responsibility" Cope was referring to.

Edwy Plenel, the editor of the influential Mediapart news site, blasted Cope, saying his comments confirm a shift toward “radicalization” on the right and represent a "shameless call “for the overthrow of the established system.”

France’s elites on both left and right are panicking, says Plenel, because in the wake of the Cahuzac and Gueant affairs, “they know that the worst is yet to come, so numerous are the files now in the hands of investigating magistrates and the police, which contain even more stunning and devastating revelations than have so far emerged.”

In these circumstances, it isn't obvious that Hollande will have the political strength or courage to drive through the structural changes to labor-market, pension and other laws that are needed for the French economy to recover.

Unemployment, at 10.6 percent, is growing; France has missed its budget-deficit target of 3 percent; and public spending remains high. Relations with Germany are tense. To date, Hollande's government has spent a lot of energy pushing through contentious laws on gay marriage and adoption rights, but these have done nothing for the economy, which contracted in the fourth quarter of last year.

Some labor-law reforms have begun, but it will be hard to increase flexibility in the face of powerful unions. Decreasing the French state’s stake in the economy will also be difficult, though Hollande has taken some moves in the right direction here. To accept the scale of change required, the French will need to know that their president is the right man for the job and is making tough decisions in the national interest. Hollande has yet to convince them.

Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans.

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