As his second year in the Elysée Palace gets under way, François Hollande looks increasingly beset on all sides. Caught between competing promises to shrink France’s budget deficit, boost growth and create jobs – none of which is being delivered – he is the least popular French leader in modern times. Even the lift from France’s intervention in Mali has evaporated.
Given the polls suggesting that the French are now even more Euro-hostile than the British, Mr Hollande’s response to his predicament appears an ill-considered one. Not so much in his intention, announced with great fanfare on Thursday, to rebuild his presidency. But in his decision to do it around an “offensive” for a more integrated European Union. Indeed, Mr Hollande is not only proposing a eurozone “government” that meets every month. He also wants the wider EU to move to “political union” – that is, a more integrated federal state – within two years.
A paradox? Not quite. Much of France’s Euroscepticism is the reverse image of the British version. It springs from a belief that Europe is too obsessed with markets and competition; too fond of austerity; in other words, too British. Thus, Mr Hollande hopes his offensive will persuade left-wing voters that he can remodel the EU in France’s image, with all the job programmes for the young, growth-promotion policies and focus on European solidarity that that implies.
Evidently, the gap between Dover and Calais is growing wider. It is far from certain that the German Chancellor is willing to move either as far or as fast as Mr Hollande would like. But there are tricky implications here for Britain, nonetheless. Even a small shift by Angela Merkel will sit at odds with David Cameron’s free-trade-focused conception of Europe.
And yet, amid the rhetoric, there remained a glaring imbalance at the heart of this week’s combative press conference from the French President. Such high ambitions for the EU stand in stark contrast with his timid ambitions for reviving the French economy.
The situation is dire, indeed. Mr Hollande’s pronouncements came just days after official statistics showed France stumbling back into recession for the third time in five years. Unemployment is rising towards an all-time record of 11 per cent; and all the usual motors of growth – manufacturing output, consumption, investment, foreign trade – have stalled.
Mr Hollande’s response to this crisis is merely more of the muddle-along politics of his first 12 months in office. He did show some courage – in admitting, finally, that life expectancies being what they now are, the French must start working for “a little longer”. He has also persuaded employers and some trade unions to accept a law which should make hiring and firing less of a legal nightmare.
But, as with his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande has yet to attack seriously the two main handicaps which France has imposed on its own economy. The first are the high payroll taxes (to fund the welfare state) which push the cost of labour so much above that of Germany or Britain. The second is the unreconstructed sprawl of a state apparatus which still finds it necessary to have, for instance, a tax-collection office in almost every small town.
Mr Hollande is, in many ways, a clever and likeable man. He is also a classic product of the elite finishing schools for the French governing class that British author Peter Gumbel characterises in his book on the subject as a system that teaches France’s rulers how to analyse complex problems, but not how to solve them. Of this, too, Mr Hollande is a perfect example. He addressed all the big questions on Thursday. Yet, with the exception of his vision of a more powerful EU, he offered only small-scale answers. This is not only a worry for France itself. With the European economy tottering, and the future of the single currency reliant on leadership as much as on shared values, it is a worry for us all.