Can Hollande live up to expectations?

Hollande Benjamin Boccas from Flickr

Hollande Benjamin Boccas from Flickr

As Francois Hollande takes up his seat as President of France, will he be able to live up to the huge expectations of those who voted for him or will his reputation for indecision be his undoing, asks Robert Tombs.

Many commentators predict that there will be a quick Franco-German compromise. But will compromise be enough now to prevent a panic when decisive action is required? And on whose terms will it be?"

—Robert Tombs, Professor of History at the University of Cambridge

No one could have been very surprised, not even M. Sarkozy, when François Hollande was elected as the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic, the first since François Mitterrand in 1981.  Only a few months ago, he would have seemed a very unlikely president.  What transformed his prospects was not the economic and political problems of France, and even less his own actions, but on one hand the notorious episode in a New York hotel that ended the career of French socialism’s preferred future president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and on the other the personal unpopularity of Nicholas Sarkozy.  M. Hollande comes to the presidency with a limited track record.  In the short term, this may be an advantage: he has pretty clean hands, and an appearance of decency and dignity.  In the long term, perhaps not: he has aroused a sudden swell of hope, but he is a novice, until now a figure of the second rank, with a reputation for indecision.

Inevitably, he has become a source of uncertainty, in France and Europe.  Before his election, he was letting it be said on his behalf that he was a moderate, but moderation is not what his supporters expect.  They want some sort of miracle: the end of austerity, economic growth, a return to normal.  Hollande’s headline pledge to create 60,000 new teaching jobs epitomises the problem.  We may all think that teaching jobs are a good thing in the abstract.  But they are not going to redress France’s economy.  What they really symbolise - apart from a desire to cheer up schoolteachers and job-hunting students, key Socialist supporters - is the hope that spending more money on creating public sector jobs is the best way to solve unemployment and boost growth.

This, of course, seems to be the very opposite of the nasty medicine so far prescribed for Ireland,  Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany and France itself.  A statist, neo-Keynesian, tricolour flag is being raised - admittedly, a small one - against the prevailing European orthodoxy.  Most people in France probably want that flag waved very vigorously, in the faces of the European Central Bank and Angela Merkel.  They like the idea of France as leader of the awkward squad, putting itself forward as international leader of the forces of progress.

This is an old republican/patriotic vision, last seen when France stood up to America and Britain at the time of the Iraq invasion.  This time the enemy is the unholy alliance of globalised ’Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism, bankers, and conservative (German) politicians.  Yet the small print of Hollande’s announced policy is little different from that of Sarkozy - he intends to eliminate France’s deficit a year later than his predecessor.  M. Hollande’s supporters, and not only in France, expect much more:  in effect, to lead an international revolt against austerity, plutocracy, and globalisation.   But every educated French socialist is aware of the warnings of history: Léon Blum tried something like this in 1936; Mitterrand again in 1981.  In both cases they were forced into U-turns.

Britain’s principal relationship with France concerns defence, security - and shared aircraft carriers.  Both countries are alone among European states in their ambition to play a great role in the world, as was recently seen in the Libyan intervention.  Both know that in the present political and financial circumstances, they need each other to give this ambition credibility.  They might ideally prefer other partners, but no one else is willing, and consequently, their budding ’special relationship’ will continue.

Europe is a more complex matter.  If Hollande seemed to have pushed Europe away from austerity, it would obviously increase pressure on the British government to follow suit.  On the other hand, if the French could induce the Germans to agree to more expansionary policies, it would suit Britain’s interest by increasing demand in Europe for its exports.  But even the hint of disagreement between the Eurozone’s ’big two’, and uncertainty about their policy, seems to be aggravating a crisis of confidence and bringing forward the general Euro crisis that has started in Greece.  Many commentators predict that there will be a quick Franco-German compromise, and this does indeed seem indispensable.  But will compromise be enough now to prevent a panic when decisive action is required?  And on whose terms will it be?

If M. Hollande appears too easily satisfied, his new-found popularity may prove short lived.  The crisis has strengthened extremes of both Right and Left, creating problems for a centrist like Hollande.  The Right-wing Front National has increased its vote, including among young voters and even established ethnic minorities.  The forthcoming parliamentary elections are therefore unusually important and unpredictable.  The most sensational contest will be a head to head clash in a Pas-de-Calais constituency between Marine Le Pen, head of the populist eurosceptic Front National, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Communist leader of the scarcely-less-populist Parti de Gauche - a bold but dangerous showdown sought by the latter.

However, all this is being overshadowed by the sudden Eurozone crisis, which leaves M. Hollande suddenly facing one of the most daunting prospects of any new French president since the 1950s.

*Robert Tombs is Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. His research is in 19th Century French political history, and especially popular political culture. Recently he has been concerned with the history of the cultural, economic and political relationship between France and Britain from the end of the 17th Century to the present day. He will be speaking in a debate on Britain’s relationship with Europe with Professors Christopher Hill and Brendan Simms on 9 June at 5.30pm  as part of the Cambridge series at the Hay Festival.

 
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