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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution