France in the balance

The French love le bilan – the balance sheet – as a way of assessing a politician’s record. Francois Hollande was elected President one year ago on a Manifesto called ’60 commitments to France’ becoming 60 + 1 when Candidate Hollande announced the 75% tax on incomes over €1 Million.

At his inauguration, Hollande stoically braved the storm and was drenched in the process. In the afternoon, his plane was struck by lightning on the way to Berlin. Nobody could miss such an obvious metaphor.

Credit: The Guardian

So the Government has published its official bilan for Year One, and the Prime Minister will be hosting the President and ministers to an anniversary breakfast. Left leaning newspaper Libération gives Hollande a normal result for a normal president at 31 out of 60:

Done: 17
Not done: 13
In progress: 14
Partially or poorly done: 16

Being able to complete 50% of the Manifesto in 20% of the mandate is, in bilan terms, quite a good result, but a balance sheet is unpersuasive compared to a downpour of scandals on the left and right. The socialist Budget Minister, a talented and respected operator, was sacked after his secret Swiss bank account was exposed by Mediapart (on a par with the MP expenses scandal) while the conservatives struggle with court cases over literal suitcases full of money and former President Sarkozy’s dealings.

There are clear reasons to be pessimistic when Hollande’s approval ratings have hit around 26%, considering that George W. Bush left office on 22%. There are clear reasons for concern about his perceived lack of leadership, and admittedly I was one of the first, expressing doubts the day after the election. There are clear reasons why the economy is back in recession, when companies are closing their factories and unemployment, a chronic French problem, carries on increasing.

What is less clear is just how constrained Hollande has been. The balance sheet would tell us that the Socialists are doing better than ever because they control the Elysée (Presidency), Matignon (the Prime Minister’s residence), the Senate, the National Assembly, 21 out of 22 Regional Assemblies, Paris and countless other municipalities.

Gay marriage cannot and must not be overlooked as a crowning social achievement. However, Zapatero racked up countless such social milestones in Spain which were soon forgotten under the weight of the economic crisis. The conservative UMP party, still far from recovering from a post-Sarkozy leadership meltdown, has moved further to the right in pursuit of Front National voters (with striking foreshadowing for the UK Tory party and UKIP). The emergent victor, but not vanquisher, Jean-Francois Copé, embraced the anti- ‘equal marriage’ movement taking inspiration from the US Republican Party. This could be a blunder. They have tried to get back on the front foot, but have scared away moderate voters while taking none from the extreme.

And yet, there is by no means a political open goal for Hollande’s Socialist Party. The political majority that the PS commands is ‘nominal’. While the Greens face their own downswing (after a surge in 2009-2011), with their most recognised character Daniel Cohn-Bendit vocally and publicly abandoning the Party, they are for the most part junior coalition partners with disproportionate influence in Government. The  communist Left Front (Front de Gauche) pose the main internal difficulty. They are nominally part of the Government’s majority but delight in their role as the protest party. Consequently, they are often found on the same side as the Right voting against the Government.

There has been a small rebellion within the PS over the past few weeks. But as the Government sits down to breakfast this week to assess its bilan, the bottom line may not be a crisis from a lack of leadership, but that Hollande is contending with far more and far stronger constraints than anyone had imagined.

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