John Lichfield: Could France get the competent new leader it needs?

Mr Hollande’s economic programme is vaguely promising compared with the “Merkozy” orthodoxy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In May 1981, a Socialist called François, long derided as a brilliant failure, was elected President of France. In May 2012, another Socialist called François, long derided as a brilliant failure, could become the President of our nearest Continental neighbour.

Assume for a moment that the opinion polls are correct. Assume that Nicolas Sarkozy, an energetic and aggressive campaigner, will find no killer response in the next fortnight to François Hollande's uncharismatic, nerveless slog towards the Elysée Palace.

What sort of president might Mr Hollande be? What does the election of a centre-left leader in Europe's second biggest economy mean for Britain? For Europe? For the world?

The election of François Mitterrand was greeted by the French left as the dawn of a glorious new era. Power had shifted to the people.

As it turned out, Mr Mitterrand was swimming against a global tide. It was the 1979 and 1980 elections in Britain and the United States which set the political fashion for three decades. After two years of full-on socialism, President Mitterrand was forced to come into line with the free-market thrust of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

François Hollande is no left-wing ideologue. Nor is he a theoriser, or PR man, for a "New Left". He is France's John Smith. He is an unlikely herald of a "new era". But he will, if elected, come to power at a time when the greed-is-good, markets-rule verities of the Thatcher-Reagan era are discredited. And even some right-wing governments in Europe are discovering the dangers of the Berlin-imposed, all-austerity approach to the euro and sovereign debt crisis.

Mr Hollande's economic programme is vague but it is vaguely promising compared to the "Merkozy" orthodoxy. Mr Hollande promises budgetary responsibility, without saying precisely where the spending cuts will come. He promises higher taxes on big companies and the rich (including a 75 per cent tax on marginal incomes over €1m).

He also promises to find new motors of growth for the stuttering European economy. This means Keynsian-type, EU infrastructure programmes and changes in the European Central Bank's restrictive rules to open the taps of European quantitative easing.

He is not the only person to argue that such policies are essential to prevent a calamitous recession. Italy's Prime Minister, Mario Monti, says much the same. The New York Times columnist, and Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, said recently that Europe would "commit suicide" if it failed to add reflationary policies to budget discipline.

Mr Hollande was mocked two months ago for insisting that the EU fiscal discipline treaty must be reopened to add a new chapter on growth. Berlin would simply say "nein", the commentators said. Some reports now suggest that Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledges reluctantly that she will have to take a more expansive economic line.

The relations between this putative, new Franco-German couple – "Merlande?" – would be fascinating. Both are calm, stubborn and dull. Both are serenely good at getting their own way.

And Britain? Mr Hollande is a convinced European. He will not be an easy European partner for David Cameron but he will be a less tricky neighbour than President Sarkozy. The Independent understands that the Cameron government has received assurances that France under Mr Hollande would continue its partnerships with the UK on shared military capability and a new generation of nuclear power stations. Suggestions Mr Hollande would scrap the nuclear deal signed by London and Paris in March are "utterly without foundation", according to the Hollande camp.

Mr Hollande insists that the 3,600 French troops in Afghanistan must come home at the end of this year. This will be a blow to President Obama, but not a calamitous one. Mr Hollande will not bow to the anti-Americanism of the French left. He said yesterday he would send French troops to Syria if the UN agreed to intervene.

François Mitterrand mis-forecast the spirit of the 1980s. Does Mr Hollande, in his unspectacular way, represent the zeitgeist of 2012 and the difficult "Teeny" years ahead? "Hollandisme" could provide a competent, pragmatic, managerial escape-route from the mess we are all in. On the other hand, it could turn out to be a well-meaning muddle.

If Mr Hollande fails, the face of the "Teenies" in Europe could be ugly: something like the anti-market populism of the new hero of the French hard-left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon; or the white-collar xenophobia of Marine Le Pen.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a compelling candidate, but an erratic and divisive President. François Hollande is, by comparison, a dull candidate. There are many reasons to hope that he would, if elected, prove to be a quietly effective and consensual leader.