Hollande: the road to France’s political meltdown

French Flags

François Hollande leading the French government to political meltdown last week was two years in the making.

The French President, François Hollande, is in trouble. In the latest episode of his unpopular government, the socialist President, under attack from the left wing of his own party, has attempted to silence his critics. This week, Hollande’s Prime Minister, the centre-left Manuel Valls, dismissed the government and formed a new one, with high-profile dissenters banished.

It is a gamble with high stakes. Either Hollande will have given himself the breathing space to implement his economic reforms (some labour market liberalisations and tax breaks for business) which, although moderate and centrist from a UK perspective, are anathema to the French hard left and Greens. Or he will have alienated his allies, jeopardised his governing majority in France’s legislature, and will struggle to hang on to power as his party dissolves into internal bickering factions.

The road to this political meltdown has been a long one for the President, and paved with minor calamities. Hollande was elected in May 2012 by a French public tired of former president Nicholas Sarkozy’s bling-encrusted celebrity image, complemented neatly by his supermodel wife, Carla Bruni. But while Hollande’s personality may have been more likeable, his politics fell flat. The early stages of his presidency were seen as characterised by amateurism, inactivity and indecision. Six months into his term of office, a poll for French newspaper Le Figaro found that he was the most unpopular French president ever at this stage of the term.

Although naturally tending to the left, Hollande was bound by EU deficit reduction targets which specify that borrowing should not exceed 3% of GDP. He implemented a modest austerity programme, with some spending cuts alongside tax hikes for the richest. The latter measure was controversial, as the new 75% tax rate was seen as punitive and drove many high income individuals such as the actor Gerard Depardieu to leave France altogether.

Criticised from the right for failing to modernise France’s 1970s economy (a heavily unionised workforce, unaffordably generous pension provision, and totemic measures such as the 35-hour week contribute to the nation’s uncompetitiveness) and by the left for the (relatively halfhearted) attempts he did make to liberalise the economy, Hollande struggled on for two years while economic indicators remained disappointing.

If Hollande’s political performance was unremarkable, his record with the opposite sex was less so. Having left his baby mama and partner of 30 years, Ségolène Royal, for Valerie Trierweiler, a political journalist whom he installed in the Elysée palace on his arrival, he might have been expected to settle down. Yet in January of this year, he was famously reported by Closer magazine to have been engaged in an affair with Julie Gayet, a glamorous younger actress. No intriguing detail was omitted, even down to a report of the presidential bodyguard delivering croissants to the couple’s secret love nest in the morning. Although the scandal did not irrevocably damage Hollande’s political career (love affairs, after all, are fairly commonplace for French presidents), it contributed to his being seen as something of a joke by the electorate.

2014 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the embattled president as a crushing defeat for his socialist party in the local government elections in March was followed by defeat in May’s European elections at the hands of France’s Front Nationale, a hard-right party that has more in common with the BNP than UKIP, and was criticised by Nigel Farage for having ‘anti-semitism’ in its ‘DNA’. After March’s defeat, Hollande replaced his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, with the current incumbent, Manuel Valls, a leader in the Blairite mould who is seen as being more pro-business.

So far, Valls has not had an impact on France’s underperformance. Dismal economic figures released earlier this month showed that France’s growth was at zero, while unemployment remains high. However, his political impact was felt this week. The stats were seized on by the socialist camp as evidence that Hollande’s (mild) austerity programme wasn’t working, and that a new approach was needed. Forced to choose between sticking to Valls’s programme of moderate liberal economic reforms, and calls from the socialist wing of his party to lurch to the left, Hollande decided to stick to Plan A.

Matters came to a head with this Monday’s night of the long knives. Government members aligned with the rebellious hard left were sacked. Of course, now that they have been marginalised, Hollande’s internal detractors will be in open revolt. Will his gamble pay off, or is the president pain grillé? Time will tell.