François Hollande: A quiet man and his quiet revolution

His vision of 'France 2025' is a botched PR exercise – or is it? John Lichfield decides

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The Independent Online

Politicians are habitually accused of having a strategic vision whose horizon is the next election or the next opinion poll.

How refreshing that President François Hollande should devote a day of cabinet time last week to imagining the "France of 2025". At least part of the intention was to suggest that the snail-like pace of Hollandism over the past 14 months was leading the country slowly … somewhere.

Several ministers attracted ridicule by giving shallow, Pollyanna-ish visions of the future in their written contributions. The France of 2025 would have "full employment"; a "booming manufacturing industry"; half-empty prisons; cheap and plentiful housing; a well-funded pensions system.

Mr Hollande's experiment in long-termism risked becoming a crass exercise in short-term electoralism. The event was rubbished by part of the media and by the political opposition (both the right and the hard left) as a "surreal" PR exercise.

The man in charge of the "2025 seminar" at the Elysée Palace, Jean Pisani-Ferry, France's "commissioner-general for strategy", was more bleakly realistic. "France in 10 years' time will be older, smaller and poorer," he said.

But that was all "relative" to developing countries and no absolute cause for despair. So long as they confronted rather than evaded the challenges of globalism, he said, the French still had "many trump cards" to play.

By this weekend the many tribes of the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) had reverted to their favourite pastime. Mr Hollande's attempt to give the electorate, and his own troops, a sense of direction, was forgotten. At the party's four-day "summer university" or annual conference at La Rochelle, ending today, the Socialists are tearing themselves apart over whether Mr Hollande's government is left enough; whether the hard-line interior minister, Manuel Valls, is left-wing at all; and whether the government is going anywhere.

If the "2025 seminar" was just a PR exercise, it was a botched one, like most of the previous attempts to relaunch or re-explain "Hollandisme" to the French, and to the wider world, since he became President in June last year. And yet there are reasons to believe that François Hollande may be getting one or two things right.

France and Europe are entering a critical period. The tentative signs of recovery in the eurozone could strengthen or evaporate in the next four months depending on the continuing strength of Germany, but also, perhaps more importantly, on whether confidence is returning to France, Europe's second-largest economy.

Unexpectedly, French economic activity grew by 0.5 per cent in the second quarter of this year after two quarters of decline. This, from out of the blue, was a performance as strong as the United Kingdom and almost as strong as Germany. The French stock exchange has gained 11 per cent in the past eight weeks.

The picture is blurred or confusing. Consumption in France, though unpredictable month by month, is recovering. Manufacturing, after a boom in April, has started to fall away again. The next unemployment figures, due on Tuesday, may be poor but Mr Hollande's mantra that the relentless tide of increasing joblessness will turn by the end of the year no longer looks foolishly impossible.

If he turns out to be right, his opinion-poll ratings, and domestic and international confidence in the French economy, could rise. Arguably, this would be none of the President's doing.

He has often been a "lucky politician". He became President because Dominique Strauss-Kahn self-destructed and Nicolas Sarkozy imploded. His hopes of re-election in 2017 – not to be written off – depend on a global economic recovery which may, or may not, have just begun,

But what has Mr Hollande actually achieved? Not a great deal so far but not as little as his critics, of both right and left, suggest.

François Hollande believes that France cannot be reformed by frontal assault but only by incremental changes, agreed by broad consensus. His apologists say that he will turn out to be a Sarkozy in reverse: a quiet man who gets things done quietly; rather than a noisy man who gets little done noisily.

The labour market reforms agreed in the spring by negotiations between employers and moderate unions, refereed by the government, may seem modest. In French terms, they are modestly revolutionary: a move away from the rigidity of the French hiring and firing system towards a Scandinavian model of "flexisecurity", which balances employers' interests and workers' rights.

The President is now trying to push the "social partners" towards an equally historic compromise on the future of the state's pension system.

Mr Hollande's government is the first French administration in 40 years to reduce seriously state debt. It has mostly done so by raising taxes (some of which have yet to take effect). In theory, the sprawling French state apparatus will begin to feel the pain of cuts next year.

If the economy continues to recover, the government's task will be easier. If it stutters, the Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, will face the difficult job of trying to keep within the somewhat relaxed eurozone deficit guidelines without steep new rises in taxes. He made the startling discovery last week that France is overtaxed and admitted that new hikes would be counterproductive.

The "2025" seminar, stripped of its failed PR wrapping, can also be seen as part of Mr Hollande's gentle nudge, or plodding, approach to reform.

France is often accused of wanting to turn its back on a globalised world. The Elysée Palace says that the "France of 2025" exercise, to be completed by the end of the year, will prepare French public opinion for the difficulties that lie ahead.

One official said: "The intention is to look at the challenges we face so we don't miss the train to the future: to start work now on the strategic choices which will give new momentum to our nation and allow the French to feel confident in their future."

This is not a return to "Colbertist" state-planning, says Mr Pisani-Ferry, France's "Monsieur Futur". France can no longer plan its future alone. "We have to decide how we are going to climb aboard a process of globalisation which we will not be piloting," he said.

Three main areas for discussion were identified last week. In the face of growing nationalism and "sovereigntism" (including several Eurosceptic statements by Mr Hollande), what should be France's future role in Europe? Which industrial sectors should be encouraged and given limited state cash? How can France become more peaceful internally in the face of worsening social and racial divisions?

Looking forward 12 years may not be as dotty as it seems. All the same, François Hollande's presidency will be defined in the next four months. If growth falters and unemployment continues to increase beyond January, the results in next spring's municipal and European elections will be calamitous. If so, Mr Hollande's experiment in consensual, muddle-along reform could come to a crashing end long before 2025.