Patrick Marnham

Hollande’s hollow crown

The French president is looking more hopeless than ever. But he has good reason to be plotting a run for re-election

Hollande’s hollow crown
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Sitting on a crowded café terrace in Rue Saint-Antoine on a sunny evening last week, there was no sense of national crisis. When a motor scooter backfired, no one jumped. The constant racket of police car sirens was ignored. The National Assembly had just voted for the third extension of a seven-month ‘national emergency’ following terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and 368 injured. But talk of violence in the streets generally referred to the police; have they been too rough with the student demonstrators who are conducting all-night sit-ins in the nearby Place de La République?

The student demonstrations have been provoked by the government’s new employment law, which is designed to reduce unemployment by making it less expensive for employers to take on new (and largely youthful) staff. Naturally the students are savagely opposed to this idea. Their movement is called ‘Nuit Debout’ (Up All Night) and has spread across France. Their opponents have rechristened it ‘Dormir Debout’ (Asleep on their Feet) but the students are supported by the powerful CGT union, which has done everything in its power to wreck a flagship reform for the Socialist administration that could deal a significant blow to what remains of France’s near-bankrupt ‘tax and spend’ economy. In the event — and in the face of fierce opposition from many of its own supporters — the government managed to force through an emasculated version of the law under Article 49.3 (that is, by decree), and just survived the ensuing no-confidence motion.

There is a year to go until the next presidential election and for many voters the delay is far too long. According to the head of the DGSI (French MI5), France is ‘Enemy No. 1’ for Islamic terrorism, a point underlined by the Paris-Cairo air crash. Yet in a recent opinion poll, 89 per cent agreed that the country is in urgent need of ‘un vrai chef’ (a real leader), and even among Socialist party supporters those in agreement numbered 77 per cent.

These, then, are difficult days for Captain Calamity, also known as François Hollande, the French president. A month ago his justice minister resigned over a proposed change in the constitution, which his government subequently failed to pass into law. Since then he has seen his popularity fall to 13 per cent, making him the least popular president in the history of the Fifth Republic. But it is typical of Captain Calamity’s tenacious desire for power, and some would say his capacity for self-delusion, that with disaster staring him in the face and supporters scrambling to abandon ship, he should choose this moment to give clear hints that he intends to stand for re-election in 12 months’ time. Groans of protest have risen from all sides, but he steams on, steady as she goes, towards the surf and the rocks ahead. Meanwhile, the party he leads is on the point of disintegration.

The French Socialist party has always been an alliance of warring factions. It was invented in 1971 by François Mitterrand, a political rascal and genius of the old school, and designed as a vehicle to ensure his own election as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic. Since Mitterrand’s original political background was monarchist and Pétainist, this seemed a tall order. But a decade later there he was, strapped in to 14 years of power. Mitterrand remained the only socialist president of the Fifth Republic until Hollande narrowly defeated Nicholas Sarkozy four years ago.

Unfortunately for the Socialists, Hollande is no Mitterrand. His prime minister, Manuel Valls, instructed to lower unemployment, stimulate economic growth and reduce the deficit, is ritually insulted as ‘a traitor to the left’ by party members. The economics minister, Emmanuel Macron, formerly an investment banker with Rothschild’s, has launched his own political ‘movement’ and is describing himself as ‘a centrist, not a man of the left’. Within the Socialist party Hollande’s opponents include the former minister and embittered leadership contender Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille and inventor of the 35-hour week; she has announced that she is leading a break-away party within the party in order, as she puts it, ‘to reinvent the left’. Outside Socialist ranks Hollande is faced with another ex-minister, the charismatic anti-EU ultra-lefty Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is is calling for ‘a citizens’ revolution’ and scoring higher than the president in popularity polls.

Meanwhile the country’s intellectuals, traditional reservoir of energy and inspiration for the left, are in equal disarray. Whereas the Labour party in Britain is racked by accusations of anti-Semitism, the socialist movement in France is in crisis on the question of ‘Islamophobia’. Is ‘Islamophobia’ the ‘anti-Semitism of the 21st century’? Or is it ‘a meaningless slogan designed to undermine the secular state’? Among the political philosophers the insults are flying thick and fast. ‘Islamo-gauchiste!’, ‘Obscurantiste!’, ‘Multi-culturaliste!’ Some favour ‘left-wing nationalism’ in defence of the secular, anti-clerical values of the republic; others preach an all-out attack on the free-market economy with a programme of renationalisation; still others want to abandon the ‘dinosaurs’ of the Socialist party and start from scratch.

In some cases, traditional supporters of the left are simply moving to the right. They include the so-called ‘homonationalists’ — gay voters who support the National Front. In last December’s regional elections, about a third of married gay couples voted for the party of Marine Le Pen. She appeals to them because as the most anti-Islamic political leader, she provides a rampart against a perceived threat to their lifestyle.

And that may provide a clue to François Hollande’s apparently deluded desire to run again. Against such a chaotic background, with the great timbers of France’s secular, progressive republicanism being washed away in the storms of globalisation and mass migration, Hollande claims to be the only person who can ‘reunite the left’.

In reality he calculates that in next year’s presidential election, the lucid body of French voters who want to seek prosperity by joining the global economy will once again be outnumbered by the anxious body of those who want to defend their existing rights to state support. The emasculated employment law will be Hollande’s last attempt to reform the French economy. He has already launched a pre-election programme of state handouts to farmers, civil servants and teachers. And Tuesday’s dawn tax raid by 100 inspectors on Google’s Paris HQ will also look good on his record. Captain Calamity may be a disastrous president, but he remains an effective tactician. And he calculates that he could indeed be re-elected, if he can just manage to reach next year’s second round — and find himself running against Marine Le Pen.

So that is the point which French socialism under President Hollande has reached: pinning its presidential hopes on a first-round victory by the leader of a party that it regards as xenophobic, racist and a threat to democracy.