France is losing patience with its ‘Mr Normal’ president and his anti-austerity policies

If Cameron thinks he's got it bad, he should take a look across the channel, where Hollande's host of problems is proving just as tricky

Duck, lame rather than roast, will be on the menu when François Hollande hosts David Cameron for a working dinner at the Elysée Palace tonight. Cameron’s problems after almost three years in office are dwarfed by the debilitating compound of crises facing President Hollande after less than a year. One usually cautious political commentator, Michel Wieviorka, yesterday described the political, economic and moral situation across the Channel as a “generalised disaster”.

Hollande was already deep in the merde – reduced to a mere 25 per cent popularity in one poll – before a sewer main exploded in his face last Tuesday. Unemployment is rising towards an all-time high of 11 per cent. The economy has stalled at zero growth. A poisonous, confrontational mood – reminiscent of the divided France of the 1930s – is spreading from the political extremes to the bourgeois right. Then, calamity. Hollande’s former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac – the man responsible, until last month, for spending cuts and a campaign against tax evasion – admitted that he had been cheating the taxman for two decades by placing large sums in undeclared foreign bank accounts.

The “affaire Cahuzac” is an explosive charge that could have been specifically designed to detonate what remains of the President’s credibility. Hollande, the would-be “normal President”, defeated Nicolas Sarkozy last Spring with a promise to make “big finance” his enemy. He is attempting to make the super-rich pay punitive taxes. He has insisted, to the point of priggishness, that he is running an “irreproachably” clean government and a modest, unassuming presidency. In other words: I’m not like that previous bloke, who was all Rolex watches, flash friends (and wives), and dubious dealings.

The “clean” president now stands accused of double standards and poor judgement in giving such a high-profile job to an ostentatious, self-made man who made a fortune as a cosmetic surgeon and smuggled millions of euros out of the country. He is also accused of softness and hesitant leadership in not firing Cahuzac when the first accusations surfaced, on an investigative website four months ago.

Meanwhile, the tax-loving Socialists are accused of hypocrisy on an industrial scale. After the “affaire DSK” and the many, overlapping “affaires Sarkozy”,  the Cahuzac scandal provides lurid ammunition for hard-right and hard-left claims that France has been stolen by a corrupt elite. In truth, the country is probably less financially corrupt than in, say, the Mitterrand-Chirac years, precisely because it has become harder to get away with that kind of thing. Nonetheless, the scandal will deepen the bizarrely revolutionary mood that has gripped the country’s centre-right. Demonstrations against Hollande’s gay marriage law have already turned into an aggressive rejection of the left’s moral right to run the country. 

Hollande will, at some point in the next few days or weeks, do what unpopular French presidents usually do. He will fire his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appoint a new government. It may be too late. Hollande’s authority has been sapped to an alarming degree. Eleven months into his five years in office, he appears doomed to failure. Even his modest reform programme may be beyond him. And within the ranks of his own centre-left, it is beginning to be whispered that the President is “not up to the job”. One Socialist deputy said: “François is too nice, too soft, too hesitant, too invisible. Mitterrand was unpopular but, somehow, he managed to fill the Elysée, and the whole country, with his personality.” 

In some ways the criticism is unfair. France has traditionally elected presidents who promise change, and then protested when they alter anything. Despite his vacuous slogan – “Change. It’s Now”, Hollande was manifestly a muddle-through kind of politician. Yet France is angry that he is trying to muddle through. In an epoch of big questions – how to rescue the prosperity of the West; how to preserve the European welfare model; how to preserve the euro and the EU – Hollande offers mostly small answers: a job-creation scheme for the young; tinkering with the pension and tax systems. The president has been mocked for talking of his “box of tools” in a TV interview just before the Cahuzac scandal exploded. Cartoonists now portray him as a dishevelled plumber facing a tsunami.

There are some Hollande achievements. An important agreement has been negotiated, at his prodding, between employers and the three large, moderate trades union federations. When passed into law in the next few months, it should offer the kind of labour market flexibility – making it easier to hire and fire, in exchange for some concessions to the unions – which France has long spoken of but never attempted. But, like Cameron, Hollande has discovered that, unless you are German, it is impossible to square the circle of deficit-cutting and growth creation. He will miss the Eurozone target of a deficit of just 3 per cent this year, although he deserves some credit for resisting the expansion of public spending. Next year’s budget will be the first for 30 years to shrink in real terms. But he has yet to attack the worst extravagances of the French state; or find a way of turning sensible public investment into growth.

Hollande also deserves credit for his decisive handling of the crisis in Mali. He has rejected calls from the finance ministry for cuts to the defence budget which would, in effect, have abolished the French army and shrunk the military to the nuclear deterrent, special forces, and a small navy and air force. Indeed, apart from the EU (where they diverge sharply), defence will be the biggest subject on tonight’s Cameron-Hollande agenda. Cuts in both countries mean that the two old enemies will be forced to pool more and more military tasks.

Cameron and Hollande are twins in other ways. Both came to power promising to be Not Someone Else (Thatcher, Blair; Sarkozy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn). Both have, until now, been lucky politicians who managed to be at the right place at the right time. Both ran out of luck in power. Both now depend on a miraculous recovery in the world economy to refloat their boats before the next election. Cameron has two years for the tide to rise; Hollande has four.

But France, unlike Britain, does not need elections to express its anger.  Unemployment is doomed to exceed 11 per cent by the summer. Further revelations of tax-dodging by politicians of both right and left are said to be on the way. The centre-right is talking of a “May 1968, in reverse”. The hard left is talking of a revolution against the elite, starting with street demonstrations on 5 May. François Hollande, the normal president, may be the first leader of the Fifth Republic to face simultaneous insurrection by right and left.