The French malady

An unpopular President lacks the courage and capital to combat deeply entrenched problems

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There are two types of political unpopularity, as President François Hollande is discovering. The first is the type endured when a political leader is taking “tough but necessary” decisions, especially mid-term. The pain is felt by the voters, who express their disapproval in polls, by-elections and the like. In a British context this might be termed the “Thatcher model”. Eventually the gains become apparent and popularity is revived. The second type is where a leader is simply incoherent, undertaking just enough reform to make themselves and their administration hated, but not sufficient to deliver much gain, or electoral dividend, by the time polling days arrives. One might term this the “Major model”.

Thus, the fact that he is the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic should not necessarily concern Mr Hollande unduly. He is a year in to a long (five-year) term of office and, were he pursuing the policies and reforms France so desperately needs, he would be assured that at least he was doing the right thing and that the nation, and his popularity, would benefit in due course, Thatcher-style.

The truth, of course, is that Mr Hollande is following the John Major model, trimming ineffectually at the edges of welfare and labour market reform, but time is running out for the floundering French economy. France’s economic problem is simply stated: it is uncompetitive and generates nowhere near enough jobs to provide its young people with a future. That is not new – the riots in the banlieues a decade ago attest to that. But the sluggish growth performance of the French economy is starting to erode the living standards of France’s spoiled middle classes (though not yet its farmers).

Mr Hollande, during his election campaign and after, soothed the voters with an essentially fraudulent manifesto: that taxing the rich and bashing the bankers was the answer to the malaise. It was never going to be, of course, and the real problems persist: a state that spends almost six in every 10 euros; dirigiste and chauvinistic policies from agriculture to cars that are protectionist (this is a country that regards yoghurt making as a “strategic” national interest); a sclerotic labour market; too-generous welfare payments; and an attachment to a way of life, a culture, a language and cuisine that critics describe as xenophobic. French is a beautiful language and the baguette a wonderful gift to mankind, but the obsession with resisting Anglo-Saxon conveniences, even as supermarket bread and McDonalds appeal to more and more customers, is symptomatic of a people less than at ease with itself.

So Mr Hollande follows Nicolas Sarkozy in falling victim to this malady; he reflects a national desire to restore France as a great economic power, but is unwilling to face down the vested interests that defeat any attempt to deliver the reforms upon which that power, and prosperity, depend. It may be that Mr Hollande will follow the example set by François Mitterrand in the 1980s. After a brief socialist experiment, crowned by the adoption of a 35-hour working week, Mr Mitterrand U-turned his way to fiscal conservatism, coupled with a “franc fort” that disciplined the economy and led to the single currency. Thus far, Mr Hollande does not seem to be made of the same stuff.

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