Will President François Hollande’s decision to send French troops into battle against the insurgent fundamentalists in Mali prove a turning point for his faltering presidency? Not for the first time, a nice little war may serve to rescue a failing political reputation.
Hollande’s approval rating jumped from 40 to 44 per cent in the days after the Mali conflict began. Suddenly the man known as ‘Flanby’ — after the French wobbly pudding — looked tough. Pierre Méhaignerie, a former minister under François Mitterrand, applauded Hollande for ‘showing decisiveness, something he has not shown on other issues’.
On Monday, the French-led forces reoccupied Timbuktu, and the rebels were reported to be in retreat. But already ‘the Mali effect’ may be starting to wear off. Last week one French poll found that 60 per cent of voters had not changed their view of the President since the conflict began, and 10 per cent said that they thought less of him. As the war continues, French public opinion may decide that sending a brigade of 3,000 men to invade the Sahara desert was not such a bright idea. Particularly since Hollande’s hasty decision was taken without consulting the National Assembly.
Whereas the French army is limited by UN authority to supporting the Malian government within Mali, the people Hollande routinely describes as ‘les terroristes’ can cross unpatrolled desert borders at will. They can fade in and out of Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Niger, to name but four Saharan states where they will find refuge and assistance. And from there they can strike, taking hostages and damaging valuable infrastructure without warning.
Donning the mantle of commander-in-chief was particularly tempting for President Hollande following the humiliation caused by ‘l’affaire Depardieu’. In flight from the Socialist government’s 75 per cent top rate of income tax, Gérard Depardieu, a French national icon, applied for both a Belgian and a Russian passport. Depardieu then paid for his new Russian passport with fulsome references to the humanity of Vladimir Putin and ‘this great democracy’.
Depardieu’s antics became a national embarrassment but were actually a distraction from a serious development. Recent finance ministry figures have suggested that the number of wealthy tax exiles has remained stable in recent years. But these were contradicted when the Belgian government announced that the number of French citizens seeking Belgian nationality had doubled. (This led to a memorable headline in Le Monde — ‘More and more French want to be Belgian’.) Then the Banque de France’s latest data revealed that in the two months following Hollande’s first budget, last autumn, capital outflows had risen to €53 billion. The smartest money may already have left France.
Faced with a major economic crisis — rising unemployment, low growth, rising public debt and waning productivity — Hollande’s inability to attain the necessary heights of political authority has been acknowledged by his most devoted supporters. The minister of defence, a close political ally, recently said, ‘He has proved that he is normal’ (in contrast to his hyperactive predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy). ‘Now he must show that he can raise his game to the required level.’
Hollande was elected on the promise that he would end Sarko’s austerity programme and replace it with a dynamic period of growth driven by increased government spending. ‘Austerity is not inevitable,’ was his campaign slogan. He promised to cancel Sarkozy’s proposed increase in VAT, renegotiate Sarkozy’s assent to the European Budget Treaty and crack down on ‘le capitalisme sauvage’.
In fact, Hollande was forced to introduce a budget that cut government spending by €10 billion and increased taxes, including VAT, and the European Treaty has been signed exactly as it stood. As for the
wicked capitalists, in his New Year’s Day speech Hollande flattered them as ‘men of talent’ and urged them to lead the drive for growth.
Whereas United Kingdom unemployment is now below 8 per cent, and falling, France’s unemployment figures have been rising for 19 months in succession, making it impossible for Hollande to escape his due share of responsibility. In the course of his five-year presidency Sarkozy saw unemployment rise by 1.1 million. In his first six months Hollande managed to increase it by a further 240,000. This has made the Elysée’s explanation for the figures — that they were due to historical low growth and long-term industrial decline — ring rather hollow. Unemployment is now above 10.5 per cent, a level that is regarded as catastrophic. A record 4.6 million people in France are seeking work.
Economics is always tricky, but the question of ‘le mariage gay’ might look like a no-brainer for a Socialist president in quest of an easy win. Yet even here Hollande has succeeded in throwing away a strong hand. The introduction of ‘marriage for all’ was one of his election manifesto promises. But faced with aggressive opposition from French Catholics, he abandoned his initial support and proposed that gay marriage was a matter that could be ‘left to the conscience’ of the individual mayors who conduct France’s civil marriage ceremonies. Then, faced with predictable outrage from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transsexual Alliance, he withdrew his proposed compromise, and pressed ahead with his original bill.
The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, has skilfully based his opposition to gay marriage on the human rights of children, so shifting the public debate away from accusations of homophobia. From there Catholic intellectuals, atheist social workers and even some gay activists have formed an unlikely alliance of concern. Last Tuesday, 340,000 opponents of gay marriage marched through Paris.
President Hollande’s difficulties have been particularly badly received on the political left. French Socialists do not expect the President of the Republic to be wrong-footed by both ‘a drunken, incontinent windbag’ (Depardieu) and the Archbishop of Paris. Not surprisingly Hollande’s majority in the National Assembly, formed by a loose coalition of the Socialist party, the Greens and the Centre-Left, is starting to show signs of strain.
Hollande’s problems have not been eased by the activities of Arnaud Montebourg, the ambitious poseur and ‘minister for industrial recovery’. To understand the impact of Montebourg’s arrival in power, a British voter would need to experience a nightmare in which he discovered that following the last general election he had finally got rid of Gordon Brown only to find that the man put in charge of sorting out the mess was Ed Balls. Every time Montebourg opens his mouth the left cheers, and industry — much of which he wants to nationalise — shudders.
All this will come as music to the battered ears of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. François Hollande was never supposed to have been in his current exalted position, since the French Socialist party’s favourite candidate for the presidency was Strauss-Kahn, a tough-minded social democrat, at that time director general of the International Monetary Fund, formerly French minister of finance and also, by chance, like Hollande, extremely short.
But DSK’s political career was brought to a juddering halt by his catastrophic decision to assault a much taller person, a New York hotel chambermaid built like a member of the Pontypool front row. (Initially charged with rape, DSK eventually agreed to pay the hotel maid $6 million in damages after the criminal case against him was dropped on the grounds that she might have proved an unreliable witness.) He still faces vice charges in France.
Then last December the IMF, DSK’s former power base, warned that the French economy could be in worse trouble than either Italy or Spain. Even Greece, the official basket case, has elected a government which agrees that there is a debt problem and says that it is determined to fix it. In the case of France there is no such glimmer of light.
Without a quick win in Mali, President Hollande could find that his military adventure helps him as little as France’s previous North African war, in Libya, helped the re-election of Sarkozy.
A globalised economy and a world financial crisis have done little to alter the antique structure of French society and politics. In the opinion polls demands for tougher Socialist solutions are growing. For Montebourg, salvation lies in a wave of ‘nationalisations temporaires’. François Hollande pins his faith in ‘the new culture of social bargaining’ — which will increase union powers and oblige employers to fund private health insurance, among other things. ‘Unemployment,’ declares Hollande, ‘will start to fall within 12 months.’ Perhaps, unless this target proves as much of a mirage as chasing wraiths across the desert sands.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013