Like many countries in Europe, France is facing a serious economic and social crisis. As John Gaffney writes, the situation in France is compounded by the highly personalised French political system, which keeps the President of the Republic continually in the spotlight. He argues that François Hollande has failed to project a clear and effective public persona and that his presidency is now on the verge of unravelling.
Political commentators are beginning to tire of saying that things can’t get any worse for French Socialist president François Hollande and his government. And yet, catastrophe after catastrophe, things do just keep getting worse. We have now reached the point at which Hollande’s very legitimacy as president is beginning to cave in. And that threatens the whole republic. Protests in Brittany against the proposed “ecotaxe” have united just about everyone against the government, and there is now a real prospect that the conflagration will spread throughout the country.
Hollande is half way through the second year of a five-year term. The first year saw his popularity sliding in inverse proportion to the rise in unemployment, which has climbed as high as 10 per cent. A series of mishaps, from a barrage of tax rises to a very public falling out between his ex-partner, Ségolène Royal, and his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, heaped ridicule on the president, and by the end of that first year, Hollande had become, in record time, the most unpopular leader France has ever known.
He and his advisers made every effort to start year two on a sounder footing. He told his ministers to stop arguing and to clear press interviews with his office. They were to take only very short holidays and preferably in France. His prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and he would take their short breaks in turn so the state didn’t close down for the summer as it has a tendency to do. The government team was seen to be making every effort to put France back on its feet again.
None of it worked. Even the apparently successful military action in Mali in January 2013 allowed Hollande but a brief moment of respite in the polls. Today France is on the brink of dramatic social protest and upheaval from various groups right across French society. An almost palpable mood of national gloom and exasperation is in the air.
The problem is not just the economy, the rocketing taxes, the cuts, the unemployment and the social divisions. It is about the nature of the Fifth Republic and Hollande’s failure to grasp the exigencies of presidential office. There is a general sense that not only does he not know what to do in terms of governmental policy, but doesn’t know how a president is supposed to behave, what he is supposed to be. And it was on this “question of character” that he was elected president in May 2012.
During the presidential campaign of 2012, Hollande was right to attack Sarkozy’s brash, bling, in-your-face style; but in the hyper-personalised presidential system of French politics, you cannot be a president without a character and a perceived relationship to the French, because that character is on show and in action all the time, and in a permanently evolving relationship to public opinion.
In the run up to his election and for a while after, Hollande revelled in his reputation as “Mr Normal” but normal does not actually mean anything; and he has gone zigzagging between ordinary – catching trains instead of planes (that didn’t last long), to trying belatedly to sound “presidential” and just seeming in turns bombastic and banal, such as when he threatened Syria with imminent punishment and then ultimately did nothing. The irony is that Hollande is as much in the spotlight as Sarkozy ever was, but without a defined personality or purpose or sense of direction.
The rather jolly optimistic personality he does have (and it is his real one) is utterly out of touch with the mood of the time right now, and simply infuriates people. It is as if he is in a kind of psychological denial, unable to see the realities of the crisis.
On the edge
The result has been a public reaction that runs from indifference to anger. Every intervention he makes sees his opinion poll ratings fall even further and he now finds himself on the edge of the abyss.
This is partly because the Fifth Republic is personalised to the point of being dysfunctional. Each new president enters into a highly complex relationship with French public opinion. Unlike in many other countries, the president makes grand pronouncements on everything; from threatening to attack Syria to deciding whether a Roma girl can stay in the country. It is a relationship that can be calm and reassuring, but can also be highly volatile. It manifests the range of emotions that we find in real personal relationships, from admiration and respect to the exasperation and fury Hollande is now experiencing.
And because the regime is so personalised, all political competition in the regime is too. In its ten years in opposition after 2002, the Socialist Party spent so much time squabbling amongst itself, it forgot to develop any policies. When it regained power in 2012, its members had no idea how to govern, hence the current chaos in every government department.
Now in power, little of the government’s legislation – apart from the tax rises – seems to have had any effect apart from irritating people, whether it is in education, housing, pension reform, health, the civil service or justice. No bold decisions have been taken on anything, so fearful are the Socialists of upsetting their disintegrating electoral base, and none of the structural reforms that other European countries are putting through have been replicated. Even the gay marriage bill brought the country to the verge of civil strife. In the UK, the same bill took an afternoon to pass.
All these humiliations and missteps came to head on November 11, when Hollande was booed at the national Remembrance Day ceremony and branded a “socialist dictator” by the crowd. The nation itself and the soldiers who died for it are also insulted. No one is taking the Republic seriously.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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John Gaffney – Aston University
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University, and Co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His three most recent books are The Presidents of the French Fifth Republic (with David Bell, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Political Leadership in France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and Celebrity and Stardom in Postwar France (with Diana Holmes, Oxford: Berghahn, 2011). He is currently a Visiting Professor at Sciences-Po, Rennes, and is running a Leverhulme project on political leadership in the UK.