How everything became François Hollande’s fault

So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year.

Forecasts of insurrection are so recurrent in France that it is easy to be blasé about the latest outbreak. Once or twice a decade, unhappiness with the regime boils up and the country seems on the brink of eruption. Presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy all faced potential social convulsions arising from their inability to solve la crise. The expression applies not to a passing phase, but to the sense of economic doom that has haunted France since the 1973 oil-price shock. The upheavals never came and all three presidents defied predictions of collapse and saw out their terms. Now, only 18 months since he was elected, it is the turn of the hapless François Hollande and this time the ingredients of discontent seem so abundant that many are discerning the perfect storm.

Farmers, businessmen and workers in Brittany have taken to wearing symbolic red bonnets and joined in the revolt against Hollande’s blizzard of new or raised taxes. With France in a foul mood, protests are erupting in many quarters, with bonnets of many colours. Ambulance owners and riding schools have protested, both saying they will go out of business following a big jump in their rates of VAT. Farmers have planned a blockade of Paris for 21 November.

I’ve just heard a lurid analysis from one of the beneficiaries of the discontent – Marine Le Pen. The leader of the once-reviled Front National was on good form when I met her at the party HQ in Nanterre. Marine may have “de-demonised” the old xenophobic party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, but she retains his fondness for apocalyptic rhetoric. “France is going to be put to the fire and sword. I think we are in a period of revolt,” she told me.

The popular leading woman of French politics blames the entire political establishment for bringing France to its knees, while the establishment in turn holds her responsible for a rise of racism in public discourse. But just about everyone outside the Parti Socialiste would agree with her diagnosis: “The French have the feeling that François Hollande doesn’t have a clue where he is going. That’s what is stirring the anxiety.”

So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year. He is held responsible for just about everything that reflects the rancid mood in the country. If France’s once-glorious football team seems destined to crash out of the World Cup, c’est la faute à Hollande. If a lone gunman stalks Parisians, it is a symptom of his morbid reign.

France always falls out of love with its elected monarchs, but le désamour with Hollande, now the most unpopular president since polling began in 1958, has been spectacularly swift. It springs from his bumbling leadership, addiction to taxes and failure to halt unemployment and economic decline.

More broadly, Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his emollient prime minister, are paying the price for France’s unhappiness with the modern world. While big French firms have prospered in the globalised economy, successive presidents, including the supposedly reformist Nicolas Sarkozy, have shielded their people from the new mentality of competition. The enemy remains le libéralisme anglo-saxon, the alien creed deemed to be deployed against France by everyone from the Chinese to the European Commission.

Hollande has belatedly explained that France’s decline stems from a decade-long slide in competitiveness, but there is only so far he can go without touching left-wing taboos and betraying his promises to shore up the Gallic social model. In private, senior ministers accept that public spending has to be slashed from 56 per cent of GDP and that labour laws must be loosened, but they fear the revolt such actions could trigger.

Hollande is trying to weather the ridicule being showered on his presidency. He is making the most of the muscle that France has wielded in the Middle East, over Iran in particular, and in his successful military venture against Islamists in the Sahel. Yet some figures in his own entourage worry that he has failed to grasp the mood of catastrophisme and that muddling through to better times may not work.

In Hollande’s favour, one should remember that, unlike David Cameron or Angela Merkel, he is not a mere government leader, who can be disowned by parliament or rattled into calling elections. He holds the near-absolute powers of a president of the Fifth Republic, with a subservient parliament that only he could dissolve. And Hollande has lately been reminding nervous visitors of a favourite saying of his late mentor François Mitterrand: “Il faut laisser du temps au temps” – you have to give time time to do its work.

Charles Bremner is the Europe editor of the Times

Can everything really be Hollande's fault? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times