One year in, François Hollande has alienated most voters, antagonised Angela Merkel, driven droves of French into exile and presided over a worsening economy. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet reports.
With hindsight, it seems as if François Hollande’s troubles started the day he was inaugurated, on May 15 2012. First he was drenched by a surprise storm as his open Citroën drove up the Champs-Elysées. Then, the very same day, his Falcon plane was hit by lightning on the way to Berlin, where he was scheduled to meet Angela Merkel – making it possibly the first and last time the German Chancellor has felt unreserved sympathy for him.
The new president had to turn back before travelling to Berlin in another aircraft. When he got there – in more pouring rain – he missed a turn on the airfield red carpet while reviewing German troops, and had to be steered back in the right direction by Mrs Merkel’s firm grip on his elbow, a moment that presciently symbolised their future relationship.
And everything went downhill from there.
One year later, the man who had billed himself as the “normal president” during his victorious campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy is breaking records for unpopularity. With 75 per cent against him, Hollande is scoring the lowest approval ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic since the country started conducting polls. Unemployment has risen by 11.5 per cent since his election, reaching an all-time high of 3.2 million. An estimated 150,000 young people have left the country in search of better prospects abroad: the only jobs created in France have been in the public sector, usually in fields such as teaching that are solidly controlled by Socialist voters.
Despite a widely touted “austerity” drive, public spending stands at 57 per cent of GDP – the figure in Britain is 45 per cent – and the country’s public debt is about to reach 94 per cent of GDP. The largest street demonstrations since 1984 – when the country also had a Socialist president, François Mitterrand – have brought more than a million people on to the streets of Paris on two occasions (and more are planned), to protest against justice minister Christiane Taubira’s new law on gay marriage and adoption: given that France is a fairly tolerant society, these were effectively a street referendum against Hollande.
France’s very visible spat with Germany is a good example of how Hollande manages to make a bad situation worse. It is hardly new for French and German governments to disagree on economic issues; nor is it unusual that its leaders belong to different political parties. Yet, mindful of the European leverage afforded by the French-German axis, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a conservative, was excellent friends with the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, while the Socialist Mitterrand spoke in almost Gaullian terms of his German counterpart, the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl. Even Jacques Chirac never clashed with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the way he did (as PM) with Margaret Thatcher.
Hollande, however, still seems to manage France the way he managed rival “currents” during his long tenure as Socialist Party leader, trying to play one against the other while trying to keep everyone happy by granting them some sort of concession. This was in evidence at last year’s European summit, where instead of sitting down with Mrs Merkel to hammer out a viable compromise, he tried to rustle up an alliance with Spain and Italy behind her back, thinking this would be enough to counter the German position.
“This may work in Corrèze [Hollande’s constituency in central France]; it doesn’t in the real world,” a French diplomat commented at the time. “At the end of the day, the Germans were annoyed, the French line was all but absent from the final communiqué – and Mrs Merkel and David Cameron found themselves in closer alliance than they’d ever been.”
Recently, a trio of ministers including the flamboyant Arnaud Montebourg, minister for industrial recovery, started making increasingly belligerent statements about “German-imposed austerity”, accusing Mrs Merkel of “egotistical intransigence” and calling for “a democratic confrontation with Germany”, without being taken to task by the president.
It didn’t take long for Mrs Merkel’s entourage, who are much savvier in the ways of French politics than the French are about Berlin affairs, to counterleak a memo – plausibly produced by the Chancellor’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats – on France being “Europe’s biggest problem child”, with a stalled economy and a “meandering” reform programme. Mrs Merkel then gave a perfunctory denial that she thought anything of the kind.
The truth is that she is incensed with Hollande, not least because of her growing conviction that the French president and his spin doctors allowed the German-bashing because they felt that it would displace domestic dissatisfaction with Hollande on to Germany.
Even the notoriously complacent French press is now giving the president a hard time. “Is 'GrandPa’ [one of Hollande’s mildest nicknames] really up to it?” asked the news magazine L’Express on a recent cover. Le Point called him “Monsieur Faible” – Mr Weak – after Hollande confessed that he hadn’t believed the economic crisis would “last so long”.
No relief was to be expected after the announcement yesterday that Arnaud Montebourg had scuppered a deal by which Yahoo had agreed to acquire 75 per cent of Dailymotion, a successful French internet video site, valuing it at $300 million. “Yahoo wants to devour Dailymotion, but we told them no and that it had to be a 50:50 split,” the avowedly anti-American Montebourg boasted to Europe 1 radio. Whereupon Yahoo called the whole thing off.
Similar grandstanding by Montebourg had already driven the Indian tycoon Lakshmi Mittal from the Florange steelworks in Lorraine, and the American company Titan International from a floundering Goodyear tyre plant in northern France.
“The country is drowning in an ocean of discouragement,” said Christophe Barbier, the influential editor of L’Express. “It’s not just the tax-avoiding rich, artists like Gérard Depardieu, businessmen – everyone is now tempted to leave for a better life elsewhere. Young people feel they will never get a break, a job, a sign of trust. Entrepreneurs have to fend off red tape, rising costs and levies.”
In April, to add to this toxic climate, came the Cahuzac scandal: France’s budget minister, the man in charge of fighting tax fraud, was revealed to have a secret bank account in Switzerland – and in all likelihood another in Singapore – and to have lied to the president and parliament about it.
In the past week, polls have given Marine Le Pen, the far-Right National Front leader, record numbers in a hypothetical presidential election – 23 per cent, well above Hollande at 19 per cent, while Sarkozy scored 34 per cent. Were Sarkozy to stand, he would beat Le Pen easily in the second round but the talk in France has been of the dangers of Fascism, beginning with the very real distrust of all politicians and of the ruling class.
It says a lot about Hollande’s tin ear that he chose that very moment to compel ministers to disclose their personal assets, arguing for the virtues of “transparency” against corruption. This may work in the United States, where personal success is admired: but in France, a country where unregenerated Marxist thought still largely holds sway, overlaying a centuries-old Catholic mistrust of money, it prompted Claude Bartolone, the Socialist Speaker of the National Assembly, who is fighting suggestions of a similar obligation for MPs, to talk of “voyeurism and envy”.
Embattled in the Élysée Palace, where at times it seems his only remaining supporter is his partner Valérie Trierweiler – a woman so unpopular that Hollande has to fend off unpleasant remarks about her during his rare walkabouts – the president is now mulling a cabinet reshuffle as a way of signalling to the French that he has taken their displeasure on board.
But whom to choose to replace his weak prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German language teacher? The 2007 Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, is unacceptable to Mme Trierweiler. The former Socialist leader Martine Aubry, Jacques Delors’s daughter and the artisan of the rigid 35-hour working week, may be unacceptable to Mrs Merkel. François Mitterrand’s former PM, Laurent Fabius, now the foreign minister, is hampered by having just been revealed to be the richest man in the Cabinet.
Hollande’s instinct is probably to try to trundle along with the same tired team. His latest attempt to show that the presidency is doing its part to relieve the public debt has been to announce that he will sell part of its cellar of fine wines, lovingly accrued since the Vincent Auriol presidency in 1947.
On May 30 and 31, 2,200-euro bottles of 1990 Pétrus and Château d’Yquem will be auctioned off, “to be replaced by more modest vintages”, according to the president. So speaks a self-proclaimed modest man, who may be feeling that he has a lot to be modest about.
© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013