Francois Hollande: political magician
France may be in the economic merde right now, but the French president has a cunning trick up his sleeve: doing nothing.
The French, generally, don’t go in for self-derision. But as the old joke goes, the French national emblem, the Gallic cock, is the only bird who crows on a pile of dung. Today, he isn’t crowing at all. France is no longer on a pile of merde – it is in it.
Public confidence in politicians is at an all-time low. Pressure from the bottom up, one of the country’s favourite pastimes, has become a caricature. One million people turned up in Paris to demonstrate against gay marriage, yet there was not one banner against unemployment, currently at 10.5 per cent and rising. Voters who put their faith in the Socialist Party last year are now confirmed agnostics. That’s what comes from electing a president on the sole basis of hating the one before.
Living standards and buying power are falling. The middle class is being squeezed; their pips are not squeaking yet, but there is plenty of time. Hollande’s promise to tax the rich at 75 per cent fell flat on its face, thrown out of court for being anti-constitutional. In the meantime, the government is grabbing taxes elsewhere and everywhere in an attempt to bring down the public debt. French state spending is at 57 per cent of GDP, the highest in Europe. For a population of 66million, public-sector employment spending is equivalent to 35 per cent of GDP; in the UK, with roughly the same population, public-sector employment costs 20 per cent of GDP and in Germany, with 82million people, it is 31 per cent.
Private-sector investment is on drip feed. Startups are a no-fly zone. It is as if the state is at war with private enterprise. The French naturally mistrust capitalists, whether they are big corporations or small businesses. The attitude is that a boss is a boss and he’s always raking it in. If you flaunt your wealth, you risk being abused by the press. Last week, the government cut the subsidy for firms employing apprentices by half, from €500,000 to €250,000, and that, under pressure from the employers’ federation, was a volte face; the government had wanted to do away with the lot.
Banks are not lending, even though interest rates are low. Taxes on labour are 100 per cent of net salary. How can you expect them to invest in your project if the state is already poised to pounce on the lion’s share of any profit you make? Former US President George W Bush is credited (probably apochraphally) with the quip: ‘The trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Whether Bush’s comment was a joke, a gaffe or a myth, it rings true nonetheless.
The other thing the French have is a phobia about globalisation, which they fear will drown their national culture. Their national angst stems from their fear of competition.
Wines from the New World are held in disdain. A Stilton cheese from England speaks for itself, but a French person’s comments on tasting it are muted. French competitiveness on the international front is indeed a problem. Wages are low, but social taxes on employment shunt industry into the sidings.
France is reluctant to make reforms. The word ‘reform’ is practically banned from the language. The aftertaste of the belle époque of the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies still lingers on the tongue like a Gevry Chambertin. The laurels of the past are still worn with pride even though they wither. The long years of Mitterand and Chirac maintained the status quo. Sarkozy was Mr Bling because he flirted with Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism. He was guillotined.
François Hollande won the presidential election on the promise of an anti-austerity programme, hinting at sympathy with southern Europe and not with Germany. A year later, France is creaking at the seams. Growth, the idea of it, merits lip service; it is not a dirty word, it has just become very elusive.
Here I have to introduce a new word the French have coined: Hollandisme. It means that which is subtle and slippery, he who runs with the hare and the hounds, he who sits on the fence, he who is master of the art of doing nothing and making it seem like he’s run a marathon. For example, on 16 May this year, Hollande said: ‘The battle against unemployment will be won in the long term only if growth returns’, as if it depended on seasonal rains. He added: ‘It is very important that the French say to themselves… the recovery can happen… because confidence restores consumption and investment.’ Recovery, it seems, is simply a question of being optimistic.
Hollande returned to the theme in July: ‘I will fight against pessimism.’ On the beaches of Brittany, perhaps? Hollandisme is also contagious. The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said recently, after the public auditors announced disastrous figures: ‘Ah well, it seems growth won’t arrive until next year.’ On Bastille Day, 14 July, in the Élysée’s gardens, the president said, ‘Politics is not magic’. Then five minutes later: ‘The recovery is here.’ Monsieur le Prestidigitateur!
My personal favourite is: ‘It is in seeing far ahead that we can change the perception of the present.’ I always thought our perception of the present shapes the future. But who cares, it sounds like philosophy, doesn’t it?
Depoliticisation is the corollary to the prevailing mood of human scepticism. Hollandisme is its reflection in political discourse. It is the echo in the valley of ‘We can do nothing’. Hollande is excused and not run to earth because everyone believes humanity’s horizons are limited and the little that humans can do to influence events can create a great deal of damage.
Julian Lagnado is a writer living in France.
Picture: Matthieu Riegler, CC-BY / Wikimedia Commons
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